On Sunday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan phoned his Israeli counterpart and turned back the hands of time. According to the American readout of the conversation, Sullivan called “to express the United States’ serious concerns” about two things: the pending eviction, by court order, of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, and the weekend’s violent clashes on the Temple Mount between Israeli police and Palestinian rioters. The Biden administration, in other words, publicly asserted an American national interest in preventing the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, regardless of the dictates of Israeli law—just as Hamas was sending rockets and incendiary devices into Israel with the same message. This conscious effort to put “daylight” between the United States and Israel marked a clear return to the approach of President Barack Obama.
Sullivan’s call invites us to reopen an unresolved debate that began even before President Joe Biden took the oath of office. Is the new president forging his own path in the Middle East, or is he following in the footsteps of Obama? Until now, those who feared that his presidency might become the third term of Obama fixed their wary eyes on Robert Malley, the president’s choice as Iran envoy. When serving in the Obama White House, Malley helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, which sought accommodations with Tehran that came at the expense of America’s allies in the Middle East. In a revealing Foreign Affairs article, written in 2019, Malley expressed regret that Obama failed to arrive at more such accommodations. The direction of Obama’s policy was praiseworthy, Malley wrote, but his “moderation” was the enemy of his project. Being “a gradualist,” he presided over “an experiment that got suspended halfway through.”
Malley, the article leads one to assume, is now advising Biden to go all the way—and fast. But surely it is the president, not his Iran envoy, who determines the direction and pace of policy. Over the course of a career in Washington spanning nearly half a century, Biden has never cut a radical profile. Nor have Sullivan or Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The presence of this pair at Biden’s side signaled to many that Malley would not drive Iran policy. Shortly after the election, a veteran Washington insider noted to a journalist that “Blinken and Sullivan are certainly from the more moderate wing of the party, and that is reassuring.”