US President Biden in Israel
Jul 15, 2022 | AIJAC staff
US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week is again on the top of the agenda in this Update. While in an op-ed in the Washington Post ahead of the trip, Biden placed an emphasis on the Saudi component of the tour, the President’s time in Israel was anything but routine, both in style in substance. From his nostalgic and emotive landmark address upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, where Biden proudly reaffirmed his long-held conviction that “you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” to his promotion of increased regional normalisation and defence relationships with Israel, and his warning that force would be used “as a last resort” to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, this was truly a meaningful Presidential tour with effects that will be felt well into the future. While Biden is set to conclude the tour tomorrow, the media is already thick with commentary, analysis and guidance for US policy moving forward that will be of great interest to our readers.
First up is Richard Goldberg from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who writes in Mosaic Magazine that President Biden’s Middle East trip has the potential to be a turning point for the Administration and make course corrections to address foreign policy mistakes that have plagued the first 18 months of Biden’s term. “The biggest problem is the overarching one,” Goldberg writes: “The failure to realize that America’s actions in one part of the globe have consequences in another.” From the haphazard US withdrawal from Afghanistan, missteps on Saudi Arabia and Yemen, China, Russia and Ukraine, Goldberg says there has been a lack of awareness from the Biden Administration about the way a policy choice in one part of the world can negatively impact US interests elsewhere. Goldberg writes that while Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia is taking a step in the right direction, the Administration’s partisan refusal to stop chasing an Iranian nuclear deal remains a major weakness that clouds the future. For more of Goldberg’s expert commentary, CLICK HERE.
Our second piece of interest is by The Washington Institute’s David Makovsky, who writes that the issue of regional security cooperation that is an integral part of Biden’s trip is not a singular concept that all countries in the region necessarily agree on – particularly when it comes to how to relate to Iran – but he adds that doesn’t mean they are at complete loggerheads with each other, or that they don’t have other common interests with the US and Israel. This, he says, “is a reminder that it is more than just Iran that is bringing Arab governments closer to Israel. Rather it is also because the Gulf states see oil as becoming less important and they think that Israel can help them digitize and diversify their economies in a post-oil age.” Moreover, he says, the Biden Administration is eager to encourage a culture of cooperation between the Arab states and Israel which it hopes will preserve and further American interests without requiring direct US involvement or intervention. For more of Makovsky’s insights, CLICK HERE.
Finally, veteran senior US official and foreign policy analyst Elliott Abrams writes about why the Jerusalem Declaration signed by President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on the last day of the President’s visit to Israel should not be dismissed entirely as some kind of non-binding rhetorical souvenir of the occasion. Abrams says the Jerusalem Declaration actually matters, because it represents a strengthening of Biden’s position vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear threat, gives full-throated support for expanding the Abraham Accords that were forged under the Trump Administration, and provides a much needed shot in the arm for Israel’s traditional supporters within the Democratic party in an era when the party’s progressive fringe is tirelessly working to drive a wedge between the US and Israel. To read more of Abrams’ observations and commentary on the Jerusalem Declaration, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A full transcript of the ceremonial speeches accompanying President Biden’s arrival in Israel, including the remarks by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
- President Biden’s 13-minute interview to journalist Yonit Levi of Israel’s Channel 12 – taped just ahead of his visit – the highlights of which were reported at the Times of Israel while the full video and transcript can be viewed on the Channel 12 website.
- A Jerusalem Post editorial analyses the stronger and weaker points of Biden’s Jerusalem Declaration.
- Challenging the arguments made by many that Biden’s Iran policy is weak and dangerous, at the Times of Israel, David K. Rees defends it, characterising it as misunderstood.
- At the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), Former US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Ambassador Eric Edelman and Former Deputy Commander of United States European Command General Charles Wald, USAF (ret.) have published a policy paper to coincide with President Biden’s Middle East visit, offering their advice for the future.
- Ha’aretz analyst Anshel Pfeffer sheds light on the high-tech security cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabiathat has already been providing defense against missile and drone attacks in the Persian Gulf against Iran and its proxies.
- Khaled Abu Toameh explains why Arab states are so fed up with the Palestinians that they are drastically reducing their funding of the Palestinian Authority.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Oved Lobel writes that Iran’s material support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must have consequences.
Can Biden Seize the Moment in the Middle East?
Mosaic Magazine, July 14, 2022
Yesterday, President Biden landed in Israel, inaugurating his visit to the Middle East, with another stop planned in Saudi Arabia. This trip holds the promise to be a pivotal moment of Biden’s presidency, and quite likely his most important trip abroad. But despite its significance, and the fact that it has been several weeks in the planning, presidential engagement in the Middle East is not the product of some signature foreign-policy initiative or a chance to roll out a long-awaited Biden Doctrine. It is, to the contrary, the result of a haphazard approach to national security that has crashed upon the shoals of reality. Biden’s trip is an effort to begin again, a second sailing in his administration’s life-vessel that the crew now hopes can get America back on course.
After nearly eighteen months in office, the Biden administration is slowly re-learning an important lesson: grand strategy matters. Within the Pentagon, State Department, and even the National Security Council, offices focused on specific countries or regions compete with each other for resources and polity prioritization, fighting turf wars while experts on particular countries spend lifetimes focused on one piece of a global puzzle.
Combined with the daily pressures of congressional debates and the need to keep a partisan base happy, these structural factors can easily lead a president to conduct not one foreign policy, but a series of disconnected initiatives that function at cross purposes. One can easily point to specific blunders, often the product of partisan thinking, that have brought the Biden White House to its current predicament. Nor should one overlook the deeply held preconceptions of a man who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate and another eight as vice-president. But the biggest problem is the overarching one: the failure to realize that America’s actions in one part of the globe have consequences in another.
Biden came to office last year with his mind made up: America needed to leave Afghanistan, return to the nuclear deal with Iran, withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran-backed terrorists in Yemen, and turn the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) into a pariah. These were all campaign promises that were popular with the Democratic party’s base. But, although they tended to appeal to one side of the American ideological spectrum, they do not cohere in a strategy, and each of these actions were undertaken without thought as to how they might one day converge. Before looking at the current predicament, it’s worth examining what this policy pastiche meant for the Middle East.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden and his top advisors made clear that a rebalancing of traditional alliances in the Middle East, consistent with the Obama administration’s approach, would be coming. A growing chorus in the press and in Congress had long cast Riyadh as a villain for its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, blaming the kingdom for starvation and civilian casualties while ignoring Tehran’s provision of military training, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the Houthis—and the threat this posed not just to the Saudis and Emiratis, but to the global economy and to U.S. interests.
The Democratic party’s current enthusiasm for embracing Iran, and its hostility toward Saudi Arabia, is partly a result of the knee-jerk rejection of anything and everything President Donald Trump did while in office—in this case, ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy legacy, and warmly embracing Saudi Arabia and its new crown prince. Add to this the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—a brutal act raising serious questions about values and judgment—which was kerosene poured on the anti-Saudi fire.
Even before formally taking office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised a comprehensive re-evaluation of ties with Riyadh. And then came the punches. First, the State Department announced it would remove the Houthis from the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations—relieving strategic and economic pressure on an increasingly lethal force trained and armed by Iran. The administration claimed the move was necessary to allow for transfers of humanitarian goods to the Yemeni people—but as sanctions experts can attest, the Treasury Department had all the authorities it needed to address such concerns while keeping pressure on the Houthis. The result? Not the promised end to the war in Yemen, but a steady increase in missile and UAV attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And to add insult to injury, Biden ordered the removal of U.S. missile-defense systems from Saudi Arabia, leaving the kingdom even more vulnerable to Houthi attacks.
Next came follow-through on Biden’s campaign promise to make MBS a pariah. The president ordered his top intelligence officials to release a declassified memo rehashing the Khashoggi murder and holding MBS ultimately responsible. The document broke no new ground from previous reports and statements—serving only as a political device to stigmatize the crown prince and make it clear that Biden would keep him at arm’s length.
And finally, there was Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran who has spent the last eighteen months offering concession after concession to Tehran in the hope of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal—much in line with his two-decade record of pushing Washington to appease the Middle East’s most vicious tyrants and terrorists. Last year, Malley proposed lifting U.S. terrorism sanctions targeting the chief financiers of Iran’s elite paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and even entertained the ayatollahs’ request to remove the IRGC from the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations. For Riyadh, facing never-ending threats from Iranian missiles and drones, a U.S. offer effectively to subsidize IRGC attacks on a close ally was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
But why should any White House care what MBS thinks? After all, in a world where America had emerged in the last decade as a net exporter of oil, the foundation of the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship—oil for security—no longer seems all that relevant. The Saudis need Washington more than Washington needed the Saudis, went the conventional wisdom on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The United States needs to get out of the Middle East; the action is in the Pacific now, where all of America’s focus should be on China.
At the time, few pundits or politicians connected America’s evolving policies toward Iran and Saudi Arabia to Biden’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Energy analysts were clueless to the potential impact of an American president signaling to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping his unwillingness to use military force to save a U.S. ally under threat of imminent collapse.
Those who did warn that abandoning Afghanistan would encourage Iran to race forward with its nuclear program, Russia to threaten its neighbors, and China to attack Taiwan, were jeered by the far left and the isolationist right as defenders of “endless wars.” Yet two of those three predictions have already come true, while Beijing in recent weeks has escalated its harassment of Australian and Canadian aircraft patrolling international airspace.
Vladimir Putin, in particular, paid close attention to the American withdrawal and calculated that an overwhelming commitment of force against a non-NATO country would face no resistance from the White House. Besides, Russian military plans and U.S. intelligence predicted the fall of Kyiv within days of an invasion, with Biden repeatedly making clear that he had no interest in risking World War III by confronting the Kremlin.
Neither Putin nor Biden expected Ukrainian forces to stave off the Russian advance. They didn’t expect the comedian-turned-president of Ukraine to shame the world into action via social media. And they didn’t expect to end up in a protracted military, economic, and political proxy war that would combine with other inflationary trends to send energy and food prices to record highs. But these surprises don’t absolve the White House of the severe policy malpractice of needlessly antagonizing Saudi Arabia, a country the United States has periodically relied upon to stabilize the world oil market in such times of crisis.
When President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman al-Saud—MBS’s grandfather—aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, the two sketched out an oil-for-security relationship that could prove invaluable to both parties. If that arrangement had held in 2022, Riyadh would expect a U.S. president to impose maximum pressure on a radical regime that threatens it with daily terrorist attacks, not to mention equal pressure on that regime’s terrorist proxies and robust military support to defend the kingdom from attacks. And the White House would expect a Saudi king to swing his country’s oil production to record highs and draw upon his hidden storage capacity around the world to offset the upward pressure on prices caused by a war in Ukraine and sanctions targeting Russian energy.
But oil-for-security in its original form may now be dead. After empowering Houthi terror attacks against the kingdom, downgrading missile-defense commitments, entertaining the removal of the IRGC from the U.S. terror list, and pushing to make the crown prince politically radioactive, President Biden was shocked to hear King Salman rebuff a direct request to help stabilize an oil market spinning out of control.
Then reality set in. Independent areas of policymaking, each conducted in isolation—appeasement of Iran, surrender in Afghanistan, and feebleness in defense of Ukraine—turned out to be part of one highly unstable structure, whose collapse brought a disaster that Americans now pay for every day at the gas pump.
To his credit, President Biden did not respond punitively to Saudi Arabia’s refusal to help tame oil prices, despite calls to do just that from members of his own party. Instead, he tasked his administration with finding ways to patch things up. Biden may very well have made a trip to the Middle East at some point in his first term had the United States not faced an oil crisis. But it wouldn’t have been this summer, and it wouldn’t have included a stop in Saudi Arabia.
For the last few weeks, a series of reports emerged demonstrating an intensified effort to bring the House of Saud closer to the United States. Biden is now expected to give MBS what he wants most: a photo-op with the leader of the free world. The president’s visit alone gives a boost to Saudi efforts to attract foreign investment in the crown prince’s attempt to build Neom, a “smart city” on the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command convened a secret meeting of Middle Eastern generals—including Saudi and Israeli ones—to discuss a U.S.-sponsored integrated air-defense plan to counter Iranian missile and UAV attacks while simultaneously furthering Arab-Israeli normalization. American diplomats intensified their engagement in finalizing a four-year-old agreement for Egypt to hand over control of two small islands in the Strait of Tiran to Saudi Arabia—a move of strategic importance for the Saudis that, according to the terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords, requires sign-off from Israel. That is, conclusion of the agreement will establish de-facto relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
On Iran, too, the White House began to take a tougher line. Facing overwhelming bipartisan opposition to any nuclear deal that rolled back terrorism sanctions on the IRGC, Biden rejected Iran’s request to remove the group from the official U.S. terror list. In early June, the Biden administration for the first time used a Trump-era executive order to impose sanctions on an illicit Iranian petrochemical trading network—the first full-on attack on Iran’s economy since Biden took office. In Vienna, after allowing Iran to ratchet up its enrichment of uranium and block a UN investigation into undeclared nuclear activities for months, Biden supported the censure of Iran at the quarterly board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Looking at the state of play from Jerusalem or Riyadh, Biden was finally making all the right moves ahead of his visit.
Then came an unexpected twist. After a three-month hiatus in nuclear negotiations, with pundits prematurely reporting the demise of the 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief tweeted a photo of himself eating dinner with Biden’s Iran envoy in Europe ahead of a planned visit to Tehran. Two days later came the announcement: talks with Iran were “unstuck” and indirect negotiations between the United States and the Islamic Republic would resume immediately—this time in Doha, Qatar. The choice of venue likely set off alarm bells in the Middle East, since Qatar has grown closer to Iran over the last few years while lending support to the Muslim Brotherhood and pummeling both Israel and Saudi Arabia through its state-funded Al Jazeera broadcasts.
The decision to restart talks raises other questions about Biden’s intentions. Why is the United States investing in a regional defense architecture to counter Iran while simultaneously offering to lift U.S. terrorism and missile sanctions on that same regime? Why press Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel while undermining such a move by handing Tehran more influence in the region?
In a Washington Post op-ed previewing his trip, Biden signaled that his failed Iran strategy hadn’t shifted one bit. “My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do,” he wrote. What Jerusalem and Riyadh originally perceived as a shift in strategy was really just a shift in tactics. The objective remains the same: pumping the region’s most dangerous regime with billions more dollars that will fund terrorist attacks against Israel and the Gulf states. It’s hard to believe that either the Jewish state or the Saudi one will read this column as anything but a signal that the White House has not, in fact, undergone a change of heart.
To build the sort of global alliance necessary to contain Russia—let alone China—America needs to demonstrate that a new strategy is on the horizon. To do that, it must first break with its compartmentalized thinking. As the high price of gas, and the concomitant domestic discontent, make clear, an anti-Putin strategy involves more than cajoling European allies into sanctioning Russia and sending weapons to Ukraine. It also involves being able to call on countries like Saudi Arabia for help. Likewise, a strategy aimed at confronting China, a far more formidable enemy than Russia, must look beyond East Asia. After all, Beijing has been assiduously building its influence in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere for many years, and doesn’t see competition with the U.S. as limited to the Pacific Rim.
As far as the president’s Middle East tour is concerned, this means that the White House will have to answer a fundamental question: is Saudi Arabia a close U.S. ally, worthy of the effort it will take to keep in America’s orbit instead of letting slip into Russia’s or China’s? If the answer is yes—as it should be—Biden’s policy choices should reflect that. At present, Washington real message appears to be that it’s willing to make a lot of friendly gestures toward Riyadh, but not readjust its core strategy.
The great unknown, of course, is the extent to which public statements and signaling to the president’s political base are disconnected from the private communications between leaders. We may get a sense of that in the days that follow the president’s travel from media leaks in Jerusalem and regime-controlled press reports in the Gulf.
The Biden White House has undoubtedly learned painful lessons from implementing a national-security strategy that pays no attention to the big picture. The glaring exception seems to be Iran policy, where the president appears unable to shake off a partisan commitment to pursuing a nuclear deal that runs counter to all other foreign-policy priorities. And that may be why, instead of his greatest turnaround, history may remember this trip as Biden’s greatest missed opportunity.
From Arabs and Israelis, Biden Hears Very Different “New” Middle Easts
America’s Arab allies need to hear that the US is not leaving the Middle East (Image: US Dept. of Defense)
Ha’aretz, July 13, 2022
There is no doubt that Arabs and Israel are hoping for very different things from President Biden’s trip to the Mideast. Israel’s wishes for the Biden visit are straightforward. It wants Biden’s life-long commitment to Israel put on display, to serve as a reminder to countries in the region and to doubters in the U.S. not to question the vibrancy of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Of course, Israel would like to see the U.S. reassess the scope of the Iran nuclear negotiations amid the impasse in those talks, yet having pressed the point repeatedly over the last year and half, it is hard to believe the effort will succeed. In the most immediate sense, Israel is looking to Biden to take first steps on the way to normalization with Riyadh.
Senior Arab officials suggest they want something very basic. They want to know the U.S. is not leaving the Mideast and that the region remains vital to American national security. Every day they hear U.S. politicians talking about “energy independence,” and they interpret it to mean the Mideast is not a tier one issue anymore for Washington. The U.S. is more focused on the three C’s—China, Covid and Climate, plus now Ukraine.
Pentagon officials are emphatic in telling Arab officials that U.S. troop levels in the Mideast have been consistent for many years and that the U.S. is not deprioritizing the region. But Arab officials do not believe them. Will the Arab states believe it when the U.S. president publicly declares America’s commitment to the Mideast during his trip, as is expected? Favorable Arab reaction is not assured.
Israel sees Biden’s public talk of Israel’s “regional integration” as a cause that will keep the U.S. focused on the region, thereby pushing back on this Arab narrative that the U.S. is losing interest in the Mideast. This is in parallel to the deep desire of Israel to draw closer to Saudi Arabia, thereby changing the Middle East equation against the destabilizing force of Iran and its proxies.
For Israel, both its regional and bilateral interests mutually reinforce the establishment of a broad de facto—if not de jure—alliance against Iran in the region. When Israeli officials say they want the U.S. to lead in forming a new regional architecture, at the top of this list—of course, not exclusively—they mean security cooperation.
Specifically, Israel’s inclusion in CENTCOM along with Arabs (and Pakistanis) provides an opportunity to talk about something that may have been seen as fantasy in the past: Israelis and Arabs starting to share common intelligence, cyber capabilities and radar of incoming rocket and drone attacks launched by Iran and its proxies.
Such cooperation led by CENTCOM is important and should send a suitably pointed message of regional resolve to Tehran. Clearly, it is true that almost all of the U.S.’ allies in the region want a strong U.S. willing to exact a price from Iran for its destabilizing efforts.
However, there is loose talk in Israel calling for a Mideast NATO. Some in the Knesset think this should be declared right now to stop Iran. These calls are detached from regional sensitivities and what can be achieved now thanks to CENTCOM. Moreover, U.S. officials are privately doubting that, on this trip, Biden will explicitly and very publicly tout a common “air defense” against rockets and drones as has been announced by Israeli officials.
Yes, Israel in CENTCOM creates new realities for Arabs and Israelis sharing vital information that includes air defense. However, U.S. officials say some Arab states are queasy about the optics of anything that could be seen by Iran as engaging in an alliance dedicated to confront it. Those states feel uniquely vulnerable given their close proximity to Iran.
During a visit to Abu Dhabi, Emirati officials told me it is easier for Israel to talk about these things given its military strength and distance. But any Iranian-Israeli confrontation could leave them far more vulnerable if they are viewed as closely allied to Israel, given that they are on Iran’s doorstep.
The UAE does not want to be viewed as the tip of the Israeli spear. It is no coincidence that while Defense Minister Benny Gantz has had other public visits to Abraham Accords countries like Morocco and Bahrain, he has not, at least not publicly, visited the Emirates.
It is safe to assume that Arabs and Israelis gain from the new CENTCOM arrangement, but there are limits to any multilateral format. It is easier for some of the Gulf states to cooperate bilaterally with Israel rather than join a formalized multilateral structure, given the depths of distrust between Gulf Arab states themselves.
Anything shared too publicly will become known to and potentially weaponized by their rivals. Some worry the UAE will remain suspicious of its rival Qatar, for example, believing Doha could share information with destabilizing states, even Iran. Israeli security officials say the bilateral sharing will be more the norm, and some of what has been touted as multilateral harmony will not advance as dramatically.
Bilateral security ties have benefits. When Abu Dhabi was attacked by Houthi rockets, Israel quietly provided military assistance. It is results and not process that counts.
So when both Arabs and Israelis talk about the need for regional architecture, it is possible that they are talking about different things. Israel’s focus on Iran means more focus on security multilateralism, while the Arab states could be focused on more economic mechanisms, like free trade, that could bring American and other investors.
Actually, the Negev Summit that new Prime Minister Yair Lapid hosted in the spring, which was attended by Arab foreign ministers, fits this bill very well as it focused largely on civilian issues such as health, energy, education, water and food security. The latter is an issue that is bound to be a central focus of Biden’s trip in light of the shortages of wheat in the Arab world due to the war in the Ukraine. New normalizers are creating political space for old normalizers, as Abu Dhabi has backed Jordan’s plans for a massive solar farm that will provide electricity to its neighbors as Israel provides desalinated water.
All this is a reminder that it is more than just Iran that is bringing Arab governments closer to Israel. Rather it is also because the Gulf states see oil as becoming less important and they think that Israel can help them digitize and diversify their economies in a post-oil age.
The success of the U.S. when dealing with big enemies, like it did during the Cold War, was that it understood that security relationships with Europe could not stand alone and needed to be complemented by a myriad of trade and economic institutions. This should be a lesson for Israel. Whatever reticence the Arab governments feel about publicly declaring their fealty to region-wide security relationships with Israel, they are more open to the economic benefits they can accrue from closer ties with Jerusalem. This is a great opportunity.
It is a sign of the times that much of the work for these links comes from the Mideast itself; it is not a purely “Made in America” approach. The U.S. can encourage, but knows it does not have to dictate. This type of burden-sharing within the Mideast is something that gives hope it will be sustainable over time since it is rooted in Arab and Israeli self-interest.
This fact is one of the best hopes that Biden’s trip is not a one-time experience, but may lead him to believe that something is actually moving in the Mideast. This could only be helpful for a Biden administration weighing the scope of its future commitment to the Mideast.
Why Biden’s Jerusalem Declaration Matters
(Biden and Lapid sign-off on a new joint declaration Image: Flickr)
National Review, July 14, 2022
During his visit to Israel, President Biden issued what he and Israel’s prime minister Yair Lapid are calling the “Jerusalem Declaration.” Is it of any consequence?
Formally called the “Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration,” a phrase no one will remember or repeat, the declaration can be sloughed off as mere rhetoric. It is, after all, binding on neither party and can be forgotten as soon as Prime Minister Lapid or Joe Biden leaves office. In Lapid’s case, that could be just a few months away. Barack Obama contemptuously dismissed the pledges made in a letter by President George W. Bush in 2004 to then–prime minister Ariel Sharon — even after large majorities in both houses of Congress had affirmed those pledges. This reveals what words are sometimes worth — even a president’s words.
And much of what is in this declaration is boilerplate, repeated time after time in joint statements by the United States and Israel. We have unbreakable bonds, shared values, etc., and the United States is committed to Israel’s security, its “qualitative military edge” over all enemies, and its ability to “defend itself by itself.” Nothing new here. It isn’t even novel for a president to say Iran must not get a nuclear weapon: The last five presidents have said that.
Yet this declaration does matter.
First, as president, Joe Biden had only once, offhandedly, said Iran would not be permitted to get a nuclear weapon “on my watch.” This was a far cry from more specific commitments made by his predecessors, including Barack Obama in 2012. Biden has only now, in the declaration, said something specific and earnest:
The United States stresses that integral to this pledge [to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat or combination of threats] 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.
Though not using the words “force” or “military force” (whose use would have made this declaration stronger), Biden has taken a significant step forward. Previously, the administration had spoken of using only diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, so “all elements of national power” is a more substantial threat.
And in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, when Biden was asked whether he would use force to stop Iran from getting nukes, he replied, “If that was the last resort, yes.”
The dissonance between Biden’s new, more rigid line and his endless, fruitless nuclear negotiations with Iran is evident; equally evident are the likely future gaps between the United States and Israel about when Iranian nuclear advances mean the time for that “last resort” has actually been reached. Nevertheless, traveling to Israel has forced Joe Biden to confront the Iranian nuclear weapons issue as he had never done before.
Biden also fully embraces in this declaration the “Abraham Accords” — an agreement between Israel and various Arab states negotiated by the Trump administration. Initially, Biden was cool to this Trump achievement. But in this declaration, he is entirely committed: The Accords “are important to the future of the Middle East region and to the cause of regional security, prosperity, and peace.”
Second, Biden’s repetition of pledges to Israel that previous presidents have made is consequential because it is 2022, and the Democratic Party is drifting into an anti-Israel position. The most recent Pew poll finds that while Republicans view Israel more favorably than they view Palestinians by a two-to-one margin, Democrats view Palestinians slightly more favorably — and this is just one in a series of polls going back years and tracing the evolution of Democrats away from support for Israel. There is now a group of Democrats in the House of Representatives whose hostility to Israel is displayed frequently in votes and speeches.
In that context, Biden’s adherence to the “old religion,” the support for Israel that used to characterize Democrats when he was a younger man, is a valuable antidote to recent trends. From the viewpoint of Israel and its supporters, there is some utility in having a Democratic president who is 79 years old and knew Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Still, how powerful that antidote proves is simply unknowable — as is Biden’s ability to affect the views of Democratic voters, especially younger ones, about U.S.–Israeli relations.
Biden will be in office next year when Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary. He can proudly tell the story of how his Democrat predecessor, Harry Truman, recognized the infant state within minutes of its declaration of independence.
Whether this “Jerusalem Declaration” will eventually be seen as just one in a series of such collegial U.S.–Israel statements or as an anachronism reflecting an aged president who no longer represented the views of his party will be clear only long after Biden has passed from the scene.