Ben Roback: Peace in the Middle East. Biden is caught between his party’s historic position and its new left.

19 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden is discovering what most US presidents find out at some point in their tenure: Middle East politics is hard. It is deep-rooted in decades of war, entrenched in centuries of difficult coexistence.

After years of getting better, it is getting worse again. Palestinian children born during the second intifada, which took place between 2000-2005, are now old enough to avenge for the death of a parent. Gilad Shalit, the former Hamas hostage, and his unit may be years past their military conscription, but as Israel calls up 9,000 reservists, they may need to dust off their uniform and hope one of their number is not kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists for five years again.

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there simply is no simple solution.

So often in politics, the option set is binary. Remain or Leave. Trump or Biden. Free speech or cancel culture. The Middle East fails to fit the mould.  But it suits a world in which the happy median and polite disagreement are fading into extinction.

Both sides are capable of being right. In this case, one will tell you that Israel senselessly bombed a building that housed press outlets, including the Associated Press. The other will tell you if Israel laid down its weapons, the country would cease to exist: Hamas’ charter commits to the destruction of the State of Israel, for the avoidance of all doubt. Neither is wrong. ‘What about-ism’ too often plagues conversations about life in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Biden, Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, and Hady Amr, the State Department’s envoy, have their work cut out. Before them, Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to Donald Trump, made Middle East peace his top priority. But the events of the last fortnight prove that he made minimal progress.

The White House reportedly blocked three recent United Nations attempts at the Security Council to call for a ceasefire in order to protect its relationship with Israel for as long as possible – a critical ally and let us remember, the only democracy in the Middle East.

As the death toll grew, the White House could resist no longer. Biden has now “expressed support for a ceasefire” – short of calling for one outright – between Israel and Hamas in a call with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden and Netanyahu are awkward allies, at best. Netanyahu pitted himself firmly against the Obama-Biden administration in virulently opposing (unsuccessfully) the Iran nuclear deal that was eventually signed in 2015. They are unnatural bedfellows. But the US-Israel relationship dictates that they must see eye to eye.

As the situation in the Middle East worsens, Democrats are split between the establishment and progressives

Congress is beginning to flex its muscles. Let us start with the GOP.

Republicans are unfailingly behind Israel, another legacy of Donald Trump. The 45th President was almost embarrassingly pro-Israel in office, typified by his deeply personal relationship with Netanyahu, and the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The legacy effect was that pro-Israel politics went from being a truly bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill to, essentially, a GOP foreign policy talking point. The running joke for decades on the Hill was that the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby could get a napkin circulated with 70 Senators’ signatures on it. After Trump, Democrats are proving harder to come by.

Biden has the current support of his party. It will not last long.

The Democratic establishment and leadership back Israel: the House of Representatives’ Speaker. Nancy Pelosi, did exactly that late last week during in a news conference. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, has an historically fierce pro-Israel voting record. (Pro-Israel politics has an outsized importance in his New York Senate seat.)

Left-wing Democrat Congress representatives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so often described as the ‘future of the party’, deviate from the leadership. And as a whole, the left of the party is not holding back.

Jon Osoff led a statement with 29 Democratic senators calling for such a ceasefire. Chris Murphy and Todd Young, the top Democrat and Republican on the Middle East subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Panel, led a bipartisan statement also calling for a ceasefire.

The centre of the party is wavering, too. Robert Menendez, the Democrat Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a fierce supporter of Israel on Capitol Hill, issued a statement over the weekend saying he was “deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”

And Gregory Meeks, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Democrats that he would ask the Biden administration to delay a $735 million tranche of weapons to Israel that had been previously approved. (The administration has approved the sale regardless.)

Fading unity is not just prevalent in the Democratic Party. The red, white, green and black in the Palestinian flag are the same colours that run through flags across the Arab world. The plight of the Palestinians is shared amongst its allies. But what has changed in the Middle East’s political nexus since the last major round of tensions between Israel and Gaza is Israel’s diplomatic engagement with the Arab world.

Israel has signed trade and peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – which, to his credit, Trump was happy to facilitate. Israelis now freely travel to Dubai for beach holidays, an unimaginable prospect ten years ago. Israel is now less of a blanket enemy in the region than it once was.

The underlying tragedy of the events of the last fortnight is the human suffering. Neither side is blameless, and once again civilian deaths are the sad outcome of failed diplomacy. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, said during an interview on MSNBC: “talk to the mothers who put their children next to them because if they’re going to die, they want to die together.” What is most upsetting is that her statement applies no less to mothers in Gaza than it does to mothers in Israel.

Jonathan Caine: My experience of Biden and his team suggests that we shouldn’t fear his presidency – but need to engage

19 Jan

Jonathan Caine is a Conservative peer and former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office.

In 2013, along with the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, I attended the annual St Patrick’s Day lunch in New York City organized by the publishers of the Irish America magazine. Its purpose was to induct five new members into the Irish America Hall of Fame and chief among them was then Vice-President, Joe Biden, who delivered the keynote address.

My abiding memory of his speech that day, apart from it being rather long, was how perfectly he played his audience. His main theme of immigration reform – a key issue for Irish Americans – was peppered with the occasional light hearted jibe at the English and, of course, references to his own family of immigrants from Mayo (my own only made it as far as Leeds). They loved it.

While it was a typically jolly, and friendly, occasion It was, to put it mildly, a very ‘green’ one, which in reality catered exclusively for one version alone of Ireland’s story. I think I can safely say that I was the only person there that day wearing Union Flag cufflinks.

Fast forward to March 2018. I found myself at the Irish Ambassador’s private ‘after party’, at his Washington DC residence. It was a more intimate, but none the less convivial, gathering of the great and good of Irish America – including that evening the by then former Vice-President. My impression that evening was of Biden’s presence, and his easy-going charm, even posing for ‘selfies’ with one of my civil service colleagues. He was clearly among friends.

It hardly needs re-stating that Biden is fiercely proud of his Irish roots and heritage. Significant players within the Irish American community championed a Biden presidency, including when it looked doomed in the early part of 2020. Irish America will in turn now believe that they have a champion in President Biden.

As we approach his inauguration tomorrow, what should unionists in Northern Ireland, and those of us who speak up for the Union in Parliament, expect from the Biden presidency and should we be filled with foreboding about the prospects? On the basis of my experience, I do not necessarily believe so.

To be clear, I never dealt directly with Biden when he was Vice President. I did, though, attend a number of meetings and discussions with members of the administration who will now be senior figures in the incoming President’s team. They include Tony Blinken, now Secretary of State designate (and who I once saw performing in a State Department rock band called ‘Coalition of the Willing’), and National Security Adviser Designate, Jake Sullivan.

They were always very well informed, or briefed, about the situation in Northern Ireland. While we might disagree occasionally on certain issues – a public inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane being one – or have a difference of emphasis, their overriding interest was to do whatever they could to be helpful.

Biden himself always struck me as much more nuanced in his approach than his Irish-American background might lead one to assume. I suspect that given his lineage he will want to ensure that the administration is seen to be engaging fully with unionism, and operating in an even-handed way. As one well-placed US friend put it to me shortly after the election, Biden is a ‘smart and careful man’ and, 47 years after he first entered the Senate, ‘essentially a pragmatist’. He also strongly values the close ties that continue to exist between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Biden has, of course, been forthright in his commitment to preserving both the spirit and the letter of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, not least in the context of Brexit. Other senior Democrats have also been vociferous such such as the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the current Chairman of Ways and Means (the key Committee in Congress on trade) Richie Neal.

I have been involved in many frank and stimulating discussions with Rep Neal. He is a highly engaging, charismatic and intelligent individual but, on Northern Ireland, even a cursory glance at the pictures and artefacts in his office tell one on which side his sympathies lie.

Support for the Belfast Agreement is, of course, also the clearly stated position of the United Kingdom Government – which, we should not forget, has the greatest interest of all in peace and stability in a part of its sovereign territory – and of the Irish Government. We should, therefore, in theory at least, all be on the same page. In addition, the deal reached with Brussels on Christmas Eve should allay some US fears on the Irish Border.

The challenge, however, when it comes to the 1998 Agreement is one of approach and interpretation. The political class in the US (along Brussels and large sections of the British media) tends to view the Agreement almost exclusively through the prism of Strand Two – that is the relationship between North-South – and by extension the avoidance of a border on the island of Ireland.

While nobody disputes that this is of great importance, US audiences frequently need also to be reminded that the Agreement is a three-stranded one in which those strands interlock delicately. Moreover, and crucially, at the heart of the Agreement is the consent principle, which is sacrosanct and underpins Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. It cannot be stated enough that the Agreement did not establish Northern Ireland as some kind of hybrid state. Sadly, too many assume that it did.

In ensuring that the Agreement, in all its parts, is properly understood and appreciated in Washington, the British Embassy needs to be at the top of its game and be fully equipped with the right arguments. This is not something that has always been the case where, regrettably, on Northern Ireland issues we are frequently outplayed by the Irish (I make no criticism of them for doing an effective job). What is required, as has been supported by Henry Hill on these pages, is a more fully developed UK narrative of the Agreement than the predominantly Irish nationalist, or even republican, one that currently prevails in the States.

The UK Government cannot, however, and should not do this alone. Unionism from Northern Ireland needs to step up and play its part in articulating a United Kingdom narrative of the Agreement to counter the influence of Sinn Fein. Authentic and moderate Unionist voices will often have more sway in DC and elsewhere than UK ministers and diplomats. Over the past decade I have spent more time with Irish-America, members of the administration and senior figures in Congress than probably any other British political figure. The lesson I draw is clear – those of us who support the Union, and Northern Ireland’s place within it, should not fear a Biden Presidency, but we do need to engage.