What a Sanders presidency might mean for the Middle East

What a Sanders presidency might mean for the Middle East

Sanders is a staunch advocate of a two-state solution and he rejected Trump’s “deal of the century.” (File/AFP)
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Sen. Bernie Sanders is, for the second time, seeking the Democratic nomination for president. At the beginning of his latest campaign, no one took him seriously, whether from the Democratic or the Republican parties. Joe Biden was the front runner. No one thought that Sanders would be electable. The rationale was that America would not elect a self-professed socialist. However, we heard the line of a candidate “not being electable” with Donald Trump — and he ended up in the White House. The same could apply to Sanders. He is leading the Democratic race, having won in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. If he were to become president, what would it mean for US policy toward the Middle East?

To start with, Sanders is a staunch advocate of a two-state solution and he rejected Trump’s “deal of the century.” He said: “Any acceptable peace deal must be consistent with international law and multiple UN resolutions. It must end the Israeli occupation and enable Palestinian self-determination in an independent state of their own alongside a secure Israel. Trump’s so-called ‘peace deal’ doesn't come close, and will only perpetuate the conflict. It is unacceptable.”

Sanders said that he would make the US’ military aid to Israel conditional on good Israeli behavior. But this aid will not make or break Tel Aviv, nor will it compel it to change any of its plans. Israel could wait Sanders out for four or eight years. However, Israel would have a problem if the US stopped its unconditional support for the Jewish state and took a balanced approach toward the conflict. Sanders, who called the current right-wing Israeli government “racist,” is very unlikely to support Israel at the UN Security Council. Unlike Barack Obama, who, at the beginning of his term, took a stand on settlements, only to be cowed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Sanders will probably confront the Israeli prime minister. He is even said to be willing to move the US embassy out of Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv if this would help achieve peace. The Israeli-Palestinian issue will likely be his major topic on the Middle East, if not the key concern of his entire foreign policy. He will probably seek to build his legacy on clinching a fair deal between the two parties based on UN resolutions and not on Israeli preferences.

Despite his isolationist approach to foreign affairs, Sanders criticized Trump’s ‘abrupt’ withdrawal from Syria

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

There is another factor that has changed in favor of Sanders and could allow him to carry out such a progressive policy: The topography of Jewish activism in the US has changed. J Street, a pro-peace, pro-two-state solution organization, has been gaining momentum among American Jews, who feel more and more repulsed by Netanyahu’ s racist approach toward the Palestinians. That is good news for Arab states, who have been unsuccessfully trying for decades to push the American administration to exert pressure on Israel to end its occupation.

On the other hand, a Sanders presidency might not be so warmly received by the Arab Gulf states. The fervent anti-war candidate might be seen as a threat to them, as he is very soft on Iran. He would be likely to sign a deal with the Iranians as soon as he got into office. Sanders has called the killing of Qassem Soleimani an “assassination” and said Trump’s policy reminds him of the lead up to the catastrophic Iraq War in 2003 that he vehemently opposed. He has vowed to solve the conflict with Iran diplomatically. However, diplomacy alone is not very convincing for the Gulf states, who see the need for coercive measures to tame the Iranian hegemon. They sense a risk of Sanders giving in to Iran in return for a deal. He has also promised to leave Iraq, which would greatly alarm the Arab Gulf states, who see in the US presence a shield against Iranian expansionism.

Last year, Sanders championed a bill to withdraw US support for the Saudi-led coalition’s fight in Yemen. Trump vetoed the bill. Recently, Sanders accused the American president of lying about the war in Yemen and about his desire to get the US out of its “endless wars” in the region. If elected, Sanders would definitely act on the resolution and end American support for the coalition.

Despite his isolationist approach to foreign affairs, Sanders criticized Trump’s “abrupt” withdrawal from Syria. Sanders, who is very big on human rights and who has denounced Bashar Assad on multiple occasions, is unlikely to accept the dictator as de facto ruler of Syria, but he will probably delegate this file to the UN and seek a multilateral approach toward ending the conflict.

Though some might see a Sanders presidency as causing more turbulence in the region, as he will likely let Iran loose, the chances are that he will lead a more multilateral approach, giving more space for the UN to resolve the conflicts in the region.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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