Israeli Democrats, Republicans spar over election impact on normalization deals

No additional agreement if Trump loses, GOP’s Marc Zell warns; Arab-Israel ties are nothing new and trend toward peace deals would continue under Biden, says Dems’ Hezi Kugler

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Hezi Kugler, left, and Marc Zell, right. (Screenshot/YouTube, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hezi Kugler, left, and Marc Zell, right. (Screenshot/YouTube, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli representatives of the two major US parties on Monday sparred over the question of whether the current trend of Arab states normalizing ties with Jerusalem would continue, if Democratic candidate Joe Biden were to win the November 3 presidential elections.

Hezi Kugler, of Democrats Abroad Israel, said the recent US-brokered agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan were part of a larger trend that would continue with Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, in the White House.

“These are processes that have been ongoing for years now. Israel has had quiet relations, certainly with the UAE and with Bahrain and other Gulf states, for quite some time — even with Sudan over the last few years,” he said in a pre-election virtual debate hosted by Media Central.

It is true that these clandestine ties are now culminating in bilateral treaties, Kugler, a lecturer on public policy at the University of Haifa, acknowledged.

“But the policies themselves of quiet encouragement by the US to the states in the Middle East and North Africa to strengthen their relationships with Israel has been going on for years, including under the Obama-Biden administration,” he argued.

Hezi Kugler of Democrats Abroad Israel during a Zoom debate ahead of the US presidential elections, October 26, 2020. (screen grab)

“So I have no doubt that this would continue once Joe Biden is elected president of the United States.”

Marc Zell, the chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel and a vice president of Republicans Overseas, rejected that argument as a “red herring.”

“It’s true that Israel has maintained, almost from the beginning of its state, subterranean, sub rosa, relationships with its Arab neighbors, from really all over the Arab world. That is nothing new. There is nothing particularly significant about that,” he said. “What is significant is when those relationships not only come out of the closet, but are proclaimed to the world in full-blown normalization. This is entirely unprecedented.”

This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. (JIM WATSON and SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Zell said he had recently visited the UAE and was surprised by the wide popular support, and even “outpouring of affection,” for the deal with Israel.

“The only way that this normalization is going to continue is with a Trump presidency, because it recognizes the realities of the Middle East,” he posited.

“Why is it that these countries in the Middle East have come to join hands with Israel? They did it in large measure to join hands against common enemies like Iran, maybe Turkey. And these countries will be very reluctant, very careful, about continuing this normalization with a Biden-Harris-led administration in Washington, in my view,” Zall said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Marc Zell, co-chair of Republicans Overseas Israel, visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on November 9, 2016, a day after Donald Trump won the 2016 US election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He went on to quote former senior IDF official Amos Yadlin as saying that Iranian-backed terrorist organizations have recently reduced attacks on Israel because they are worried about US President Donald Trump retaliating against them.

“If Trump is not elected, God forbid, the Middle East is headed south in a very rapid and serious manner,” Zell said.

The question of whether Biden would have been able to broker normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries was also addressed on Friday by Trump in a phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sudanese leaders.

“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” the president asked Netanyahu, using the Israeli premier’s nickname. “Somehow, I don’t think so.”

Seemingly reluctant to get involved in US partisan politics, Netanyahu thought for a few long seconds before replying: “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America. And we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”

President Donald Trump speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement, in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. President Trump announced that Sudan and Israel are making peace. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

During Monday’s hour-long Zoom debate, Kugler and Zell presented diametrically opposed views on the Trump administration in general and its approach to the Middle East in particular.

“In the Middle East, there is no such thing as a vacuum of power. You cannot simply say, ‘I am for Israel’ and then run away from the Middle East as Donald Trump has done,” Kugler said, lambasting the White House for “its abdication of leadership” in Syria.

While Republicans used to criticize the Obama administration for its approach to the civil war raging to Israel’s north, today the situation in the country “is an amalgamation of Iranian power, of Russian power and of the Islamic State… which is one of the Israeli security forces’ worst nightmare.”

Biden has a proven track record of strong support for Israel, Kugler went on. As a long-term member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president, he was “instrumental in the building and expansion of strategic relations between US and Israel,” he said.

“It’s not just words and rhetoric. Biden understands what security really means,” Kugler went on. “With Joe Biden, Israel will have a friend in the White House who will be an effective world leader, a person the world will take seriously and not snicker at.”

Then-vice president Joe Biden listens as then-president Barack Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

In response, Zell criticized the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement Obama and Biden had championed, and accused their administration of having caused the Arab Spring uprising, arguing that it led to the Syrian civil war that he said killed more than half a million people. “So please don’t lecture us about Syria,” he charged.

“This president [Trump], by contrast, has achieved remarkable things in the Middle East that most people, including the Obama administration, believed were impossible.”

The current White House, he argued, terminated the Iran deal; recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there; closed the Palestinian de facto embassy in Washington; cut funding for Palestinian aid; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; determined that Israeli West Bank settlements were not necessarily illegal under international law; brokered normalization deals with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan; and got Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli airplanes to fly over its territory.

“You can say what you want, but at the end of the day, it is behavior and acts that count. You may not like Trump’s style or the way he articulates his points of view, the way he mocks his opponents,” he said. “But at the end of the day, this man, this non-politician, has done more in less than four years that he’s in office than Joe Biden has done in 47 years in public service.”

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