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Will Biden Help Israel Take on Turkey?

Israel has a lot at stake in the eastern Mediterranean. Would Biden deal with Ankara’s aggression differently from Trump? Can Israel rely on him – and on the U.S. in general?

Gabriel Mitchell
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U.S. Democratic candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. October 12, 2020
U.S. Democratic candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. October 12, 2020.Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS
Gabriel Mitchell

Israel has a lot at stake in the eastern Mediterranean. What will be the impact of the presidential elections on the region? And how would the policies of a Biden White House differ from the Trump administration, in terms of backing Israel, and managing Turkey?  

But whoever wins, Jerusalem can’t depend on a United States, in the process of withdrawing from the Middle East, to safeguard its strategic interests. Israel must find other ways to advance its goals, most critically in relation to an expansionist Turkey

When, in mid-October, Israeli and Lebanese officials met for the first time in three decades to start resolving their ongoing Eastern Mediterranean maritime boundary dispute, some overeager media outlets hinted that the two acrimonious neighbors were the next candidates on track for normalization. 

But this was no Trump-initiated miracle or frantic pre-election political theater. Rather, the American-mediated talks were the fulfilment of persistent U.S. diplomatic efforts and engagement over the course of a decade.

No matter who sits in the White House, the U.S. remains committed to supporting eastern Mediterranean energy cooperation and the diffusion of maritime tensions. Facilitating such cooperation is a rare point of bipartisan consensus in Washington and is likely to continue regardless of who wins on November 3rd.

The Rosh HaNikra Crossing/Ras Al Naqoura Crossing, between Israel and Lebanon, still technically at war, now beginning UN-brokered negotiations to delimit their borders. Oct 12, 2020
The Rosh HaNikra Crossing/Ras Al Naqoura Crossing, between Israel and Lebanon, still technically at war, now beginning UN-brokered negotiations to delimit their borders. October 12, 2020.Credit: JALAA MAREY - AFP

But America’s wider engagement and commitment to the region is fraying. 

For Israel, compensating for a fading American presence requires a reboot of its regional policies and level of engagement, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, which now has unprecedented economic significance.

Over the last ten years, Israel has sought to maximize the economic and diplomatic potential of its offshore natural gas. In September 2020, Israel signed a charter alongside Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus to formally establish the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a multinational organization dedicated to boosting regional energy cooperation. 

But a decade’s progress was scuttled in 2020 by the collapse of global energy prices following the coronavirus outbreak, and by rising tensions between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus.

Israel's offshore Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. Sept. 29, 2020
Israel's offshore Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea. September 29, 2020.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

While the next U.S. administration can’t solve these commercial challenges, it can play a constructive role in conflict management, as the breakthrough in Israel-Lebanon negotiations demonstrates. 

The primary dilemma for the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean is Turkey’s challenge to the regional order. In an effort to expand its influence, Turkey has aggressively pursued its own, independent policies in the region. 

Ankara’s confrontative agenda is partially driven by its need to push back against the success of the Gas Forum. From a commercial perspective, Turkey would have beeen a natural partner in this organization. But Ankara’s relationship with Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus is too strained for it to be a member.

Recent elections in Northern Cyprus saw an Ankara-backed candidate edge out a moderate incumbent president, which is almost certain to add to tensions with Cyprus and Greece. 

And rather than pursue dialogue, Turkey has directed its navy to test the limits of EMGF member states and ensnare its neighbors in a cycle of maritime brinkmanship that will ultimately scares off foreign investors.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks on the deck of the drilling vessel Fatih, off the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, Turkey. October 17, 2020
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks on the deck of the drilling vessel Fatih, off the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, Turkey. October 17, 2020.Credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/ REU

Over the summer, European countries, such as France and Germany, stepped up to address Turkey’s activities, but without success. 

The Trump administration adopted an ambivalent position. On the one hand, it called Turkey out for violating Greek maritime space. Yet U.S. officials made no offer to mediate between the two parties, nor has there been an attempt by the White House to broker a grand bargain between Turkey and the region’s other actors. 

This muted approach can be explained in part by the complex nature of U.S.-Turkey ties, and Trump's desire to maintain a good rapport with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is a NATO member whose actions are increasingly inconsistent with American and transatlantic interests.

Yet despite the consensus amongst foreign policy experts in Washington that something must be done in response to Turkey’s wayward behavior, the United States isn’t prepared lose such a crucial partner. 

In a Biden administration, the rhetorical tenor of U.S.-Turkey relations would be different. The former vice president has made several strong statements along the campaign trail on drawing red lines with Turkey, and has fostered warm relations with the American Hellenic community.

But the strategic challenges posed by Ankara remain the same, and it may be difficult for Biden to reestablish American leverage over Turkey after the dysfunction of the Obama and Trump years. 

Joe Biden has a lifetime’s worth of experience dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean: he sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two decades, and while Vice President led the Obama administration’s unsuccessful mediation efforts on the divided island of Cyprus and witnessed the efforts to reconcile Israel and Turkey. 

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan at Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. November 22, 2014
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan at Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. November 22, 2014.Credit: Murad Sezer/ REUTERS

He understands the risks of alienating Turkey, and understands, equally, how difficult it would be to develop a consensus approach within the Gas Forum towards Ankara.

A Biden White House would have few good options, even if it wanted to distinguish its policy approach from Trump’s. It would be certainly be surprising if a new administration prioritized confronting Turkey’s disruptive role in the eastern Mediterranean if it meant risking Turkish cooperation (however unsatisfactory) in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, the impact of a Biden presidency could be felt in other ways. Biden has cast himself as a candidate who will restore balance to America’s alliances. This means empowering leading European states to work out their differences and develop common goals in the Eastern Mediterranean to reassert transatlantic interests, and reduce the influence of outside actors – not least, Russia and China. 

A united transatlantic voice, under American leadership, may be able establish new norms in war-torn Libya and resolve maritime boundary issues between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus.

A Biden administration will certainly be active in the eastern Mediterranean: it is strategically important to the U.S. But the eastern Mediterranean is essential to European security, and as the U.S. reduces its profile, its allies in Europe and the region must step up.

What does all this have to do with Israel? No matter who wins on November 3rd, Israeli decision-makers know that the U.S. will help in certain limited areas, like exploiting energy resources and building regional cooperation, especially if it involves Israel. But America will continue to withdraw from the region. 

EU summit round table meeting at the European Council building in Brussels, Oct. 1, 2020 to address foreign affairs including Turkey and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean
EU summit round table meeting at the European Council building in Brussels, October 1, 2020 to address foreign affairs including Turkey and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.Credit: Johanna Geron,AP

If even a Biden presidency can’t give substantial long-term support, Israel must both protect its own interests and maximize whatever U.S. engagement is offered. 

It must strengthen its ties with the European states who are invested in eastern Mediterranean’s future, such as France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. It should encourage American observer status in the EMGF, and expand U.S.-Israel research and development projects to include other eastern Mediterranean states, to diversify the cooperative endeavors in the region and maximize America’s soft power capacity. 

And in the event that the U.S. would not be a central player in defusing antagonism between Turkey and other regional actors, Israel must maintain a line of communication with Ankara to ensure any escalation in its own backyard does not deteriorate past the point of no return.

Pushing for a greater role for European and eastern Mediterranean states could cushion Israel’s transition from the era of American dominance in the region to a new period of potential cooperation and dialogue that can also serve its national interests.

Gabriel Mitchell is the Director of External Relations at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech University. Twitter: @GabiAMitchell

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