Will Joe Biden revisit Jimmy Carter’s legacy on Middle East peace?

Forty-two years ago, a young Mr Biden witnessed an historic pact. His job now is to build a more inclusive peace

Joe Biden, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Frank Church and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in Washington in March 1979.
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At first glance, it could be an obscure postcard from history: a black-and-white photo shows Joe Biden with a slight smile in a striped suit, shaking hands with Anwar Sadat after the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in Washington.

The whole region needs a breakthrough as far as the peace process, which faced near death in the last few years

A relative obscurity outside Washington, the 36-year-old member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was witness to a US achievement that became central to Jimmy Carter’s legacy. The photo circulated in US media when Mr Biden was running for president last year.

The next Arab-Israeli treaty was between Jordan and Israel, 15 years later.

Egypt and Jordan were the only Arab countries in formal peace with their former enemy until the regional normalisation drive with Israel last year.

Regional peace redux

This week Jordan and Egypt called for a united Arab effort to help the Biden administration relaunch Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, dormant for the past seven years.

Cairo and Amman both sent last month their top security officials to Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.

They wanted to gauge scenarios that may result from Palestinian elections scheduled to start in May, with the possibility of a Hamas win undermining chances to restart talks with Israel.

France and Germany support the moves by Jordan and Egypt.

The four countries comprise the so-called Munich group, formed after the Munich Security Conference a year ago, to push for reactivation of the peace process.

Jordan on edge 

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi said after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Tuesday that the Biden administration had sent “positive signs”.

He said Arab countries should respond with “a unified vision to relaunch serious and effective negotiations” based on the two-state solution.

"The whole region needs a breakthrough [in] the peace process, which faced near death in the last few years," Mr Al Safadi said.

The demise of prospects for a two-state solution under President Donald Trump deepened fears among Jordanian officials that the kingdom could become what they term an alternative Palestinian homeland.

A large proportion of Jordan’s 10 million inhabitants are of Palestinian descent.

With its large Palestinian component, Jordan cannot accept being party to a deal that the Palestinians refuse.

This was previously the case in 1978 when Jordan declined to participate in the Camp David accords, the precursor of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian treaty.

Four decades later, the kingdom sought to stay away from Mr Trump’s "deal of the century", the nickname for his Middle East peace plan.

Fatah and Hamas mocked Mr Trump’s plan as ignoring the Israeli occupation and what they regard as a Palestinian right to the whole of the West Bank and the Old City in East Jerusalem.

Jordan regarded Mr Trump’s vision as supporting Israeli ambitions to annex Palestinian territory, potentially causing another Palestinian exodus, or linking West Bank areas with Jordan – in both cases a threat to its demographic balance.

The Munich group said after one if its regular meetings last year that any annexation of Palestinian territory is against international law and could “have consequences” for ties between the four countries and Israel.

With a small economy, 11 per cent the size of Israel's and being a recipient of $1.5 billion in US aid a year, Jordanian options were limited.

The departure of Mr Trump has revived the country’s role as an interlocutor, and its reputation as a key player is expected to be taken more seriously in Washington.

But Jordanian officials were cautious about showing elation in response to the election of Mr Biden in November.

International studies professor Hassan Al Momani said that although the Biden administration “has returned to the two-state narrative”, the new president “may not want to step beyond management of the conflict”

He said Jordan and Egypt want to streamline Arab priorities after the normalisation accords, and adapt them to the new administration in Washington.

“They want to create a starting point to help Biden re-engage on the peace process,” Mr Al Momani said, and that “putting the Palestinian house in order” is central to their strategy.

Egypt's Gaza dilemma 

As the Trump peace plan crystalised in his last two years in office, US relations with Jordan soured, while ties between Washington and Cairo were unaffected.

Egypt, by virtue of its size and border with Gaza, regards itself as the gateway for any Palestinian-Israeli peace.

But Mr Al Momani, who teaches at Jordan University, said the nature of any future Palestinian state “is worrisome for everyone”.

"A Palestinian state can be attractive and lessen the demographic pressure on Jordan," Mr Al Momani told The National.

“But can the Palestinians produce a stable state that does not turn into another Gaza?”

For years Egyptian authorities worried about the population explosion in Gaza and rise of Hamas, and other militant groups in the strip. Hamas is supported by Iran and Qatar.

But Cairo kept open channels with Hamas, despite the group’s links to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike the Brotherhood, no Arab country has labelled Hamas a terrorist organisation, yet the US and the EU list Hamas as a terrorist group.

Under Egyptian auspices, Hamas and Fatah agreed in Cairo on Tuesday on guidelines for forthcoming Palestinian elections.

The last Palestinian elections, won by Hamas 15 years ago, led to civil war after power-sharing arrangements with Fatah failed.

The war left Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah dominating Palestinian self-rule in parts of the West Bank.

Palestinian members of Central Elections Commission register voters for the upcoming elections, on February 10, 2021 in Gaza City . Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas said they had agreed on "mechanisms" for forthcoming elections and to respect their outcome, after years of bitter divisions. The parliamentary and presidential polls are set for May 22 and July 31, respectively. / AFP / Mohammed ABED
Palestinian members of Central Elections Commission register voters for the upcoming elections, on February 10, 2021 in Gaza City. AFP

The new poll, if it takes place, would raise the credibility of the Palestinian side in any negotiations. It could boost Egypt’s position as a diplomatic player with sway across a broad spectrum of Palestinian politics.

But the election deal struck in Cairo remains vague and the Egyptian intervention carries political and foreign policy risks.

Hamas could win the poll, similar to the last one, an outcome that Egypt and Jordan do not want.

Palestinian unity? 

Veteran political commentator Abdulwahab Badrakhan said Egypt should have concentrated on unifying the administration of the West Bank and Gaza, instead of elections.

He said elections in two statelets ruled by rival groups was bound to produce "a deformed outcome".

“The existing divisions and the situation on the ground open the possibility for the elections to lead to prolonged civil strife,” Mr Badrakhan said from London.

He said elections would be more convincing to the US and other powers if Egypt was able to prod Hamas and Fatah to form a single Palestinian authority.

The Erez border crossing into Gaza, seen here from the Palestinian side. AFP
The Erez border crossing into Gaza, seen here from the Palestinian side. AFP

“As much as the elections are necessary, they will not produce stability or an authority that can deal with the international community in pursuit of a solution,” he said.

Hamas is ultimately not against negotiations with Israel.

But the group has consistently warned against retreating from Palestinian demands, a position central to retaining its constituency, as well as support from Tehran.

A regional veteran 

Since he became president, Mr Biden has been wearing solid colour suits. He knows many of the region’s movers and shakers personally. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called him a friend.

The US new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Mr Biden “strongly supports” the two-state solution.

Mr Blinken told CNN that it was “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and the only way to give the Palestinians a state to which they’re entitled”.

But Mr Blinken sidestepped a question about whether the US supports creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, saying “it is the objective” of direct talks.

“We’re unfortunately away from that at this point in time,” he said.

In Carter's footsteps? 

By the time Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the 1979 accord at the White House, it was largely forgotten that the three countries had committed to solve the Palestinian problem.

The 1978 Camp David Accords said Egypt, Israel, Jordan “and the representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation rejected Camp David, seeing the accords as a sell-out by Sadat. Jordan reluctantly took a similar position and joined a decade-long Arab boycott of Egypt.

Before he hosted Sadat and Begin at Camp David, Mr Carter asked for an assessment from senior officials of what to expect.

His stalwart National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote to him saying that “Begin probably believes that a failure at Camp David will hurt you and Sadat, but not him".

In the end Camp David was a win-win for the three countries. Thirteen years later the US revived the treaty’s clauses regarding the Palestinian problem by convening the Madrid Peace Conference, after the Gulf War.

The problem for Mr Biden is that unlike Mr Carter, he has to contend with a far more powerful Iran, which is willing to play the role of spoiler in a more durable peace process. Today, Tehran has a host of proxy militant groups and an array of weapons programmes, including potential nuclear devices.

In that regard, if Mr Biden wants to start a new journey for regional peace he will have to contend with Tehran as an unwelcome distraction.