(November 23, 2020 / JNS) U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announced a number of cabinet and national security picks on Monday that offers a view into the direction his administration will pursue regarding foreign policy. For the Jewish and pro-Israel community, most of the selections by Biden are familiar names who have long-served in senior foreign-policy positions in previous Democratic administrations, while others are newer names to the American public.
Tony Blinken, who served as Biden’s top foreign-policy adviser during his campaign, and was deputy secretary of state and deputy national security advisor under former U.S. President Barack Obama, will be nominated as U.S. secretary of state.
A GOP-controlled Senate would likely be receptive to Blinken; whether that comes to fruition will be decided after the two Senate-seat runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5. Blinken said during the campaign that a Biden administration would keep some of the U.S. sanctions on Iran and reiterated Biden’s stance that the United States would not return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless the Islamic Regime returned to compliance.
Jake Sullivan, who also served as a foreign-policy adviser on Biden’s campaign and succeeded Blinken as national security advisor to Biden when he was vice president, has been named as incoming U.S. national security advisor—a position that does not involve Senate confirmation. Sullivan reportedly met with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to foster a possible nuclear agreement with the regime.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year diplomat, will be nominated as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Avril Haines, who served as deputy national security advisor and deputy CIA director under Obama, will be nominated as director of national intelligence. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to serve in the role, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies.
Haines was a signee of a letter to the Democratic National Committee that called for the party’s platform to include language critical of Israel, expressed sympathy with the Palestinians and advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as U.S. deputy homeland security director and director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will be nominated as U.S. homeland security secretary. If confirmed, he would be the first Latino and immigrant, and second Jewish person, to lead the agency.
John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under Obama after serving for almost three decades as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, will be the special presidential envoy for climate and sit on the National Security Council.
While Thomas-Greenfield is no stranger to the foreign-policy arena, she has no experience on issues pertaining to the Middle East or the Jewish community, as her career focused on African affairs. She was U.S. ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012, director-general of the U.S. Foreign Service, and U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Nonetheless, a U.S. State Department official who works in African affairs and has worked with Thomas-Greenfield, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the official’s employment and not being authorized to speak to the press, told JNS that “she’s great and had a well-deserved wonderful reputation” at the department, and “knows the ins and outs of the department and is amazing to work with.”
Additionally, Thomas-Greenfield met Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in 2011 during the African Union Summit in the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo. The unscheduled meeting happened after Hoenlein, who was part of a delegation not affiliated with the Conference of Presidents, voluntarily walked out of the plenary session after Iran, joined by the Palestinians, objected to Hoenlein being in the room. Thomas-Greenfield had already been excluded from the session. She approached Hoenlein and his delegation, and the parties discussed the Iranian threat and other issues.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told JNS that the national security team will reflect how the Biden administration will contrast itself from the current Trump administration. “Regardless of what happens abroad, this is going to be nothing short of a transformation,” he said.
Miller remarked that the national interest “will be the object of this group’s attention rather than catering to the needs of a single man’s vanity, politics or personal interests,” referring to the varying picks of U.S. President Donald Trump.
He said that Biden’s national security team will “for sure” continue the success of the Abraham Accords, though the Iranian issue will be “very complicated” for them.
‘Sympathetic to concerns about anti-Semitism’
Jewish Democratic Council of America executive director Halie Soifer tweeted that Thomas-Greenfield “will help restore America’s alliances & credibility at the [United Nations], which are critical to our national security & building back better.”
Hoenlein, speaking for himself, applauded the choice of Blinken and Sullivan, noting that even where there were differences with him and the umbrella Jewish organization, “we were able to work with them.”
“Both are very knowledgeable, experienced,” said Hoenlein, adding that Mayorkas is someone “very sympathetic to the concerns about anti-Semitism” and other concerns from the Jewish community.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Barbara Leaf told JNS that Blinken and Thomas-Greenfield as the first State nominees are “welcome on several levels: Both bring deep foreign-policy experience and expertise to their positions and have led within the department on both policy and the spectrum of personnel and resources issues.”
As to whether Kerry will have any influence on Iran policy, considering that he negotiated the 2015 Iran nuclear as secretary of state, Leaf said, “I think John Kerry is being brought on to do climate, period—something he is passionate about. Two of his big trips in his final year as secretary of state were to the Arctic Circle and to Antarctica to witness and draw attention to the effects of climate change.”
She noted that “Biden has a thicket of people on the campaign foreign-policy team to choose from who are steeped in Iran who are likely to populate the administration,” and while Kerry “will offer his views” to Biden, the president-elect “will put together a formal Team Iran to run the policy under Blinken and Sullivan.”
Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), told JNS, “Given the approach of the Obama administration and the foreign-policy rhetoric during the Democratic primary, Blinken and Sullivan are certainly from the more moderate wing of the party, and that is reassuring. They’re also thoughtful and experienced experts.”
“However,” he continued, “they were involved in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and favor re-entering it. That will be a complicated effort, and one that would be disastrous to achieve, so it is best to withhold judgment until we see how they choose to proceed.”
Regarding Haines, Leaf called her “one of the smartest, nimblest managers and navigators of the U.S. interagency” she has worked with and someone who “brings terrific expertise to the job—in intelligence, counter-terrorism and on a mix of key geopolitical issues.”
If confirmed, Mayorkas will be in charge of the department that, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, manages the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which Jewish synagogues and other institutions have relied upon especially in the aftermath of synagogue shootings and other anti-Semitic attacks over the past few years.
While the Orthodox Union declined to comment on the picks, Nathan Diament, the organization’s executive director for public policy, told Jewish Insider in November that Mayorkas “was a very good partner in the leadership of DHS.”
Aviva Klompas, who was the director of speechwriting for Israel’s U.N. mission under then-Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, expressed hope that the upcoming Biden administration will continue the Trump administration’s policies of brokering normalization deals between Israel and other countries and on the Iranian threat.
“We find ourselves at a promising historic juncture in the Middle East in which relations between Israel and the Muslim world are blossoming,” she told JNS. “I have no doubt that the Biden administration appointees will want to bring more countries to the table to sign peace agreements and bring greater stability to the Middle East for the simple reason that doing so is beneficial to the region and to the United States.”
“At the same time,” continued Klompas, “I hope they will listen to the many voices in the Middle East cautioning that Iran remains the primary impediment to peace and stability and should be managed accordingly.”
‘Meaningful leadership and partnership in the search for solutions’
Democratic Majority for Israel president and CEO Mark Mellman told JNS, “President-elect Biden is assembling a national security and foreign policy team with broad knowledge, deep experience, and a strong commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Together with the president-elect, these experienced, crisis-tested professionals will begin to restore America’s world leadership.”
The American Jewish Committee applauded Biden for announcing Blinken as his choice to lead Foggy Bottom.
“Tony Blinken has the breadth and depth of experience to ably oversee the implementation of U.S. foreign policy under President Biden,” said AJC CEO David Harris, who has met with Blinken on numerous occasions in the latter’s various posts. “He is intimately familiar with the full scope of the president-elect’s foreign-policy views, as well the issues of utmost concern to the Jewish community, including full-throated support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, widening the growing circle of Arab-Israel peace, the fight against global anti-Semitism, and the danger posed by Iran and its proxies.”
AJC also praised the appointment of Kerry to the climate role, with the organization telling JNS that “as the first national Jewish organization to have a LEED-certified building, we are delighted to see this new position filled by someone we know well and have hosted several times at our Global Forum.”
In a Twitter post, Harris also lauded Thomas-Greenfield.
In a Twitter thread, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami applauded Monday’s developments.
“The National Security team announced today by President-elect Biden represents exactly the type of leadership this country deserves and the world needs after four years of diplomatic and national security malpractice,” he tweeted. “The challenges facing us globally in the 21st century, as well as in the Middle East more specifically, require not just America’s re-engagement but our meaningful leadership and partnership in the search for solutions.”
B’nai B’rith International provided a neutral stance on Biden’s selections of Blinken, Sullivan and Thomas-Greenfield, though declined to comment on Kerry, Haines and Mayorkas.
“We hope the new appointments at State, the NSC and the U.N. will encourage an expansion of Israel’s relations with Arab countries and that they will take a tough line on Iran’s nuclear program and its malign behavior in the region, and will continue a long tradition of fighting bias against Israel at the United Nations,” the organization’s CEO, Daniel Mariaschin, told JNS.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee declined to comment, citing its longstanding policy of not discussing administration nominations and appointments.