A version of this analysis appeared in N12 on July 24, 2022
- After President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East and the Russia-Iran summit in Tehran, the United States is forced to come to terms, little by little, with the complex reality of real threats to its vital interests.
- America’s fight for the world order under its leadership is Israel’s opportunity for further achievements.
- This does not mean that Biden is capable of the challenge. Israel must not depend on him to manage the critical regional processes.
With the fading of the festival fanfare of President Biden’s visit, it can be said that even if the potential for a strategic change in the region was only partially realized, the potential nevertheless exists. The question now is to what extent the changes in the American attitude toward the region will lead to changes in the regional reality.
The visit illustrated (beyond the “Jerusalem Declaration”) the intimacy that characterizes Israel-United States relations, the American commitment to Israel’s security, and the common interest in promoting relations between Israel and Arab countries. Biden emphasized the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. At the same time, the visit highlighted the differences in the positions of Israel and the United States in the Iranian context and the Palestinian issue.
Looking ahead, the visit reflected the complex process of American recognition of the new reality created by the war in Ukraine and the failure to return to the agreement with Iran. This reality is forcing the Biden administration to come to terms, slowly and reluctantly, with the fact that the same forces that threaten the world order and the rules on which it is based –– that is Russia, China, and Iran – are also the ones that threaten the regional order in the Middle East and threaten vital American interests there. Therefore, the situation requires cooperation with the parties that oppose these destabilizing forces.
During the visit, President Biden repeatedly pointed out that the return of the United States to the region is necessary to prevent the creation of a vacuum that Russia and China will fill, implicitly through their cooperation with Iran. To this end, given the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine, Biden put aside the human rights agenda, surrendered his dignity, and “went to Canossa,” where he met Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman in Jeddah. This insight, which is in tension with the president’s beliefs, has not yet been formulated into a full recognition of the meanings derived from it for him. Unfortunately, there are elements in the Democratic Party that pose obstacles to the process of assimilating these meanings.
The president’s moves reflect a trend weakening the United States’ powerful regional position. The Iranians and the Saudis recognized this and showed a rigid stance against the American expectations of them. Iran’s belligerent statements following the visit, led by the remarks of the advisor to the leader Ali Khamenei about the possibility of hacking into nuclear weapons, and Saudi Arabia’s refusal to immediately respond to the American request to increase oil output while showing interest in improving relations with Iran, made it clear to what extent the United States’ position in the region has eroded, especially since the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. The image of weakness also harms the United States’ allies, who hesitate to confront Iran. At the same time, that image points strongly to the importance of Israel as the primary player working openly against Tehran’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony.
The Change in American Perception – An Opportunity for Israel
That said, the United States remains the most critical superpower in the world (as the U.S. elimination of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on August 1, 2022, attests). The United States’ gradual mobilization to prevent a change in the regional order is a positive development from Israel’s point of view. Now, Israel must jointly examine with the Americans how this goal can be promoted together with the other regional actors who share the fear of the strengthening of the radical elements in the region led by Iran. The idea of a joint regional defense system did not take off during the visit, but this is no reason to abandon it. Along the way, it is possible to examine ways to promote it based on trilateral cooperation between Israel, the United States, and each of the pragmatic Arab countries according to their needs. The Israeli Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff’s visit to Morocco is a step in this direction.
The American focus on tensions with Russia and China damaged the meeting of interests between the United States and Israel and the Gulf states, which do not see Russia and China as threats to their security. Therefore, the change in Washington’s insights restores the meeting of interests that was the basis of strategic cooperation.
The primary goal shared by Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries is to translate this meeting of interests into a change in American policy towards Iran so that the United States will exert pressure on the extremist Islamic regime, including presenting a credible military threat to Iran to curb its nuclear program. These parties seek, in this context, the removal from the agenda of the dangerous option of returning to the nuclear agreement.
After Russian President Putin visited Iran on July 19, 2022, the tightening of relations between the two countries and the latest Iranian rant should all be leveraged to bring the Americans closer to a decision to adopt a much more decisive policy towards Iran.
At the same time, it is also necessary to face the risks associated with the recent developments, including Russia’s more aggressive approach against Israel’s freedom of action in Syrian skies and attempts by Iran and its affiliates to continue exploiting the image of American weakness to advance their goals. Iran, which has already taken advantage of this weakness to make significant progress in its nuclear program without any response from the United States, presents the United States with new challenges. At the same time, Iran’s Hizbullah proxy may put Israeli determination to the test in the context of attacking the gas rig in the “Karish” field in Israeli waters in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Biden visit contributed only a little to promoting normalization and peace with the pragmatic Arab countries, such as allowing Israeli flights over Saudi skies and Saudi Arabia agreeing in principle on direct flights of Muslim Israeli pilgrims.
The short presidential tour of the region has the potential to strengthen the economic and technological ties between Israel and the Arab countries, despite the opposition of the Palestinians. It is increasingly clear to the Americans that the Palestinians’ attempt to present themselves as representatives of the Islamic and the Arab world does not hold water. Saudi Arabia is committed to the Arab peace initiative and delays normalization pending Israel accepting most Palestinian claims, but it will not do more at this stage. Nevertheless, with the Saudi moves, the dam has finally been breached, and the chances of it collapsing are increasing. Against this background, it should be noted that during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden referred to the “Abraham Accords” by name and was not satisfied only with the term “normalization, “ as was the practice of members of his administration until the visit.
Lapid Helped the Palestinians Evade Responsibility
The Palestinian issue was pushed to the sidelines of the visit, partly due to Biden’s understanding that there is no chance of promoting a peace process under the current conditions. The shooting of rockets from Gaza at Israel right after Biden left Israel was obviously an expression of Palestinian frustration (and a challenge to the Palestinian Authority). But precisely because of this, the image of the Palestinians as the eternal victims, unable to achieve their strategic demands, has sharpened.
The Israeli gestures towards the Palestinians were intended to appease both Mahmoud Abbas and Biden. The promises of American aid were made without any quid-pro-quo on the part of the Palestinians. Israel is taking security risks by allowing Palestinian construction in sensitive areas and making 4G technology available to Palestinian cellular communications to please the U.S. administration. In turn, these steps may give the Palestinian side the feeling that their continued resistance and intransigence are paying off. Their evidence: the Israelis and the Americans tolerate the heinous Palestinian practice of paying salaries to terrorists and perpetuate the refugee problem through the continued aid to UNRWA, even though the organization continues to incite Palestinian youth against Israel through its school curricula.
“Two States” Versus “Two States for Two Peoples”
Once again, the Palestinians’ role in perpetuating the conflict and the struggle against Zionism are being ignored. Lapid missed an opportunity to stress Palestinian responsibility for the impasse when he was asked at the joint press conference about his position on the two-state solution. Instead of clarifying the difference between “two states” and “two states for two peoples” (one of which is the Jewish people) and emphasizing the security needs of the State of Israel, Lapid satisfied himself with a short answer in which he expressed support in principle to the two states solution. Biden, on the other hand, in the statement after meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, used the term “two states for two peoples” and insisted that both have deep roots in this country. (Other elements of the formula presented by Biden are problematic for Israel.)
In conclusion, the possibility of positive change is developing in the regional context. However, suppose it is delayed or does not materialize due to the obstacles Biden faces regionally and domestically. In that case, chances will increase that factors (such as Iran) challenging the current regional order and the position of the United States will try to promote the order they want, thus exacerbating the risks to Israel and regional stability.