July 18, 2022
President Biden’s trip to the Middle East took place against the background of Arab-Israeli disenchantment with the Obama White House, the Netanyahu-Trump relationship, the uncertain future of the Iran nuclear deal, the far-reaching consequences of the war in Ukraine, the strategic competition with China and Russia, and his plummeting approval rates at home.
A brief look at the Netanyahu-Trump relationship:
On February 15, 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu was the fourth foreign leader to visit the Trump White House. During the joint press conference with his host, he rejected the “unfair and one-sided actions at the United Nations” that target Israel. He was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016.
Through this Resolution adopted in the final days of the Obama administration, the Security Council reaffirmed that Israel’s establishment of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders. 14 Delegations voted in favor of the Resolution and this time the US chose to abstain.
Mr. Netanyahu had only words of support for the President and spoke of the Netanyahus and the Trumps as one big family.
The atmospherics of President Trump’s visit to Jerusalem on May 22 was no different. Every step was a display of the very special relationship between the two leaders, two families, and the two countries.
Shortly after Air Force One touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, President Rivlin, welcoming Mr. Trump said, “We are happy to see America is back in the area, America is back again.”
This was a reference to Israel’s perception of the “absence of American leadership” during the Obama years at the end of which it was agreed, nonetheless, that Israel would receive 38 billion dollars’ worth of American military assistance over the next decade, the largest such aid package in US history. (President Biden did not fail to mention this in remarks to the media with Prime Minister Lapid last Thursday.)
On December 6, 2017, President Trump signed the Act which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that he was terminating the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran which he called “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and started re-imposing the sanctions lifted under the deal.
In early 2020, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Washington. On January 28,in remarks to a large number of high-level guests at the White House, Mr. Netanyahu mentioned President Truman as the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel after the declaration of independence in 1948 but called Mr. Trump “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House”. And together, they unveiled the deal of the century, officially called “Peace to Prosperity”, Jared Kushner’s now forgotten “magnum opus”.
On August 13, 2020, the UAE became the third Arab country to have diplomatic relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow flights from “all countries” to cross over its airspace on flights to or from the United Arab Emirates. Thus, El Al was able to fly a joint US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi, through Saudi airspace.
On September 15, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House. President Trump said the Accords would “change the course of history”, and “mark the dawn of a new Middle East”.
In October, Israel and Sudan decided to normalize their relations. Morocco followed suit in December.
In brief, his last term in office in office was a period of remarkable diplomatic success for Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. However, he lost the legislative elections on 23 March 2021. Mr. Yair Lapid and Mr. Naftali Bennett formed a rare alliance that failed to survive. Israel’s fifth election in less than four years is now set for November 1. And Mr. Netanyahu’s return to power is a possibility.
Thus, President Biden’s visit to Israel had an Obama dimension. After all, President Obama who had supported the two-states vision and struck the nuclear deal with Iran was not a popular figure in Israel and Mr. Biden was his Vice President.
Responding to the welcoming statements by President Herzog and Prime Minister Lapid at Ben-Gurion airport, Mr. Biden said.
“And now, as President, I’m proud to say that our relationship with the State of Israel is deeper and stronger, in my view, than it’s ever been.”
Was this an endorsement of President Trump’s pro-active Israel policy? Yes.
Mr. Biden’s remarks regarding the two-states vision appeared to be an unwilling reference to what he had in mind for his talks. He said, “It’s critical. It’s critical, if I might add, for all the people of the region, which is why we’ll be — we’ll discuss my continued support — even though I know it’s not in the near-term — a two-state solution. That remains, in my view, the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
President Biden’s first comments on Iran came in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 that was broadcast hours after his arrival in Tel Aviv. He called Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA a “gigantic mistake” and said Iran was closer now to acquiring a nuclear weapon. “The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons,” he added. Asked about using military force against Iran, Biden said, “If that was the last resort, yes.”
In remarks to the media with Prime Minister Lapid he said:
“Today, you and I also discussed America’s commitment to ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.
“This is a vital security interest to both Israel and the United States and, I would add, for the rest of the world as well.
“I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.” [i]
“The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration” leaves little to be said. It is yet another written confirmation of America’s number one strategic partnership. [ii]
On Iran, Israel’s top priority, it says:
“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
Even without any reference to Iran, the Joint Declaration would have sent a strong message to Tehran.
As for President Biden’s visit to Bethlehem, it was the usual litany except for President Biden’s specific reference to the tragic death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Last Friday Saudi Arabia, ahead of President Joe Biden’s arrival, announced that it was lifting restrictions on “all carriers” using its airspace.
In Jeddah, President Biden, using strong language, told the media that he did raise the murder of Khashoggi with MBS. But the two sides did not agree on the content of the conversation. It was reported that, in response, MBS raised the abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison by US military personnel and the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and asked Mr. Biden what he was doing to ensure justice for her death. And Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir described normalizing ties with Israel as a “strategic option,” adding that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians was a “requirement” before Riyadh would formalize ties with Jerusalem.
“The Jeddah Communique: A Joint Statement Between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” issued after the Saudi-US talks is a long document. [iii]
Through this Communique, the two sides stressed that their partnership has been a cornerstone of regional security for decades.
On Iran, they underlined the need to further deter Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries, its support for terrorism through armed proxies, and its efforts to destabilize the security and stability of the region. They stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
On the question of Palestine, the two sides underscored their enduring commitment to a two-state solution.
As for Syria, they reiterated their commitment to preserving the country’s unity, stability, and territorial integrity. The paragraph was a confirmation of the change in Riyadh’s approach toward Damascus from hostility to building bridges.
The paragraph on Ukraine, far short of the US side’s expectations, reaffirmed the commitment of the two sides to providing critical assistance to the Ukrainian people, and to ensure the unhindered export of grain and wheat products to alleviate the global food crises, which threatens to acutely impact some Middle Eastern and African states.
Regarding Afghanistan, the two sides stressed the need to support Afghanistan’s security and address the threat posed by Afghanistan-based terrorists, a commitment they could have taken four decades ago.
“The Joint Statement Following the Summit of the Leaders of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Countries” said that the leaders affirmed their support for ensuring that the Arab Gulf region is free from all weapons of mass destruction, underscoring the centrality of diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and for confronting terrorism and all activities that threaten security and stability.[iv]
The first GCC-US summit was held at Camp David on May 14, 2015, exactly two months before the signing of the JCPOA. At the time, President Obama was seeking to reassure anxious Persian Gulf nations that the US was committed to their security, insisting a nuclear deal with Iran would not leave them more vulnerable. But only four days before the summit, Saudi Arabia announced that King Salman would not attend the meeting. This triggered the first round of speculation about a “snub”. The situation was further complicated with the news that only Kuwait and Qatar will attend the summit at the head-of-state level. And this is exactly what happened. UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain chose to stay away for different reasons.
The second summit took place in Riyadh on April 21, 2016. Western media reported upon his arrival in the Saudi capital the day before, President Obama was greeted at the airport by the governor of Riyadh and the event was not broadcast live on Saudi TV, as is routine with visiting heads of state, again generating talk of a “snub” because King Salman personally welcomed the GCC leaders on the tarmac.
The third summit gain took place in Riyadh on May 20–21, 2017, with President Trump. It was a celebration.
Despite the lofty language of the documents agreed in Jeddah, it appears that this last summit with Mr. Biden was not even close to the last one.
Looking at Presidents Trump’s and Biden’s visits to the Middle East, I could but remember that on his first transatlantic trip in 2009, President Obama had come to Ankara full of praise for our secular democracy. Even his support for the two-state solution could not endear him to Türkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), always claiming to be the leading proponent of Palestinian rights. Such is the sad metamorphosis of Türkiye.
- Expectations regarding President Biden’s Middle East tour were not high to start with. His talks with regional leaders did not break new ground. But they must have provided him with some insight regarding the evolution of America’s relations with its regional partners who seem to take a wait and see approach toward Washington.
- The war of words over what was said and not said about the Khashoggi murder between President Biden and MBS has already poured cold water on the Jeddah Communique.
- It is clear that those partners have no intention of getting deeply involved in Washington’s strategic competition with Russia and China, and Israel is no exception. And how far Saudi Arabia would respond to his call for raising the Kingdom’s oil production remains to be seen.
- Through their military interventions ostensibly “to bring democracy” to the Middle East, the US and its partners brought chaos to an already unsettled region.
- Thus, senior US officials said last week that “the Biden doctrine for the Middle East” would be based on principles of partnership, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values as opposed to regime change through military force and nation building, objectives that were out of America’s reach to deliver and drained its resources and capacity. Whether this doctrine would take root in Washington only the future would tell.
- Coming only a few days before President Biden’s Middle East tour, the White House must have resented former national security adviser and US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton’s remarks referring to himself as “somebody who has helped plan coups d’etat — not here but, you know, other places”.
- The signing of the Abraham Accords and the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab countries were positive developments.
- However, Israel’s expanding ties with Arab countries should not end up being a scheme to confront Iran.
- It is clear that Middle East’s most urgent problem is no longer the question of Palestine. It is bringing some semblance of stability to the region. The immediate challenges are the revival of the JCPOA and ending the war in Syria.
- After decades and decades of bloodshed, the Middle East cannot stand another major military conflict. Regional countries should not remain onlookers and must engage Tehran to revive the nuclear deal as time is running out.
- As for Türkiye, Ankara should resume diplomatic relations with Damascus sooner than later. It should revert to its traditional policy of non-involvement in intra-Arab affairs. Moreover, it should end its relations with groups causing problems for its regional partners if it expects the same attitude from others. Restoring confidence not only with friends but also with adversaries must be Ankara’s top priority.