The three-day visit of US President Joe Biden on 14-16 July 2022 to the two most important countries in West Asia (Israel and Saudi Arabia) could not have happened at a more critical moment. Today the US is not only in the middle of revisiting its past policy in the region but is re-crafting its future engagement in the backdrop of the emerging post-Abraham Accord Arab polity, the Afghan debacle, escalating Iran-Israel tensions and the apparent failure of the Iran nuclear deal talks. President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was already marred by a new low in Saudi-US bilateral relationship after the Biden administration revoked the official designation of pro-Iran Houthis as a terrorist outfit, removed US air defense batteries from Saudi Arabia and reentered into negotiations with Iran on its Nuclear Program.[i] During his electoral campaign, Biden had said that he would make the Saudi regime pay the price for the killing of Saudi-born Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and would treat it as Pariah.[ii] Even mutual relationship between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), de facto ruler of the kingdom, became strained after the latter snubbed the former and did not take a phone call in March 2022.
On his three-day visit, President Biden first landed in Israel and met acting Prime Minister (PM) Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog, and other senior leaders including Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. Perhaps to draw a distinction from his predecessor Donald Trump who was openly pro-Israel, President Biden chose to travel to the town of Bethlehem to meet the octogenarian Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. Subsequently, he reached Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King and Crown Prince as well as other Gulf leaders in Jeddah.
Jerusalem Declaration: What does it mean for Palestine and Israel?
Immediately after landing at the Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, President Biden remarked that, “One need not be a Jew to be a Zionist”[iii] and this very statement set the tone and objective of his visit to Israel. President Biden is known to be an old friend of Israel because as a young senator in 1973, he had once said, if there was no Israel, the US would have to create it to protect its interest.[iv]
This was his first visit to Israel since he assumed office in January 2021 and on reaching there, he first visited the Holocaust Victim Museum and met two holocaust survivors as well. In his meeting with PM Yair Lapid, Biden said that the relationship between Israel and the US is very deep. Welcoming President Biden, President of Israel, Isaac Herzog stated that Israel considers Biden as Brother Joseph, son of Jacob.[v] PM Lapid on his part said that Biden is one of the best friends Israel ever had.[vi] Both sides signed the ‘Jerusalem Declaration of Strategic Partnership’[vii] reaffirming their unshakable bilateral bonds and its expanding military and political support for Israel. The document also stated that both sides would continue to work to integrate Israel in the larger regional political order and the statement further underscored US commitment not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.[viii] The Jerusalem Declaration also referred to Palestine where it underlined that both the US and Israel are committed to discuss the challenges and opportunities in Israel-Palestine relations.[ix] The Declaration also promised to offer annual aid worth US $ 3 billion to the state of Israel[x] and pledged to extend all economic and technological assistance to Israel in the development of its laser air defense system.[xi] The document did not restrict itself to conventional rhetoric on democracy and freedoms but it also used a Hebrew term ‘Tikkun Olam’ (saving the world) as a joint US-Israel mission.[xii]
Overall, the document did not reflect any major changes in the nature of the past relationship but it created an impression of being extra-ordinary development by using abundance of superlatives when it came to defining their mutual relationship. Calling the document a “Jerusalem” declaration itself seems to be an expression of transformation taking place within the US administration as far as the US conventional view on the legal status of the Jerusalem is concerned.[xiii] There was no mention of occupation, settlement, status of Jerusalem, Gaza siege or refugee crisis, which is another indication of the diminishing significance of Palestinian crisis for the US administration. Many had expected that President Biden would raise the issue of the killing of Al Jazeera journalist, Abu Akleh but there was no mention of it. Though the document was a comprehensive reflection of US-Israel historical bonds, there was visible lack of consensus between the two on the Iran nuclear program and the issue of Palestine.
While Israeli PM said that only thing that can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the use of force[xiv] but Biden told the media persons that diplomacy is the best way to resolve the issue.[xv] Biden also failed to win the hearts of the Israeli leadership like his predecessor because he has very often talked of reviving the JCPOA. But Biden had no hesitation in expressing the fact that he might use force against Iran as a last resort.[xvi] In a TV interview, he said that his administration would continue to put IRGC on the terror list even if it leads to the end of the nuclear deal.[xvii]
Likewise, both sides failed to reach any agreement on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict as PM Lapid said that, “two-state solution for him meant one democratic state with a Jewish majority”[xviii] while Biden stressed the need for resumption of negotiation between two sides stalled since 2014 and that the two-state solution for two people is the best hope and the best way to resolve the conflict.[xix]
As far as the visit of President Biden to Palestine is concerned, he failed to fulfill the aspirations of the Palestinians leadership as he, in his three-hour stay in Bethlehem and later in a very short meeting with President Abbas, reiterated conventional position by saying, ‘two-state solution is the best solution’ but offered no means to achieve it. The Palestinian leadership had expected that he, keeping his election promises, would make some announcement about reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem, shut down by his predecessor or would remove the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the list of terrorist organisation again designated by the previous administration, but there was complete silence on it. He only reaffirmed his commitment to reopen the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). Biden also visited a Palestinian hospital and announced an aid worth US$ 500 million.
One of the Palestinian professors said, “There is no political solution to the Palestinian crisis and Palestinian leadership is well aware of it and it became clearer when President Biden himself accepted that even the two-state solution is far away”.[xx]Abu Yusuf, an executive committee member of the PLO said that he did not see anything new from Biden’s visit as far as the Palestine was concerned.[xxi]
Biden meets his foe: who is the winner?
Ahead of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, many at home, including President’s Democratic Party colleagues were against this visit because of the regime’s alleged involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, rising collateral damage in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and human rights violations. Adam Schiff, a Democrat and the Chair of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives said, “Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of human rights; I would not want to do anything with him (read MBS).[xxii] Biden was under such immense pressure that he wrote an article in Washington Post explaining the objective of his visit in the following words, “My aim was to reorient-but not rupture-relations with a country that has been a strategic partner for eight decades………..My aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward.[xxiii]
With this visit to Saudi Arabia, President Biden became the first US President to fly directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel as Saudi Arabia, in a friendly gesture and perhaps hinting at an early prospect of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, allowed its air space for Israeli air services. President Biden was received at the airport by the Deputy Governor of Mecca, Ami Khalid Faisal unlike his predecessor Trump, who during his May 2017 visit was received by MBS in person and his motorcade was accompanied by a long convoy of horses, which was then described by Bruce Riedel, author of Kings and Presidents as the most exciting event in the history of US-Saudi relationship.[xxiv]
Given the past mutual animosity between Biden and MBS, speculations were rife that President Biden, to evade the embarrassment at home, might avoid open embrace and this is what happened when both leaders greeted each other only by bumping the fist in the guise of COVID -19 protocol, while Biden had a series of shake-hands during his stay in Israel. President Biden, accompanied by his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, first held a short meeting in Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah with King Salman who was accompanied by his Energy and Foreign Ministers.
In a brief joint press conference of President Biden and Crown Prince MBS, Biden snubbed the question if he still holds Saudi Arabia a pariah state and similarly MBS remained silent when he was asked if he would apologise to the family of Khashoggi for his alleged involvement in his killing.[xxv] There are some unconfirmed reports that MBS, in a meeting with Biden, retorted back by reminding President Biden about the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Abu Aqleh by Israeli police forces and plight in the Abu Ghraib jail when Biden raised the issue of Khashoggi.[xxvi]
The primary objective of President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom was to expand an anti-Russia coalition in the on-going war in Ukraine, particularly after Saudi Arabia and the UAE refused to endorse US views on the crisis, to press the GCC leaders to join the US-Israel war rhetoric against Iran and push other Arab countries to join the widening diplomatic orbit of Israel. The visit was also meant to push the Saudi leadership to enhance the oil production to hit the Russian oil market and also to compensate for the inevitable oil shortages in the western oil markets in the absence of Russian oil supply. Before his visit, there were widely circulated reports, both in the western and Arab media that Biden might also use this visit to press for the creation of Arab Air Defense System (Arab NATO). In the US Congress, a bill was already introduced in June 2022 seeking the establishment of a joint Israel-Gulf missile defense system.[xxvii] But in the Jeddah meeting nothing was heard of it. Despite Biden’s rhetoric of protecting its allies in the region, confronting Iran and promising US$ 1 billion to the Arab countries to fight the food crisis emerging out of current Ukraine crisis, he failed to receive any similar pledges from Saudi Arabia except a verbal promise from MBS about increasing the production to 13 million barrel per day for next two months which would be, of course, a political victory for President Biden.[xxviii] Similarly, contrary to what many had expected, there was no indication of an early diplomatic opening between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Foreign Minister after the end of the Jeddah GCC-US Summit very candidly stated that the opening of Saudi air space for Israeli air service in no way should be taken as a prelude to the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. While welcoming Biden, the President of Israel had said that there is a march of peace from Israel to Saudi Arabia and the holy land of Hejaz and we hope that your (read Biden) visit will succeed in advancing a dream of normalisation, peace and security.[xxix] He had also asked Biden to convey his message to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar that their hands (Israel) are stretched out for friendship.[xxx] Likewise Saudi Foreign Minister denied of any such proposal to establish Arab NATO or Gulf-Israel Defense alliance or forging military cooperation with Israel in face of the rising Iranian threat.[xxxi] One knows the commonality of Israel-GCC views on Iran nuclear issue but they cannot afford to engage Israel militarily as it would drag GCC nations directly into conflict with Iran.
Apart from meeting Saudi leaders, President Biden also participated in US-GCC Plus Summit held on July 16 in Jeddah. Along with the six GCC nations, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq were also invited to this Summit. The core objective of this Summit was to launch a new initiative for deepening the development and security cooperation between the US and GCC and other allies in the region. Biden not only addressed the collective gathering of all the leaders but held a bilateral meeting with the newly designated UAE President Zayed Al-Nahyan, President El-Sisi of Egypt and President Al-Kazimi of Iraq. Before Biden’s visit to the region, many lawmakers in the US had urged President Biden to act harshly against Iraq for having passed a legislation which criminalises the normalisation of ties with Israel but perhaps the issue was not discussed in their bilateral meeting. On Palestine, the joint statement at Jeddah Summit called for two-state solution in the light of 2002 Arab Initiative and stressed the need of stopping the Israel unilateral measures.[xxxii] In his address at the Jeddah Summit, Biden recalled the historical role of the US in the region and stressed that his country will make all endeavors to preserve this role and can leave no power vacuum to be filled by the powers like China, Russia and Iran.[xxxiii]
This statement of President Biden holds some significance when many in the recent past have been making prediction about inevitable departure of the US from the region because of changing priorities of the US both in the regional and global arena. The US concern about the growing roles of China and Russia cannot be overlooked as over the past few years, China has been able to make deep inroads in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects as the trade volume between Saudi Arabia and China alone reached US $ 65 billion in 2020 from US$ 20 billion in 2016.[xxxiv] New defence ties are emerging between Russia and countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. Further the growing geopolitical and strategic imprints of Iran in the region are also evident.
Biden’s Visit to the Region and Global Reactions
The visit of President Biden to Israel and Saudi Arabia, his meeting with the other leaders of the region and subsequent statements sparked a storm of reactions within and outside the region. One of the Arab analysts, Osama Ghazali said that statement of Biden about the power vacuum was not different from what President Eisenhower had said seven decades ago that the US would not leave a power vacuum in the region. He said that Biden should remember that the Arab world too along with the world has changed and the US is welcome to cooperate with the Arab world but without any coercion or conditions.[xxxv] The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the people of the Arab world are the real sovereign and the region cannot remain hostage to the US or be treated as one’s backyard and moreover there is no such void or vacuum. The statement also said that the US insistence on preserving its hegemony in the region was condemnable.[xxxvi]
Another stakeholder in the region, Russia said that the visit of President Biden failed to achieve any of the desired goals set before this visit. It is also worth mentioning here that on July 16 only when Biden was in Jeddah, an official Russian TV channel, Russia 24, aired a documentary featuring the old historical bonds between Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union) and Saudi Arabia. The documentary also emphasised that former was the first country to recognise latter and how it backed the unification efforts launched by its founder-King, Abdul Aziz Bin Saud.[xxxvii] The King of Jordan also seemed less enthusiastic about the creation of the Arab NATO and said that every country in the region wants to have good ties with Iran based on mutual respect of each other’s sovereignty. He also said that region can no longer afford crisis or conflict and unity is the need of the time.[xxxviii] A senior official from Jordan in an interview with an Arab Daily said that expecting any miracle from the visit in such a political mud would be a sign of insanity. On his part, Anwar Gargash, a senior advisor to the UAE President said that idea of a NATO-style alliance in the Arab world was difficult and bilateral cooperation was more effective and lasting.[xxxix] He also said, “We are open to cooperation but no such cooperation that targets any other country in the region and particularly Iran”.[xl]
Reacting to the visit of President Biden to the region, Iran, an old strategic adversary of the US, said that the US was using Iranophobia to create tension in the region. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the US again sought to create tension and conflict by appealing to the failed policy of anti-Iran rhetoric and Islamophobia.[xli] While President Biden was meeting the GCC leaders in Jeddah, Iran meanwhile announced new sanctions against sixty-one US citizens including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for supporting anti-Iran groups.
The visit of President Biden at such a critical moment can be best described as a triumph of realism over idealism and a sign of the growing dominance of realist discourse in the US foreign policy. One could have not imagined that President Biden would abandon his anti-Saudi electoral rhetoric so soon and would have an interface with MBS who was until recently a Pariah for him. The US explicit adoption of pragmatism was similarly explicit in Biden’s policy towards Israel where he showed no willingness to reverse any decision(s) made by his predecessor. Biden had announced more than once that he had no intention of reversing Trump’s decision both of shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising the city as the eternal capital of Israel. The visit of President Biden to Israel was a win-win situation for Israel as the Jerusalem Declaration promised more security and economic commitment to Israel and no major announcement on its policy towards Palestine, which itself is a major gain for Israel under a zero-sum game.
In Saudi Arabia, President Biden did not achieve his desirable objective but was able to seek commitment for enhancement in oil production from Saud Arabia. Contrary to what many had assumed before his visit, he could not mobilise the Arab leaders against Iran the way Trump had done when he visited the Kingdom in May 2017. Similarly, Saudi Arabia gave no such indication that they are in a hurry to normalise their ties with Israel and the story of Arab NATO seems to have been appeared merely for people’s consumption. Biden’s move to bury hatchet with the Saudi regime seems to be more guided by recent developments in both regional and global arena. One can conclude that after the visit of President Biden, Saudi Arabia is standing big in the regional and global political sphere, Israel has gained enormous and is further strengthened and Palestine as a cause is more subdued.
* Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, Sapru House, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i] F. Gregory Gause III, America’s New realism in the Middle East , Foreign Affairs, July 6, 2022
[ii] F. Gregory Gause III, America’s New realism in the Middle East , Foreign Affairs, July 6, 2022
[iii] Zaheer Andraws, Biden sold dream to Palestine and supports to Israel, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zlKPJj July 25, 2022
Jew is someone who believes in religion of Judaism while Zionist is one who supports global Jewish movement for creation of Jewish national state in the land of Palestine.
[iv] Zaheer Andraws, Biden sold dream to Palestine and supports to Israel, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zlKPJj July 25, 2022
[v] Biden Promises to Integrate Israel within larger Arab world, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily), July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3RY2gHn July 25, 2022
Joseph is a prominent fugue in Old Testament and known to be the head of the one of the twelve Israeli tribes spread across the region
[vi] Satif Holland, Biden describes his Israel visit like coming back to home, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3aQc9WY July 27, 2022
[vii] Jamal Zahalaqah, Biden Chickens spawned in Israel and choked up in Saudi Arabia, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily), July 20,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3B7cxe3 July 27, 2022
[viii]Jamal Zahalaqah, Biden Chickens spawned in Israel and choked up in Saudi Arabia, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily), July 20,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3B7cxe3 July 27, 2022
[ix] Rina Bassist, Biden, Lapid Sign Jerusalem Declaration, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PnKOu7 July 27, 2022
[x] Dr. Mohammad Makram Balawi, What does the Jerusalem Declaration actually mean?, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 26,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zIg5mh July 27, 2022
[xi] Visit of Biden to Israel: Between amusement and disappointment, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, ( An Arabic Daily) , July 15,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3ODB91a July 17, 2022
[xii]Dr. Mohammad Makram Balawi, What does the Jerusalem Declaration actually mean?, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 26,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zIg5mh July 27, 2022
[xiii] The State of Israel in 1980 through Basic Law proclaimed whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the US too in 2017 recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while the UN considers it as a disputed territory
[xiv] Rina Bassist, Biden, Lapid Sign Jerusalem Declaration, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PnKOu7 July 27, 2022
[xv] Rina Bassist, Biden, Lapid Sign Jerusalem Declaration, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PnKOu7 July 27, 2022
[xvi] Biden: US would forces against Iran as a last resort, Jerusalem Post, July 14, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zw4d5x July 20, 2022
[xvii] Satif Holland, Biden describes his Israel visit like coming back to home, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily) , July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3aQc9WY July 27, 2022
[xviii] Rina Bassist, Biden, Lapid Sign Jerusalem Declaration, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PnKOu7 July 27, 2022
[xix] Satif Holland, Biden describes his Israel visit like coming back to home, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily) , July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3aQc9WY July 27, 2022
[xx] Expert have no hope of resolution of Palestine crisis under Biden, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily) , July 16,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3Bpwhd9 July 20, 2022
[xxi] Satif Holland, Biden describes his Israel visit like coming back to home, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily) , July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3aQc9WY July 27, 2022
[xxii] F. Gregory Gause III, America’s New realism in the Middle East , Foreign Affairs, July 6, 2022
[xxiii] President Joe Biden, Why I am going to Saudi Arabia, Washington Post, July 9, 2022
[xxiv] Bruce Riedel, Kings and President: Saudi Arabia and United Sates since FDR, (US: Broking Institution), 2019 , P. No. 193
[xxv] Khalid Jayoosi, What forced MBS to smile gloomily, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 15,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zbPrRf July 20,2022
[xxvi] Fittali Naomkin, Russia and visit of Biden to the Middle East, Ashrqal Awasat, (An Arabic Daily), July 212022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3z8cgoT July 27, 2022
[xxvii] Abdul Haleem Fajr, Why the Arab say something else and do something else, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 18,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3vkdcVP July 22, 2022
[xxviii] Did Biden leave the Gulf states empty-handed, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 18,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PRrANu July 24,2022
[xxix] Biden Promises to Integrate Israel within larger Arab world, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily), July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3RY2gHn July 25, 2022
[xxx] Rina Bassist, Biden, Lapid Sign Jerusalem Declaration, Al-Monitor, (An English Daily) July 14,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PnKOu7 July 27, 2022
[xxxi] Saudi Foreign Minister: Opening of Saudi air space has no link with normalization of ties with Israel, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily) , July 16,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zyewHa July 20,2022
[xxxii] Abdul Haleem Fajr, Why the Arab say something else and do something else, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 18,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3vkdcVP July 22, 2022
[xxxiii] Jeddah Summit: A new reality and huge challenge, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (An Arabic Daily), July 17,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3BpIWgp July 19,2022
[xxxiv] Nadeem Qateesh, The Important tin Jeddah Summit, Ashrqal Awsat (An Arabic Daily), July 19, 20222, Accessed https://bit.ly/3Bibzfn July 24,2022
[xxxv] US will leave no vacuum in the Middle East: Biden, Rail Youm ( An Arabic Daily) , July 18,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3vjmWQc July 20, 2022
[xxxvi] Bassam Abu Sharif, Biden returns to Washington after three days in the arm of the region, Rail Youm (An Arabic Daily), July 19, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3zCpXxE July 26, 2022
[xxxvii] Fittali Naomkin, Russia and visit of Biden to the Middle East, Ashrqal Awasat, (An Arabic Daily), July 212022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3z8cgoT July 27, 2022
[xxxviii] King Abdullah of Jordan: Region needs no more crisis or conflict, Al-Arabia Al-Jadeed, (An Arabic Daily), July 24, 2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3PGjozQ July 27, 2022
[xxxix] Biden Promises to Integrate Israel within larger Arab world, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, ( An Arabic Daily) , July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3RY2gHn July 25, 2022
[xl] Biden Promises to Integrate Israel within larger Arab world, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, ( An Arabic Daily) , July 13,2022, Accessed https://bit.ly/3RY2gHn July 25, 2022