AnalysisTrump official: Don't expect any surprises -- good or bad

What Trump has in store for Israel, Middle East during final 70 days in office

Current, ex-administration officials acknowledge that additional normalization deals unlikely with White House out of leverage, but it plans to act on Iran front until final day

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

(L-R, rear) US senior presidential advisor Jared Kushner, US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien clap for US President Donald Trump after he announced an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, at the White House, August 13, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
(L-R, rear) US senior presidential advisor Jared Kushner, US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien clap for US President Donald Trump after he announced an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, at the White House, August 13, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

NEW YORK — This isn’t 2016, and the Trump administration has no plans to use its final days in office as former president Barack Obama did to chastise Israel by allowing a resolution condemning Israeli settlements to pass in the UN Security Council.

In fact, a US official speaking on the condition of anonymity said that Israel has “little reason to expect any surprises — definitely not bad ones, but probably not good ones either” over the next ten weeks before President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House.

This isn’t to say that no work will be done on the Israel front during the lame-duck period. Tacitly acknowledging an electoral defeat (which US President Donald Trump has yet to do himself), several administration officials who spoke with The Times of Israel said they plan on working all the way to January 20 in order to solidify Trump’s legacy.

In the Middle East, this means further combating the Iranian regime and its nuclear program, expanding the circle of Arab countries willing to normalize relations with Israel, and shrinking US military presence in the region.

Both former and current officials clarified that it will be highly unlikely that the list of Abraham Accords participants will grow before Biden’s inauguration, but on the issues of Iran and US military presence in Iraq and Syria, movement is plausible in the coming weeks.

In this September 15, 2020 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Normalized out

A senior administration official said the US would “continue working to advance the application of warm peace between the parties of the Abraham Accords,” which saw Bahrain and the UAE normalize relations with Israel in September followed by a similar announcement from Sudan last month.

Another US official acknowledged that work on the issue would likely “only go as far as further developing ties between current Abraham Accords members, as opposed to expanding the circle further.”

Trump said before the elections that Saudi Arabia and as many as nine other countries were readying to warm ties with Israel.

“I think the low hanging fruit has been plucked,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy. She argued that the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan were in much better positions to acquiesce to Trump administration demands to normalize with Israel than other countries in the region that have yet to sign up.

“There’s not a strong enough reason for additional countries to follow suit because any side payments that the Trump administration might have been able to promise, they now no longer have the time to implement fully,” she said.

“If you’re a government thinking about doing it, why not wait and use it as a gift for the new administration,” added Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs during the Obama administration.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, right, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Pentagon, Washington, September 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

Relatedly, she speculated that the Trump administration would seek to push forward with its military compensation package that former Defense Secretary Mark Esper negotiated with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz, just days before the US election and before Esper was axed by Trump.

The arms deal, whose details have not been publicized, came about after the US agreed to sell 50 F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, placing Abu Dhabi in line to become just the second country in the region to possess the advanced stealth aircraft, after Israel. The brewing defense package is aimed at assuaging Israeli concerns that its legally protected Qualitative Military Edge in the region may be harmed by the F-35 sale.

Wittes said the package offered by the Trump administration will include new advanced weapons and ease restrictions on how Israel finances the purchase of such systems.

A Biden administration is likely to proceed with those talks on the same basis as its predecessor, but current government officials from both countries are likely to try and make as much progress as possible before January 20, Wittes said. “If you have something in process, you want to get it done with the folks you started with.”

While the Trump administration is interested in throwing a bone to Jerusalem in the form of weaponry, that generosity is not likely to expand to a blessing on annexation, even as a growing number of right-wing Israeli lawmakers are pushing for the move in the little time left before Biden takes office.

“The administration will not give in to pressure from Netanyahu, should it come, to green-light annexation. To do so would maltreat the UAE,” said the Atlantic Council’s Kirsten Fontenrose, referencing the Emirati opposition to the controversial move and its willingness to normalize with Israel only if Jerusalem shelved the plan.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Tying Biden’s hands

With Biden officials vowing to rejoin the Trump-rejected Iran nuclear deal within months of taking office, the current administration appears bent on using its final days to make such a speedy re-entry more difficult.

The Trump administration is planning a massive onslaught of new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program, assistance to terror groups and human rights violations, Axios reported this week, citing an Israeli source who said “the goal is to slap as many sanctions as possible on Iran until January 20.”

US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams was in Israel to discuss the sanctions earlier this week and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to pay a visit next week.

According to the Axios report, Israel and Gulf states believe Biden will swiftly lift other sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program to restart diplomacy with Tehran, shedding some of the US’s leverage over the cash-strapped country. New sanctions, therefore, would keep up pressure on Tehran to compromise and likely keep Biden out of the international pact unless he lifts them.

“The Biden team may find that this does them a favor in giving the incoming administration additional options for sanctions to roll back, to incentivize the regime in Tehran to halt the ramp-up of their nuclear program,” said Fontenrose, a former State Department official.

But former US Ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf suggested that the sanctions had more to do with “tying the next administration’s hands” by “bearing down, bearing in on every possible last scrap of sanctions activity.”

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Troop presence in Iraq and Syria

Leaf, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, expressed concern about what she deemed as an increasingly plausible scenario in which the US will further decrease or even eliminate its military presence in northeastern Syria. This is in addition to closing its embassy in Iraq and bringing home American troops who have been put in harm’s way by regular attacks from Iranian-linked militias there.

“Pulling out the troops was really part and parcel of [Trump’s] campaign,” she said. “This would be a terrible gift for the Biden administration, but nothing that cannot be reversed.”

Wittes maintained that the prospect of a troop withdrawal from Syria should “worry” Israel.

“The force there is very small, but serves as a strong deterrent effect on Russian and Syrian operations, and it plays an important role in sustaining anti-ISIS operations along with trying to intercept Iranian arm shipments across Syria to Hezbollah,” she said.

This week’s appointment of Douglas Macgregor as a senior adviser to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller may be further indication that the Trump administration has plans to pull out from Syria along with Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this November 1, 2018, photo released by the US Army, soldiers surveil the area during a patrol in Manbij, Syria (US Army photo by Spc. Zoe Garbarino via AP)

Macgregor told Fox News last year that he would advise Trump to pull troops out of Afghanistan “as soon as possible,” in addition to withdrawing remaining troops from Syria, arguing that the US has no national interest there.

Nonetheless, Fontenrose argued Esper’s axing in favor of Miller was “an indication that we should expect the last few months of this administration to be more active than passive.”

“[Miller] is being put in place to oversee long-percolating plans to remove high priority terrorist targets and high threat enemy capabilities from the battlefield,” she argued.

Fontenrose pointed out that the Trump administration criticized Obama for failing to pull the trigger on such targeted assassinations abroad, which it claims resulted in the growth of organizations like Islamic State and the death of Kayla Mueller.

“The [Trump] administration does not want to leave bad actors on the battlefield after criticizing the Obama administration for doing just that,” she said.

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