Weakened Biden Looking for Easy ‘Wins’ on Mideast Visit
As US President Joe Biden prepared for his first official visit to Israel and the Middle East some had been anticipating the reversal of all things Trump and a return to the Obama era policies of appeasing Iran and bullying Israel to accept a Palestinian state. But it appears Biden has settled on a middle course, offering small gestures to the Palestinians but focusing more on extending the Abraham Accords by coaxing the Saudis to join the circle of Arab states normalizing relations with Israel while also solidifying a regional defense grid against the Iranian threat.
Biden could use a few foreign policy ‘wins’ given his sagging approval ratings at home, but the Mideast peace process is hardly ripe for a breakthrough at present. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is old, reportedly ill, and stuck in his rejectionism of Israel – even to the point of ignoring strong signals from otherwise supportive Arab rulers who are weary of Palestinian obstinacy towards peace. Meanwhile, Israel remains locked in a prolonged political impasse and clearly lacks a government with a mandate to rule, much less one that could make major concessions to the Palestinians.
Thus, Biden was simply trying to mend bruised Palestinian feelings caused by former president Donald Trump by offering to open back up a US consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem – though not necessarily the one which Trump shut down on Agron Street in western Jerusalem. He also broke precedent by visiting the Augusta Victoria Hospital in eastern Jerusalem without any accompanying Israeli officials – a hospital his wife Jill Biden has been connected to for over a decade now. Finally, Biden met with Abbas, but in Bethlehem not Ramallah – a move meant to avoid having to pay homage at the grave of Yasser Arafat.
Instead, the primary focus of Biden’s four-day whirlwind trip was easily discernible by his two main stops – Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Abraham Accords have borne so much good fruit, the Biden team has had little choice but to embrace them, even though they are so identified with Trump. And with the region ripening for an Israeli-Saudi breakthrough, the easier ‘win’ for Biden was to seek to draw Riyadh further into the widening Arab circle of peace and normalization with Jerusalem.
This course also was necessitated by the stalled Iranian nuclear talks and the global fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden has been pushing for a revival of the JCPOA nuclear deal from 2015, but he rejected Tehran’s insistence that Washington drop the IRCG from its list of foreign terrorist groups. Iran has responded by turning off IAEA monitoring cameras, installing faster centrifuges, and accelerating its enrichment of weapons-grade uranium – bringing it perilously close to the atomic threshold.
Iran also has been supplying advanced drones to its proxy terror militias throughout the region and – combined with its arsenal of ballistic missiles – the danger of Iranian-backed aerial attacks has grown intolerable for Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and even American troops in Iraq.
Thus, Biden came seeking to ride the spirit of regional cooperation against Iran, most notably by pitching Israel’s innovative air defenses as a centerpiece of any coordinated shield against Iran. In fact, after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, Biden’s first stop was touring a display of the IDF’s multi-tiered anti-rocket systems – including the Arrow III, David’s Sling, Iron Dome and the newly-developed “Iron Beam” laser weapon that potentially can shoot down enemy aircraft, missiles, mortars, drones and even Hamas fire balloons.
In the weeks ahead of Biden’s visit, American and Israeli officials also leaked that IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kohavi had already met this Spring with his Arab counterparts from the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia to discuss the concept of a “Middle East Air Defense.” Israel’s proposed MEAD would connect their respective air defense and radar systems to deter Iran’s use of drones and missiles in the region. Some media reports added that Israel was even willing to share its cutting-edge Iron Beam with the Saudis.
Biden’s visit to Jeddah to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman further underlines just how far he has come in his approach to the region. As vice president under Barack Obama, he was part of a team that shunned the Saudis to court favor with Iran. More recently, Biden pledged to treat the Crown Prince as a “pariah” for ordering the murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden now needs the Saudi royal to not only help contain the Iranian threat, but also to increase the Kingdom’s oil production to offset the Western sanctions on importing Russian oil and gas over the Ukraine conflict.
In the ICEJ Weekly Webinar, guest analyst Prof. Eytan Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University noted that, in the bigger picture, Biden’s moves are part of an emerging global alignment taking shape between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” He placed the US, Israel, and their Arab allies, along with the European Union, NATO and other Western democracies in the “good guys” camp, with Russia, China, and Iran now headlining an “axis of evil.” Prof. Gilboa also noted there is a strong consensus among Israeli and Sunni Arab leaders that there must be a strong regional military alliance against Iran with backing from America, and this is the primary objective of Biden’s visit.
Gilboa explained that Biden’s current Mideast tour was planned well in advance and thus there have been few surprises so far. Once the Saudis were on board with some further concessions to Israel (overflight rights, direct flights for the hajj), he decided to come seal the deal even though Israel is in an election season.
On the Palestinian track, Gilboa said the fact that there was no joint statement between the US and the Palestinians coming out of Biden’s meeting with Abbas reflects just how angry Palestinian leaders remain that the Biden White House is not fulfilling their demands.
One key issue that remains shrouded in mystery is whether the original Abraham Accords or the current move to add Saudi Arabia includes some secret agreement requiring Israel to make compromises on Jerusalem and especially the Temple Mount. Gilboa said he was not aware of any such side deal, but recounted that Jordan, the Palestinians, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia have all competed over recent decades for guardianship of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Of those options, he would be more comfortable ceding a custodial role in Jerusalem to the Saudis in order to open full relations with them.
In the end it remains clear that President Biden still seeks a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he still covets a renewed nuclear deal with Iran. But, the thrust of this tour is that the Biden Administration is at least working with Israel and its expanding circle of regional Arab allies to prepare themselves to confront any and all threats from Iran.