President Joe Biden has finally scheduled his first trip to the Middle East as chief executive. The visit, which was postponed from June to July 13-16 because of “scheduling” issues and the need for more time to “prepare,” is one of those things that the administration feels must be done, even if there is no real strategic goal or outcome in mind. But the trip is still shaping up to be a consequential foray into regional politics, if only because the goals are controversial.
Saudi Arabia: “Pariah” or “Strategic Partner”?
Among the planned stops on the trip is Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), whom the administration has blamed for the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In attempting to justify what the White House once thought anathema, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that the kingdom “has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades.” An unnamed White House official added that the two countries have a “host” of shared interests, including counterterrorism efforts and the well-being of the 70,000 Americans who live and work in the kingdom. And another US official directly addressed the Khashoggi murder, stating that, “For the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, we need to move past it.”
Apparently, obeisance to the kingdom simply must be made on account of a global energy crisis and the distant origins of a bilateral relationship whose foundations, however shaky, are usually exempt from questioning.
Oh, and Israel/Palestine
While the Saudi stop has grabbed headlines, Biden’s planned visit to Israel and Palestine—a focus of American regional policy in the Middle East for decades—may be more important in the long run. There, the president confronts an unwelcoming political landscape. Biden will face an Israeli government that has recently collapsed and is now acting in a caretaker capacity. With the June 20 dissolution of parliament due to a series of failed legislative votes, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will assume the role of caretaker prime minister until elections—Israel’s fifth in three years—can be held in October.
It is painfully clear that peace between Israel and Palestine is far down the list of US priorities. This approach will certainly have consequences for many years to come.
This politically unpromising state of affairs is compounded by the tense situation with the Palestinians, which itself is further complicated by the repressive and undemocratic politics of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Few prospects for meaningful diplomatic progress are apparent with these two partners. More importantly, American policy toward this interminable—and to many US policymakers, thankless—issue appears locked in the past, with no political will or creative way to move forward. The presidential trip brings no prospect of restarting some new form of “peace process,” for which the administration appears to have no appetite at the moment. Rather, what Biden is attempting to do is check a box. But it is painfully clear that peace between Israel and Palestine is far down the list of US priorities, and there is not much of a box to check. This approach will certainly have consequences for many years to come.
Thank You, Mr. Trump
The Trump Administration’s approach to the peace process was straightforward: work around the Palestinians and draw key Arab states into direct deals with Israel. This proved to be the most Machiavellian yet skillful—in a word, innovative—approach to the peace process in decades. It cast aside years of orthodoxy regarding the “two-state solution” and instead sought to simply render moot the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “peace plan”—based on the whopping 25 books he read on the subject as well as the dismissive discussions he had with real experts—led the upheaval. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been a main advocate for the effort, and in fact was an early champion of this so-called “outside-in” strategy. The approach has certainly produced a substantial shift in US policy. The Biden Administration has fully embraced the Abraham Accords (the Trump Administration’s glossy summit of Middle East diplomacy), and seeks to build on them as the next great step in Arab-Israeli peace.
Within this context, Biden will attempt during his trip to establish some sort of stable relationship with an Israeli government that has fallen, while also trying to mend American relations with the PA, thrown into disarray during the Trump years. At the end of the trip the president is also attending a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council where he will meet with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, in addition to his fateful meeting with MBS. Biden will essentially try to return to business as usual, which means that Palestinian-Israeli relations will become, once again, a frozen conflict that the United States can safely ignore, unity against Iran will be strengthened, and US-Gulf relations will be re-established as the sun around which American regional policy revolves, with human rights consigned to the outer darkness, at least for now.
Business a Bit Tougher Than Usual
Biden will attempt to build on what Trump achieved through the Abraham Accords: a lasting and expanding peace between commercial and military powers that disdain human rights and simply wish to get on with business. Still, there are complications. The assassination of Al Jazeera reporter and US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh touched off significant international condemnation as well as blowback within the US Congress. This highlights the increasing acceptability of congressional criticism of Israel, which in recent years has become more mainstream, rather than remaining the third rail of national politics. To the extent that it is associated (although by no means exclusively) with the progressive wing of Democratic politics, criticism of Israel is an issue that can no longer be ignored by an administration facing political headwinds among its Democratic base. Biden therefore cannot afford to neglect the matter of Abu Akleh’s killing during his trip.
Criticism of Israel is an issue that can no longer be ignored by an administration facing political headwinds among its Democratic base.
In addition, Israel continues to enlarge its settlement enterprise in the West Bank, recently approving more than 4,000 new homes. This helps makes the chimera of a two-state solution more unachievable. Furthermore, Israeli occupation practices, as well as settler violence, generate severe human rights abuses, as documented by the US Department of State’s most recent human rights report. The deepening occupation, as well as Washington’s current hands-off diplomatic approach, raises the important question of whether a “one-state solution” is now the only realistic alternative. This would entail creating a unitary state in which all citizens, Palestinians and Israelis, have equal civic and political rights.
How much of this will come up in discussions with Israeli officials? If the past is any guide, not much. Biden himself is an old-school diplomat wedded to time-honored shibboleths, so a departure from the two-state solution mantra is not in the cards. Indeed, Biden appears perfectly satisfied with what Trump has wrought: taking the “peace process” as it has been advocated for and espoused by generations of American diplomats off the table and replacing it with a stable non-settlement that resolves nothing and leaves a simmering conflict for generations to come.
The Agenda in Palestine
The President will nevertheless have business to do. For one thing, Biden will attempt to reset relations with the Palestinian Authority. Barbara Leaf, the newly-confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, was recently dispatched to the region to “reassure” the Palestinians, preceded by a preparatory visit by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr. It is hard to tell if this maneuver was indeed reassuring, though statements in response by various Palestinian leaders have not been encouraging. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s take, in a May 31 phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was that the US “must turn its words into deeds.” Meanwhile, Amr’s appointment as a “non-resident consul general” evidently failed to appease Abbas.
Planning, however, continues. Biden is reportedly considering a visit to Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, a symbolic stop to show solidarity with Palestinian humanitarian issues, if not their political aspirations. Biden has also pledged to reopen an American consulate in Palestinian East Jerusalem that was closed by Trump. However, such a move faces considerable opposition from the Israeli government, and no doubt from hardcore Israel supporters in the US Congress.
Biden has had more success resetting the economic relationship with the PA, a matter over which he has more executive control.
Biden has had more success resetting the economic relationship with the PA, a matter over which he has more executive control. The administration recently restored approximately $500 million in annual assistance, most of it earmarked for the vital mission of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. About one quarter is being distributed through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for directly implemented projects in the West Bank and Gaza. More economic talks are therefore likely to form part of Biden’s agenda. This has been an ineffectual staple of American Middle East policy for decades. However, even this has produced controversy.
While the Israeli government has welcomed the aid restoration—perhaps calculating that an economically solvent West Bank will be somewhat less likely to fall apart and leave an expensive and dangerous mess on Israel’s doorstep—the matter remains controversial in the US Congress. USAID Administrator Samantha Power was recently grilled regarding whether any of the funding was reaching the PA. That would constitute a violation of the Taylor Force Act, which forbids such direct assistance. Power assured her House Foreign Affairs Committee interrogators that the aid would not pass through the PA, but many remain skeptical.
A Challenging Visit to Israel
Dealing with the newly-resigned government of Israel is another matter altogether. Biden is not overly familiar with current caretaker Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his political supporters, who belong to strongly nationalist-religious parties and check none of the boxes with which Biden is most comfortable. But now whatever tenuous connection there may have been has fallen. Bennett’s government recently agreed to call new elections, and the immediate future of Israeli politics is unclear. The chaos provides an opening for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is no fan of the “peace process,” to be ushered once again into the office he previously held for a total of 15 years. If that happens, there is little likelihood for the advancement of negotiations, or even practical accommodations, between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
It remains entirely unclear who will be in power when and if the Biden visit comes around. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the front-runner.
This is not to say, however, that preserving relations with one or another Israeli government will be a top priority for President Biden. As noted above, the visit constitutes more of an introductory call rather than an urgent diplomatic initiative, but important business will still be on the agenda.
Three issues are likely to top the list, the first being Iran. Biden will likely further explore the Israeli government’s thinking regarding new dangers posed by Iranian nuclear proliferation, reported to have become more acute in recent weeks, according to the United Nations. The demise of the Iran nuclear deal (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) under the Trump Administration has left the United States and its allies without a plan to counter nuclear proliferation in the Gulf. Biden will likely probe Israeli strategic thinking on this point, possibly worrying that an unstable Israeli government could take unilateral action against Iran to boost its parliamentary and electoral standing. Bennett retains the Iran portfolio, so at the least there is a main point of contact.
Second, Biden will discuss Ukraine, and specifically Israel’s lack of commitment to the western cause of pushing back Russia and imposing a strategic defeat on Moscow. Washington is aware of Israeli concerns regarding its military freedom of action in Syria with respect to Hezbollah and Iran, since it greatly depends on Russian forbearance in airspace it controls. However, the administration has difficulty understanding the position Israel—a putative member of the “West” and close Washington ally—toward what Biden and key members of his administration regard as the most vital geostrategic issue of our time.
Third, the continued buildup of Arab-Israeli relations will be a significant topic of discussion. Like Trump before him, Biden sees the Abraham Accords as a decisive break with failed “peace process politics” of the past, and a major asset in the cold war with Iran. It will also constitute a potentially lucrative economic opportunity that will bolster US arms merchants’ bottom line as the countries involved seek new weapons systems and interoperability with US forces in the field.
Road to Nowhere?
It is not clear where all this will lead, though possibly nowhere. Biden’s visit to Israel and Palestine appears to be more a placeholder than a significant diplomatic initiative that would break new ground in the search for regional peace. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the president may want to thank the Saudis for their role in recently helping to arrange increased oil output by OPEC+, while probably paying some lip service to human rights. He might also try to keep a greater part of his focus on the threat from Iran and the potential for expanded ties between the Gulf and Israel to further build upon the Abraham Accords. Biden is also reportedly considering security guarantees for the UAE, a major expansion of the US role in the Gulf that seems little more than a lagniappe in place of a more coherent policy. This will, nonetheless, have long-lasting consequences.
In the absence of longer-range strategic calculations, the administration seems to hope that this trip can at least work to buy time and keep things stable, while it awaits a more opportune moment for the Palestinians and Israelis to resume talking to each other seriously about future prospects for peace. But the lack of ambition for this regional tour does indicate, sadly, how low on the list of American priorities the Palestine-Israel peace process has fallen. And that neglect may ultimately come back to confound US goals in the region.