Assessing Biden’s Mideast trip
Jul 23, 2022 | AIJAC staff
This Update follows up on last week’s coverage of the first day of US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East with some comment on the events and implications of the four-day trip as a whole.
We lead with a summary of the five major elements of the trip from the Foreign Desk news service. These are: the strong and positive tone of his visit to Israel, Palestinian disappointment with what Biden offered them, a controversial meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman; a failure to get hoped for Saudi assurances about increased oil production, and the efforts to build on the Abraham Accords to create a regional alliance against Iran, including both Israel and Saudi Arabia. For the details of each of these elements of the trip, CLICK HERE. Another good summary of the trip’s key events comes from Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post.
Next up, Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz focuses especially on the last point – efforts to build a regional alliance against Iran, including steps toward normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Horovitz notes that Saudi denials of any intention of moving toward normalisation with Israel through measures like recently announced overflight rights for all planes – meaning Israeli planes – are not credible and that the Saudis are actually a covert partner in the Abraham Accords alliance. Moreover, he makes the case that the Iranian threat was very much at the centre of the visit for both Jerusalem and Riyadh. For his valuable analysis of the trip, CLICK HERE.
Finally, US scholar Orde Kittrie looks in some more detail at the key policy document signed during Biden’s trip to Israel, the “Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration.” Kittrie calls for urgent efforts to follow up on the Declaration by the US Congress, Administration and allies – especially the implicit threat to resort to military force to halt Iran’s nuclear program if diplomatic efforts are exhausted. He also discusses the Declaration’s calls to strengthen and expand the Abraham Accords, and promises to oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. For the rest of Kittrie’s analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Some more critical comment on what Biden accomplished during his Mideast visit comes from Danielle Pletka and Jonathan Schachter.
- Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute looks at the oil element of the Biden trip and how the Saudis effectively baulked at the President’s requests for increased production.
- Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz reveals that a sort of anti-Iran defensive alliance – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others – is already secretly operating.
- A look at how Israel’s new laser anti-missile systems may be a part of this alliance, from military experts Lt Gen Henry Obering and Ari Cicurel.
- Iran experts explain that recent declarations by Iranian officials that Iran can now build nuclear weapons at any time are both true and no surprise. More on this from Michael Rubin.
- Meanwhile, Amos Harel says Iran’s new openness about its nuclear capabilities and intentions may be a good thing,
- An analysis of Hezbollah’s threats to start a war over the Israel-Lebanon maritime border dispute and offshore gas production from Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira. Plus, the Israeli Government’s response to those threats.
- A Jerusalem Post editorial on the burgeoning Iran-Russia ties following Putin’s visit to Teheran this week.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- A short AIJAC video on the highlights of the Biden Middle East trip.
- Oved Lobel discusses Iran’s increasingly deep alignment with both Russia and China in a piece in the Australian.
- Also, Lobel discussed Israel’s great counter-terrorism success in stopping almost all Iranian transnational terror attacks on both Israeli institutions and the Jewish world since the horrific 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires.
5 Things to Know About Biden’s Trip to the Middle East
Foreign Desk News, July 21, 2022
President Biden completed his first presidential visit to the Middle East last week. During his visit to Israel, he reaffirmed his commitment to the U.S.’ greatest regional partner, discussed his intentions and goals in dealing with Iran, and promoted the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue. He then met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and voiced his support for the Palestinian people and emphasized that the Palestinian people deserve the “same freedom and self-determination of their neighbors.” After, President Biden flew to Jeddah to meet with the Crown Prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman. This meeting was undoubtedly the most controversial and drew criticism from foreign policy leaders and human rights advocates alike. At a summit in Jeddah, Biden emphasized that “the United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East” and that the “U.S. will not walk away.” These words were likely well received as Middle East leaders recall Biden’s embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan.
1. Israel’s “Best Friend”
The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Biden was deemed a success as the two leaders reaffirmed their partnership and defined terms for further partnership. Prime Minister Lapid described Biden as a “great Zionist” and “one of the best friends Israel has ever known.” Biden reflected on his first visit to Israel as a freshman senator in 1973 and said “you don’t need to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” The Joint Declaration on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership was adopted to reassure Israel amidst increasing threats from Iran and its proxies. The U.S. emphasized its “commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capabilities to deter its enemies” and promised to never allow Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities.
President Biden expressed frustration with Iran’s regime over the stalled nuclear deal discussions and sent a clear message: “we won’t wait forever.” In a discussion with PM Lapid, Biden said he would use “military force” as a last resort, but that “diplomacy is still the best way”. This seemed to be the only major disagreement between the leaders, as Israel asserted that “diplomacy will not stop them” and that “the only way to stop a nuclear Iran is if Iran knows the free world will use force.” President Biden also declared that removing Iran’s IRGC from the U.S. list of Foreign Terror Organizations was off the table. These affirmations and reassurances came as a relief to Israel, who has vehemently opposed the Iran deal since its original signing in 2015.
President Biden met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following day and stressed his belief in self-determination and state sovereignty for the Palestinian people. Otherwise, however, there was little productive discussion and little focus on initiatives to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. President Biden did outline a number of initiatives that would support the Palestinian people without going so far as to anger Israel. These included improving access to health care and education, reducing food insecurity, providing services and resources for refugees, and acting as a moderator in peace talks when needed. Biden visited Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem to announce a multi-year donation of $100 million to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. However, many Palestinians were displeased with this and frustrated that no plan was outlined to address the actual conflict, instead, Biden only reinforced support for a two-state solution. Palestinian Fatah senior official Jibril Rajoub said that “we only hear empty words and no results.”
Biden’s visit to the Augustus Victoria hospital in east Jerusalem (above) and announcement of US$100 million in aid to Palestinian hospitals failed to temper Palestinian anger at Biden (Photo: Wikimedia commons)
3. The ‘controversial’ meeting with MBS
Since President Biden made a campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, he now feels he has to make amends with the Kingdom. Many human rights advocacy groups have harshly criticized Biden’s visit, claiming it undermines U.S. values and emboldens MBS’ actions. Saudi ministers said that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi went unmentioned during the meeting, but President Biden denied this and claimed that human rights are a top priority for his foreign policy and was heavily emphasized during his meeting with MBS.
Despite criticism from many for failing to hold MBS accountable and failing to stand by his campaign promises, others have defended the visit. President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Hass wrote that “critics of the trip to KSA get two things wrong. First, you have to deal with the leaders that exist, not ones you prefer. Second, what matters is not ‘deliverables’ but building a relationship with Saudi leaders that will allow the two countries to collaborate on Iran, Israel, oil, etc.”
4. Oil production
Explicit goals of President Biden’s visit to the Middle East included countering Iran, China, and Russia and establishing strong leadership and strategic partnerships in the region. While not explicitly mentioned, oil production and prices were undoubtedly on everyone’s mind, especially approaching the November Midterms. Saudi Arabia is the undeclared leader of OPEC and often determines OPEC policies and oil production. Saudi Arabia reinforced that it cannot increase production any further, much to the dismay of President Biden and the American people. OPEC and OPEC+ countries will meet in the beginning of August to discuss production levels, but the meeting is unlikely to yield any better results. During the visit, the consistent message was that one country alone cannot determine oil output and supply. Nonetheless, increasing supply without properly consulting other OPEC countries would undoubtedly cause frustration. Frankly, it seems as though OPEC has little regard for President Biden’s goals as increased oil prices greatly benefit the oil exporting countries.
5. Steps toward normalization
The Biden administration has decidedly continued former President Trump’s efforts to increase ties and normalize relationships between Israel and the Arab states via the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to partake, demanding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict before formally becoming signatory to a deal with Israel. However, many of the Kingdom’s allies and partners have already normalized relations and likely with clandestine approval from the Saudis. However, Saudi Arabia is coming to the realization that a partnership with Israel could be extremely beneficial in countering Iran, squashing the spread of terror cells, and expanding their economy beyond oil. Steps towards normalization are taking place, although only incrementally. For example, the U.S. is assisting in the transfer of Red Sea Islands from Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi sovereignty with Israeli approval. Most recently, the first direct flight between Israel and Saudi Arabia was established as a result of Biden’s visit. This will also help promote tourism and religious tourism within Saudi Arabia. This blossoming partnership would be instrumental in establishing a safer, more prosperous, and independent Middle East by deterring Iran’s regime, collaborating in counterterrorism efforts, integrating economic systems, and preventing malicious foreign intervention from China and Russia.
What the Saudis think about when they think about peace with Israel
Their newly opened airspace has nothing to do with Israel, they say, and normalization can’t happen until there’s a Palestinian state. But actually, obviously, it’s all about Iran
Times of Israel, 21 July 2022
In attempting to puzzle out the state of play in moves toward Israeli-Saudi normalisation, statements from Saudi leaders rarely tell the whole story (Image: esfera, shutterstock)
As of this writing, Israeli planes are not yet routinely overflying Saudi airspace to and from India, China and other destinations. This year, at least, Israeli Muslims were not able to take Israeli charter flights direct from Ben Gurion Airport to Saudi Arabia for the hajj.
But on the eve of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom last weekend, the Saudis announced that their airspace is now open in principle to “all air carriers,” and they are widely reported to have signaled agreement for direct Israel-Saudi flights to the hajj next year.
Israeli, American and Saudi leaders’ public declarations on these air travel advances have been contradictory. Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Biden hailed what they asserted was a tangible “first step” to hoped-for wider Israeli-Saudi normalization; Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in complete contrast, asserted that the opened airspace had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and was “not in any way a precursor to any further steps” toward normalization.
Clearly, even absolute monarchies have to prepare their citizenries for radical reversals in their regional policies. After decades of institutional antisemitism and hostility to Israel, the Jews and their national homeland are not going to be transformed into allies overnight.
But with all due respect to Prince Faisal’s denials, it is not clear that there are any beneficiaries apart from Israel from the Saudis’ newly liberalized overflight rules. And any day now, it would seem, the pilot of an El Al or Arkia airliner will make radio contact with a Saudi air traffic controller, and routine, formal civilian interaction between the two countries will be underway — indeed, a first, small step on the path to wider potential normalization.
Where things go from there, however, is wide open to question. In a CNN interview coinciding with Biden’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, a second Saudi minister, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, allowed that peace with Israel is “possible” and a “strategic option,” but made plain it was anything but a done deal.
Al-Jubeir directly conditioned peace with Israel on Palestinian statehood, stressing Saudi commitment to “a two-state settlement, with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
But the Saudis had tacitly blessed the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain striking full peace deals with Israel, within the 2020 Abraham Accords framework, despite the absence of Israeli-Palestinian progress and despite the Palestinian Authority’s bitter screams of betrayal.
For Riyadh and other potential new Abraham Accords partners, the key consideration is not the Palestinian conflict but rather the rapaciousness of Tehran’s ayatollahs, and when they weigh deepened ties with Israel, they are assessing how best to defang the Iranian threat.
During his stay in Israel, Biden highlighted his love and appreciation for our country, its achievements and its people. “Seeing Israel thrive, seeing the wildest dreams of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers grow into a reality that Israel’s children enjoy today, to me is close to miraculous,” he proclaimed at the President’s Residence, in one of the most heartfelt of several warm speeches.
His unscripted readiness to go down on one knee to interact at length with two Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem emblemized the deep solidarity and empathy at the heart of his trip.
And the text of the Jerusalem Declaration that he solemnly signed with Lapid provided the formal context for that solidarity — a “strategic” commitment “to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat.” The declaration singled out the unique threat posed by Iran, and featured a US pledge “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and to use “all elements” of American national power “to ensure that outcome.”
Israeli acting PM Lapid (right) stressed to Biden that “Diplomacy will not stop” Iran’s nuclear program without a credible threat of force. The same point was made by Opposition Leader Netanyahu. (Photo: Kobi Gideon, Israeli Government Press office)
But as both Lapid and, in their brief meeting, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought vehemently to stress to the US president, diplomacy is not going to halt the Iranian nuclear program.
Said Lapid at their joint press conference last Thursday: “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.”
Reported Netanyahu after his brief one-on-one with Biden a few hours later: “There must be a credible offensive military option… I told him that with no credible military option, Iran won’t be stopped. [And] If Iran isn’t deterred, that military option has to be used.”
But the leader of the free world was adamant. When it comes to “ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon,” he said, “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.”
As has been the case through much of Iran’s steady march to nuclear weapons capability, America’s disinclination to radiate a readiness and a capability to use force to stop the Iranian bomb has emboldened Tehran, which now openly brags that it has the “technical capabilities” to make one.
Ironically, of course, America’s reluctance to muster a credible threat, and the consequent Iranian confidence, increase the likelihood that using force will actually be necessary. We gradually draw nearer to a stark choice: Iran with a nuclear arsenal or military intervention.
Pushed in an Israeli TV interview on the eve of his visit, Biden said he would use force “as a last resort” to stop Iran’s nuclear program. As the US president would well know, that response would be shrugged off in Tehran; it was hardly calculated to impel the regime to stop its uranium enrichment, halt its missile development and abandon its nuclear weaponization efforts.
In the absence of a more credibly threatening US stance, and a more credible US capacity to act, time runs ever shorter.
Israel, the prime immediate focus of the ayatollahs’ malevolent ambition, is increasingly concluding that it must play a central role in deterring and, if necessary, acting against Iran. And thus, hours after Biden returned to the White House from his Middle East visit, Israel’s chief of staff Aviv Kohavi declared it was Israel’s “moral obligation” to prepare a military response against Iran’s nuclear program, and said advancing that military option was at “the center” of the IDF’s preparations.
For the Saudis, meanwhile, this is a period to calculate and recalculate their interests, and to calibrate their overt alliances, as we have all been seeing in the last few days. It is also, presumably, a period to deepen their covert alliances.
David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel.
Building on Biden’s Israel Commitments Before It’s Too Late
During President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel last week, he and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a landmark declaration that contains several important U.S. commitments, including on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and on combatting efforts to boycott or delegitimize Israel. The declaration is a snapshot of a high point in U.S.-Israel relations. It can also be used as a powerful springboard for future progress.
The document’s long-term impact will depend on whether Congressional and other supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship encourage and assist the Biden administration to reiterate, robustly implement, and, in one case, strengthen the declaration’s commitments.
The document, formally known as The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, is not legally binding. But political commitments can carry considerable weight. Members of Congress can demand, both in hearings and other contexts, that the administration live up to its commitments.
In addition, the more Biden’s political commitments in the declaration are highlighted and reiterated, the stronger a message they will send to European, Arab, and other allied and adversary governments that are calibrating their policies on the same issues.
Perhaps most importantly, a president’s political commitments in a document such as the declaration can be spotlighted as guidance to the president’s aides, across the administration, as they handle topics referenced by the document.
Iran’s nuclear program, an existential threat to Israel, is the most important issue addressed by the declaration. In it, Biden makes a “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” and declares that the United States “is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
This use of a traditional formula for implicitly threatening military action is important. It is reportedly more forward-leaning than anything Biden has said previously as president. But it is still almost certainly insufficient to deter Iran, even when combined with Biden’s presumably ad-libbed response last week to an interview question about his willingness to use force to stop Iran’s program (Biden replied simply: “If that was the last resort, yes.”)
Iran will roll back its nuclear program only if convinced that it is futile to seek a nuclear bomb because the U.S. military will ultimately prevent Tehran from succeeding. Iran’s nuclear program is reportedly now so advanced that it needs less than a month to produce sufficient highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Yet, in the declaration, Biden was less direct about a military option for rolling back Iran’s program than was President Barack Obama in 2012, when Iran still reportedly needed about four months to achieve such a nuclear breakout.
Obama in 2012 formally and explicitly referenced a military option: “I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say,” he said. “That includes … a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.” “Iran’s leaders should understand,” Obama continued, “…I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon … [and] I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Even then US President Barack Obama repeatedly stressed – in 2012, 2013 and 2015 – that force was an option to halt Iran’s illegal nuclear efforts if diplomacy failed. The author urges Biden to speak as directly today. (Photo: Frederic Legrand – COMEO, Shutterstock).
The relationship between an explicit U.S. military option and successfully halting Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically was elaborated in a December 2021 joint statement by seven distinguished experts including former Obama defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta and former Obama CIA director David Petraeus. The statement declared that “[w]ithout convincing Iran it will suffer severe consequences if it stays on its current path, there is little reason to hope for the success of diplomacy.” “…[S]uch consequences,” said the statement, “cannot be limited to political isolation, condemnatory resolutions in international fora and additional economic sanctions, … [which] are not sufficient at this stage to convince Iran’s leaders that the price they will pay requires them to alter their course.”
“…[F]or the sake of our diplomatic effort to resolve this crisis,” said the December 2021 statement, “we believe it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.” The statement called on the Biden administration to not only start using words “that are more pointed and direct than ‘all options are on the table’” but also undertake military exercises, pre-positioning, and other “steps that lead Iran to believe that persisting in its current behavior and rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will put to risk its entire nuclear infrastructure.”
Yet eight months later, with Iran significantly closer to nuclear breakout, the Biden administration is employing language only slightly more pointed than “all options are on the table.” If Iran’s leadership is to be persuaded to halt its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal, Biden and his top aides will quickly need to—with both word and deed—turn the declaration’s implicit threat into an explicit one.
On other issues, the Joint Declaration is more explicit. Officials across the federal government will be guided by Biden’s various specific commitments on U.S. security assistance to Israel and on pursuing joint cooperation in developing cutting-edge defense and civilian technologies.
In addition, U.S. diplomats will be guided by the declaration’s unequivocal endorsement of, and commitment to expand, the Abraham Accords.
Finally, the declaration contains a robust U.S. commitment to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and all other “efforts to boycott or de-legitimize Israel, to deny its right to self-defense, or to unfairly single it out in any forum, including at the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.”
Israel is facing dangerous efforts to delegitimize it not only at the UN and the International Criminal Court but also by some large non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and some members of Congress from the president’s own party. The declaration is an important signal to all of Biden’s welcome steadfastness on this issue.
For as long as Joe Biden is president, members of Congress and others will be encouraging and assisting officials across his administration to robustly implement the broad range of important commitments contained in last week’s declaration.
But with Iran’s nuclear weapons program rapidly approaching a point of no return, it is essential to change its leadership’s calculus now. Congress must quickly urge Biden and his team to build upon the declaration by articulating and demonstrating a more explicit U.S. military threat that Iran rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will result in severe consequences, including the destruction of Tehran’s current nuclear infrastructure, rather than in Tehran gaining a nuclear weapon.
Orde Kittrie, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and law professor at Arizona State University, is a former U.S. State Department attorney.