Biden’s visit to Israel and Middle East presents opportunities — and perils

Associated Press/Maya Alleruzzo
A view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat, on March 10, 2022. An Israeli rights group says Israel has approved the construction of more than 4,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank, the biggest advancement of settlement projects since the Biden administration took office.

President Biden may travel to Israel in June after consultations in Europe. Israel is both the epicenter and a lightning rod for the Middle East, and Biden’s remarks and actions will be scrutinized by all regional players. Therefore, this is an excellent opportunity to articulate an American vision for the Middle East that balances engagement and withdrawal. President Obama used his first speech in Cairo, in 2009, to create daylight between the U.S. and Israel and reach out to Iran.  

Today the Middle East is undergoing a significant realignment following America’s withdrawal from the region. Each nation is considering what to do if Iran does or doesn’t rejoin a version of the 2015 nuclear agreement. The most striking success in response to Iranian hegemonic ambitions is the Abraham Accords bringing former enemies together. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is America’s priority for the moment, but the Middle East shouldn’t be neglected — or it will come back to bite us again.  

So, why is the Middle East in flux, and what are the issues Biden may address on this visit?

Because of its failures in Ukraine, Russia is moving troops out of Syria to Ukraine, leaving behind its military bases to its ally, Iran. Before invading Ukraine, Russia was a moderating influence in the conflict between Israel and Iran in the north. Iran now likely feels more empowered to entrench itself in its Syrian vassal’s territory, along with its growing stranglehold on Lebanon. Greater Iranian involvement in Syria increases the chance for a regional war that could dwarf previous Israel-Hamas confrontations.  

The U.S. and Europe have not given up hope for a return to the Iran nuclear deal, putting America’s regional allies on edge. A strange dynamic resulted: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are paradoxically moving closer to Israel, while hedging their bets and engaging their Shiite nemesis in Iran. 

The other prominent non-Arab actor is Turkey, which is in economic turmoil and is consequently extending an olive branch to Israel. This presents a U.S. opportunity to bring its NATO ally back into the fold and encourage it to distance itself from Hamas, which reportedly plans terrorist attacks in Turkey. 

In Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, ISIS is again rearing its ugly head in the Sinai, challenging another U.S. ally. Additional American military support for Egypt should be considered.

King Abdullah of Jordan and his foreign minister have chosen to stoke incitement on the volatile Temple Mount, hoping that scapegoating Israel will deflect the people’s attention from their precarious economic position. Additional humanitarian aid in exchange for lowering the flames of incitement would be a good Middle East bargain.  

And, the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan still echoes with regional autocrats, who likely have concluded that America no longer is a reliable ally. Biden’s visit must strengthen the trust of longstanding partners before they begin the march toward nuclear weapons proliferation.

Following are suggested “Do’s and Don’ts” for the president as his foreign policy team hashes out objectives for a successful visit to the Middle East:

  • Avoid off-the-cuff remarks that could undermine any positive achievements; 
     
  • Avoid meddling in Israel’s politics;
  • Publicly commend the importance of the Abraham Accords as an outstanding achievement to advance regional stability;
  • Publicly encourage the Saudis, Omanis, Kuwaitis and Qataris to join the Abraham Accords;
  • Placate the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in exchange for opening up the taps to their fossil fuels;
  • Reach out to Turkey to encourage its outreach to Israel;
  • Avoid regurgitating the failed paradigms of ways to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  • Don’t visit East Jerusalem without an equivalent gesture to see a Jewish area of the city beyond the Green line (1949 Armistice Line);
  • Don’t reopen a U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem for Palestinians unless you receive a tangible concession from the Palestinian Authority to permanently end its incentives for terrorism;
  • Avoid using morally equivalent terms such as the “cycle of violence”; 
  • Don’t promise U.S. taxpayer money to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which are under the thumb of Iran, unless there is a way to ensure that Hezbollah cannot siphon it off; and
  • Offer support for Israel’s new relationships with its Mediterranean neighbors Cyprus, Greece and Italy, and encourage Egypt, Jordan and Israel to work together beyond security arrangements.

America has a lot on its plate, and the Middle East has fallen a few rungs lower on the ladder of U.S. priorities. With runaway inflation, an unpredictable Russian war in Ukraine, and the pending pivot toward China, Biden’s trip to the Middle East boils down to this: Be modest in your goals. Support your allies. Remind the world that America still cares about the region’s affairs and prosperity, and wants to remain a partner that helps to steer the region toward greater stability for everyone’s benefit. 

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Abraham Accords Barack Obama Iran aggression Israel Joe Biden Middle East

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