Joyce Karam | Washington correspondent of The National newspaper
Absent a crisis, Middle Eastern politics are unlikely to carry much weight in the U.S. election, even as we see a deeper divide between Republicans and Democrats over the policies to follow in the region.
Much about the 2020 race has been about personalities, gender and identity politics, populism, and polarization around President Donald Trump. The few instances in which we heard about the Middle East from Democrats were mostly cases in which they sought to differentiate themselves from Trump. However, we can expect that policy toward Israel will be more prominent, especially if someone like Bernie Sanders emerges as the Democratic nominee. Given the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the United States in the past four years, and how much the Trump White House has tipped the scale in favor of the Israeli government, this is a divisive issue. It could play out in key states such as Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
There is no consensus among Democrats about Iran or what to do in Syria, but there is more criticism of Saudi Arabia—its ties to Trump, policies in Yemen, and human rights behavior. Yet, none of these issues will be make or break for voters on November 3. The election will be more dependent on turnout and the status of the economy.
Martin Indyk | Distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and United States ambassador to Israel
It’s always difficult to predict what the issues will turn out to be once the conventions are over and the presidential race begins in earnest in July. The fallout from coronavirus, for example, could dominate the debate and make other issues pale in importance. But the Middle East is already playing a more significant role this year than in has in recent memory.
That is driven by a reality which has been developing over the last decade: a growing divide between Democratic and Republican support for Israel. The spread is now an unprecedented 40 points between overwhelming support among Republican voters—especially Evangelicals—for Israel, and dwindling support among Democratic voters. This has been reflected in two ways: President Donald Trump’s extreme efforts to prove himself “the best President ever” for Israel (moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and now, the Trump Plan which provides for Israeli annexation of all the West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley).
On the other side, Bernie Sanders’ criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “racist” is designed to appeal to his progressive base that is turning against Israel. Sensing an opportunity to eat into the American Jewish vote, which has historically been overwhelmingly Democratic, Trump will likely seek to exploit this divide. While American Jews remain liberal and for the most part anti-Trump, if Sanders secures the Democratic nomination, Trump may make significant inroads in places where it could make a real difference, such as the swing state of Florida.
The Middle East is likely to feature in the U.S. election in one other respect. Ending America’s involvement in Middle Eastern wars has become a vote-getter as war weariness has set in with the American public. Former president Barack Obama was the first to recognize this, which is one of the reasons why he was so reluctant to get dragged into the Syrian civil war. Trump, similarly, was responding to this concern when he twice announced troop withdrawals from Syria. He now wants a photo-op with the Taliban to symbolize the recent signing of the agreement to end the Afghan war. We can expect some high-profile troop withdrawals from there before the elections.
In the end, though, foreign policy will likely take a back seat, as it usually does, to domestic issues such as the economy and healthcare. And this year it will also likely be crowded out by the one issue that has sucked almost all the oxygen out of the American political scene for the last three years: Donald Trump.
Joe Macaron | Fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C.
Unless Washington is at war, U.S. foreign policy is rarely a top issue on the mind of U.S. voters and 2020 is no exception so far. It is too early to predict the extent to which the Middle East will be important in the national election as this will depend on several factors, including whether the U.S. economy will slow down and dominate the presidential debates, whom the Democrats will pick to face off against President Donald Trump, and whether a conflict in the Middle East will erupt just before next November.
But regardless of these considerations, Trump has significantly transformed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, compared to his predecessor Barack Obama, and is expected to bank on this record to rally his Evangelical base. Trump, who deliberately made his Middle East policies a partisan issue, will leverage his absolute support for Israel, as he will his killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
To rally the liberal base, his Democratic opponent will most likely highlight how Trump is taking the United States on a path of war with Iran and endorsing Arab authoritarian rulers. These parameters are not make or break issues for the U.S. electorate but might be decisive in swing states, whether for Jewish American voters in Florida and Arab American voters in Michigan. The prevailing wisdom in the Middle East is that Trump will win a second term, hence the Middle East debate in the U.S. election should not matter. While this might eventually be true, nothing should be taken for granted. A day in Washington politics is an eternity.
Michele Dunne | Director of and senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
Unless Americans feel under immediate threat, foreign policy is generally not a deciding issue in elections. Should tension between the United States and Iran, for example, escalate sharply before the November elections, resulting in terrorism, cyberattacks, or the threat of a nuclear weapons strike, that would be a significant election issue. Short of a crisis, most American voters would be satisfied with an assurance that their commander-in-chief will not carry them into another protracted military conflict in the Middle East.
What might well be an electoral issue is Israel, because President Donald Trump will try hard to make it so. The peace plan he issued in January, which encourages Israel to annex much of the West Bank, appears to have been calculated to help his own reelection as well as that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Expect Trump to pick fights with the Democratic candidate over Israel in an effort to harvest the fruits among Evangelical Christians (about one-quarter of voters). He will press the Israel issue harder should his opponent be Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who more than Joe Biden have expressed an ambivalence toward Israel that has waxed in the Democratic Party as prospects for a two-state solution have waned.