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Was Biden’s Middle East tour a strategic turning for the US?

31 Jul 2024

Was Biden’s Middle East tour a strategic turning for the US?

31 Jul 2024

One of the highlights of US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East earlier this month was his direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, signifying the blossoming relations between Israel and some of the GCC countries. But even after this high level visit, the Saudi leadership is still cautious about bringing its relationship with Israel out of the shadows, as long as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and the occupation of Palestinian land continues.[1] There was generally much symbolism with many gestures of goodwill during this visit, but more significantly it highlighted the Biden administration’s difficulties in reconciling the contradictions and paradoxes in its policies towards the region, and in regaining credibility for US policies among many he met with during his visit; hence his meetings were doomed from the outset to achieve no more than limited and sporadic success.

Since Biden and his team entered the White House, they have been forced to conduct a salvage operation after the unprecedentedly shambolic and damaging time of his predecessor in office, while also introducing a new agenda. The situation was made worse by one of the most toxic election campaigns in history, followed by a concerted attempt to question the legitimacy of the election’s outcome, and culminating in the 6 January insurrection. From the very outset, the new administration has had to deal with a host of urgent domestic and international issues. The country and the rest of world were still grappling with rebooting lives and economies while a devastating global pandemic was still raging; climate change continued to approach the point of no return; relations with allies in NATO had to be resurrected after the damage inflicted on them by the Trump administration; and to top all that, Russia, with its aggression in Ukraine, presented a new challenge that required an instant and powerful response. Whereas the new administration has highlighted China as the primary source of threat to the US, in order to regain any credibility in the international arena, a response to Russia’s extreme belligerence – which was as much an attack on western values and economic resilience as it was on Ukraine – was vital. Under these circumstances, the Middle East was perceived to be a lesser priority.[2]

It has taken too long for the current US administration to realize that whatever shift in emphasis Washington might feel necessary in its handling of world affairs, it neglects the Middle East at its peril. There is no promise of instant success, if any at all, when dealing with the Middle East; in the past, the region consumed much time and resources from previous administrations while creating a sense of frustration and hopelessness around attempts to either resolve conflicts or advance American interests and values. Much of the frustration has been mutual. But whatever America’s view of the Middle East, turning its back on it can only stall the very issues that the US would like to advance, and so harm its interests.

The first wakeup call came last May when hostilities broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, which spread from Jerusalem to inside Israel and ended in an almost full-blown confrontation with Hamas in Gaza, demonstrating to Washington that this and other flashpoints in the region can affect its allies and with it America’s interests. Furthermore, the Trump administration left a problematic legacy to the efforts to stop Iran’s march towards nuclear military capability by withdrawing from the 2015 agreement (JCPOA) reached between Tehran and the P5+1.[3] This is an ongoing worry for America’s allies in the region, with Israel maintaining its low intensity, covert and at times more overt, hostilities with Iran. In the psychological war between these two nemeses, Israel constantly gives the impression, for the benefit of the Iranian regime, that it has the military capability, and if need be the will, to devastatingly reverse that regime’s nuclear programme. The shadow of such a military operation, with its unforeseen consequences, looms dangerously over the region along with Iran’s continuing efforts to acquire nuclear military capability. Moreover, stability in the Middle East and North Africa is threatened by civil wars with heavy external involvement, whether in Yemen, Syria or Libya, and by extremism that also has a detrimental impact on America’s need to ensure the flow of oil and natural gas from the region, to guarantee the security and wellbeing of Israel, and to ensure that no rival global power is in a position to pose a threat to its interests in the Middle East. During his 2020 election campaign, Biden claimed that his “foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.”[4]

While many want to see the US regain a leading role in world affairs, this cannot happen without constructive engagement with the Middle East and ensuring political, economic, and social stability there, even if at times this will involve conducting frank conversations with leaderships across the region on issues of contention. There is little doubt that the war in Ukraine and the resultant harm caused to energy and food supply chains has contributed to Washington’s rethinking on the Middle East, or at least has induced some reality checks on how best to engage with the Middle East.

Beyond the usual razzmatazz, the glitzy receptions and speeches laced with lip service and truisms, the sum of meaningful achievements of Biden’s trip was rather limited. Part of this had to do with the timing of the visit, right after the collapse of Israel’s fragile coalition government and the appointment of caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid, less than two weeks before Biden’s arrival in Tel Aviv, on what counts in Israel’s calendar as the most notable of visits by a foreign dignitary. Biden’s trip also took place during the current run-up to America’s mid-term elections, a time when the president’s eye is more on how his words and actions might affect the second half of his term and his chances to win a second term. Biden was forthright on the eve of his visit to the Middle East: “Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine. And a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation—rather than coming apart through conflict—is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on U.S. military forces and their families.”[5] The only unexpected aspect of this statement was that it took the current decision makers in Washington that long to reach such an insight. His expressions of commitment to the security and wellbeing of Israel, repeated before and after arriving in Israel, are genuine, but Biden is less believable when he talks about restoring ties with the Palestinians, or of his support for the two-state solution as guarantor of peace, prosperity, and stability for both nations. He might think so, but his administration is utterly reluctant to take the necessary measures to turn his words into a reality.[6]

Searching for an increase in oil production was a major motivation for Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with GCC leaders. Without pushing down prices at the pump before the forthcoming mid-term elections, at a time when Biden’s ratings are already low, Democrats might suffer at the ballot box come November. Moreover, the containment of Iran has become a leitmotif in bringing back together the US and the Middle East and in building bridges with Israel. Yet, because of the unresolved Israeli–Palestinian issue, any progress in the normalising of relations between the Jewish State and the Arab world has stalled for now. Biden reiterated that US commitment to a two-state solution “has not changed”, but that the “ground is not ripe” for it, which for all intents and purposes leaves his commitment hollow, resulting in a lukewarm reception to the US president when he arrived in Palestine for meetings, in which the general mood ranged from complete apathy to despair to anger. Under these circumstances there is hardly an audience, either in Washington or Israel, for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ pledge at their press conference that “the opportunity for a two-state solution on the 1967 borders may be available today,” mixed with his warning to Biden and by extension to Israel, that this possibility “may not remain for a long time.”[7]

Meeting President Abbas in Bethlehem and visiting the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem without the company of Israeli officials, were positive signs of resuming a dialogue with the Palestinian leadership, and that in principle the US does not accept Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Biden’s pledge during his time in Palestine of $316 million in aid for the Palestinians, including for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) – an agency much maligned by Israel and its supporters in the US – was a welcome confidence-building measure, but among Palestinians they hardly instil confidence in Washington as an honest broker in their relations with Israel and even less regarding their national aspirations.[8] For that they need to witness a US administration that is prepared to be more proactive in persuading Israel to curtail the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and considerably improve the daily lives of Palestinians who live under harsh occupation in the West Bank and under blockade in Gaza; and they also want Biden to do the decent thing and re-open the US consulate in East Jerusalem that serves the Palestinians in the city and the rest of the West Bank. When Biden left for the summit in Jeddah, he left the Israelis much more satisfied than the Palestinians with the outcome of his visit, but peace was the main loser.

To a large extent, the visit to Saudi Arabia was also too much about optics than resuming trust and cooperation between Washington and the Arab world. Despite some visibly tricky moments between Washington and Riyadh during the visit, there is a sense that the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is gradually improving after a number of tense years, much of it dictated by global realities.[9] However, the GCC countries played hardball, and Biden came away from the talks without an agreement on increased oil supplies, which almost instantly led to an oil price hike.[10] The lack of faith in the US among America’s allies in the Middle East as a reliable partner runs deep, and was made worse by America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as the constant talk about the country’s attention gravitating towards the Indochina region, and of its inability to bring Israel to change its approach to the Palestinian issue. At this point, regional leaderships are expecting Washington to fulfil its side of the bargain first before they comply with the superpower’s requests.

On the eve of Biden’s trip, the rumour mill, much fuelled by the White House, suggested there would at some point be some dramatic announcement on a regional security alliance that would include Israel, but this never materialised.[11] As a matter of fact, the joint statement following the US-GCC summit was entirely vague and far from the expectations created by the American president and his advisors. Instead, the Saudi leadership adhered to their position as expressed in the 2003 Saudi peace initiative[12] that no major progress on its relations with Israel could take place until Israel changed its attitude to the Palestinian issue, and took steps towards bringing one of the longest conflicts in modern history to a just and fair conclusion. Consequently, despite the agreed commonality of interests in containing Iran’s nuclear aspirations and its subversive activities elsewhere in the region, cooperation with Israel will remain, at least for the moment, behind the scenes.

Moreover, there is much resentment among Gulf states towards US-imposed conditions on supplying them with weapons, which surfaced during Biden’s visit and is expected to remain an area of contention. This is a source of concern for Washington, as it could open the door for Russia and China to play a more active and influential role in the region, which is exactly what the US is attempting to avert. In his concluding remarks, the US president was unequivocal about such a possibility, declaring that the US “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”[13]  But this assertive talk is far from translating into a certainty unless GCC countries and the US rebuild bridges across a range of issues on which they differ and that were highlighted during this recent visit.

Despite intrinsic tensions during the summit in Jeddah, the agreement by all participants to provide $11 billion to ensure food security in the Middle East and North Africa region is a significant development in terms of humanitarian help and regional stability, especially at a time when food prices are soaring. Allowing, at least implicitly, for Israeli airplanes to possibly use Saudi airspace, is not an insignificant gesture towards the US and the Jewish State, but far from what Israel wished for.

President Biden’s visit was not a tour de force, but it created some momentum and highlighted areas of common interest as much as some fundamental differences. One insight which hopefully Biden and his team took with them as they left the region is that whatever other international priorities the administration has, turning its back on the Middle East and North Africa would be a mistake that would come to haunt the US and its interests. Instead, for America to regain its prominent position vis-à-vis the MENA region will require an ongoing, frank, and honest engagement, not just a quick visit.

References

[1] Ben Samuels, “No Normalization with Israel until Two-State Solution Reached, Saudi FM Says,” Haaretz, July 16, 2022, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/2022-07-16/ty-article/.premium/no-normalization-with-israel-until-two-state-solution-reached-saudi-fm-says/00000182-0614-d213-adda-17bd7b2d0000.

[2] Tamara Cofman Wittes, “What to Do – and What Not to Do – in the Middle East,” Brookings, January 25, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-to-do-and-what-not-to-do-in-the-middle-east/.

[3] Kali Robinson, “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?” Council on Foreign Relations, Last Updated July 20, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal.

[4] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why American Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.

[5] Joe Biden, “Joe Biden: Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia,” Washington Post, July 9, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/09/joe-biden-saudi-arabia-israel-visit/.

[6] Andrew Feinberg, “Biden Says He Remains Committed to Two-State Solution during West Bank Visit,” Independent, July 15, 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/biden-israel-two-state-solution-palestine-b2123929.html.

[7] “Biden States Support for Two-State Solution, but ‘Ground Not Ripe’ to Restart Israel-Palestine Talks,” France 24, July 15, 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220715-biden-brings-financial-aid-in-visit-to-west-bank-no-peace-plan.

[8] Alexander Ward, “U.S. Announces $316M for Palestinians as Biden Visits West Bank,” Politico, July 14, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/07/14/316m-for-palestinians-as-biden-visits-west-bank-00046014.

[9] Sanam Vakil, “Biden’s Middle East Trip Shows the Long Game Is His Aim,” Chatham House, Expert Comment, July 19, 2022, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/07/bidens-middle-east-trip-shows-long-game-his-aim.

[10] Alex Lawson, “Oil Price Rises after Joe Biden Fails to Secure Saudi Output Increase,” The Guardian, July 18, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jul/18/oil-price-rises-joe-biden-saudi-output-petrol-diesel-prices.

[11] “Saudi Foreign Minister: Not Aware of Any Discussions on Gulf-Israel Defence Alliance,” Reuters, July 16, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-foreign-minister-not-aware-any-discussions-gulf-israel-defence-alliance-2022-07-16/.

[12] The Arab Peace Initiative, “Official Translation of the Full Text of a Saudi-Inspired Peace Plan Adopted by

the Arab Summit in Beirut, 2002,” https://www.kas.de/documents/268421/268470/7_file_storage_file_3659_1.pdf/9e869fab-4352-2a63-5795-a662f1139ad3?version=1.0&t=1539659741069.

[13] “Biden Says U.S. ‘Will Not Walk Away’ from Middle East,” CBS News, July 16, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-us-middle-east-will-not-walk-away/.

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