Biden’s Mideast whirlwind: Worth the trouble?
If nothing else, Joe Biden’s Middle East whirlwind was interesting because of the obsession with his seeming frailty: could the oldest US president muster the minimal stamina needed to project global leadership and enable reelection in 2024?
But there policy issues on the table as well: getting OPEC to produce more oil to account for shortfalls caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine; shoring up the anti-Iran alliance in a way that might compel Tehran to play nicer in nuclear talks; and nudging Saudi Arabia toward the Abraham Accords. Then there’s helping Prime Minister Yair Lapid in a plausibly deniable way, and keeping the Palestinians somehow quiet for the moment.
Here’s a scorecard on what was achieved and where things now stand.
OIL PRODUCTION AND INFLATION
Biden’s main problem right now is the looming US election, which like Israel’s will be in early November. It creates a brotherhood of the besieged with Lapid, as both of them represent political camps that feel democracy and decency are themselves on the line.
Biden isn’t facing reelection himself, but he might as well be: if he loses control of both the Senate and the House, his agenda is shot (and he could conceivably be impeached). The Republicans are in full obstructionist mode; they will oppose legislation saying two plus two is four (a little like Likud, which just torpedoed legislation aiding the Tel Aviv metro construction and US visa waivers).
Biden received an unintentional but critical assist from the Supreme Court, which in overturning the ban on abortion bans has enraged a solid majority of the electorate and made the Democrats competitive again. But rampaging inflation (an annual 9.1% posted last week) is neutralizing that, so he needed a Saudi concession on oil production. Lowering energy prices would be a necessary but not sufficient condition for taming inflation, and Saudi Arabia alone cannot make up the shortfall roiling world markets. But getting the kingdom to do its part (or at least appear to) would certainly be politically opportune.
The result so far: Saudi Arabia did say it would raise its oil production capacity to 13 million barrels per day — but by 2027 (this is almost 50% above current production, but a far more modest increase on current capacity). There was also the nine-leader Jeddah summit itself, and reiterated backing for the important and UN-brokered truce in Yemen. Oil prices rose slightly on this rather underwhelming news.
That would make the price Biden had to pay, a photographed fist-bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, quite high. A fist-bump may not seem like much, but it amounted to a truckload of humble pie for Biden, who had called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” after US intelligence fingered MBS himself as responsible for the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Rarely has a leader so wrestled with a greeting since Yitzhak Rabin’s 1993 agonies over a handshake with Yasser Arafat.
It was also initially hoped that Saudi Arabia might make real news on the Abraham Accords front. And some things did happen: Saudi Arabia announced it was allowing overflights for Israeli carriers (the wording was evasive, but never mind). And direct flights will apparently be possible in some cases — not just the one-off that delivered Biden and some Israeli journalists from Tel Aviv, but in the future for Israeli Muslim pilgrims.
Moreover, Israel has begun operating in Bahrain, which suggests a Saudi green light, training local security and selling the country drones to protect against Iranian drone attack. Drone defense is part of the Middle East Air Defense (MEAD) program, and that important and symbolic collaboration effort seems to be happening. But if there was any progress toward a Middle Eastern version of NATO, as some had expected, it is being kept well under wraps. Indeed there are signs that the Gulf countries want to avoid any sense of an offensive alliance against Iran and prefer to hedge their bets, with Saudi Arabia holding talks with Iran hosted by Iraq (which is itself a major impediment to any alliance with Israel, having recently made contacts with Israelis punishable by death).
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir sounded convincing this weekend in saying full normalization with Israel was not in the cards until Israel achieves a two-state solution with the Palestinians. He must have not heard the Israeli pundits arguing the idea is now unviable.
ISRAEL AND PALESTINE
Such is the cynicism that it went almost unnoticed that the two-state solution received vocal support during the trip by Biden, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Lapid — who became the first Israeli leader to do such a thing since 2009. Abbas (who also received some hundreds of millions in aid for hospitals and such) was the only one who acted as if it were possible right now — which is ironic, because he is also the one who failed to seize Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching offer 13 years ago amid flimsy excuses.
Such a deal is possible if the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships show more wisdom; it’s complicated and would require the withdrawal of about 100,000 settlers and some creative security arrangements — but it’s essential. I believe Lapid when he says he understands that holding on to the West Bank is demographic suicide for Israel. But he also needs a shift of about 10% of the vote leftward for this to be realistic, and to free him of right-wing partners who condition their opposition to Netanyahu on shelving the Palestinian issue.
Will Lapid run the kind of aggressive campaign that might conceivably enable this? Is it even possible in the near-term? I hope so on both counts, but I doubt it. Certainly Biden gave Lapid a platform for showing leadership and countering the infantile notion that Netanyahu is uniquely gifted as a diplomat: Lapid produced some excellent appearances and is one of the most rhetorically impressive national leaders anywhere today. We will see if one day his actions match the words.
Biden clearly will not pressure Lapid before the election to move on the Palestinians Biden clearly will not pressure Lapid before the election to move on the Palestinians (instead he called himself “a Zionist” and signed the non-enforceable but quite impressive declaration of friendship and collaboration called the “Jerusalem Declaration”).
But would he pressure Netanyahu, should the Likud leader win despite being a criminal defendant? Biden seems disinclined to waste time the way Barack Obama did. But I rule nothing out. The status quo is terrible for Israel no less than for the Palestinians, and Netanyahu is desperate for a way to rehabilitate himself in a world that has come to see him as an Israeli Erdogan. Flipping on Palestine seems unlikely but not impossible. Is this why Biden shook Netanyahu’s hand amid fake expressions of love? Maybe, maybe not; he really does just seem like a very nice old man.
Summing all this up, and throwing in the continued water-treading on a nuclear deal with Iran, it all amounts to rather little by way of a foreign policy success. Certainly there’s nothing here to neutralize the effect of last year’s disgraceful exit from Afghanistan, who shattered American credibility no less hat Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, and began Biden’s sliding in the polls.
But the political jury is still out. I wouldn’t make too much of the polls showing Biden’s approval ratings at around 33 percent. Several recent presidents have had historically low approval ratings, and hyper-polarization is to blame. Almost no one who didn’t vote for Biden will tell pollsters they approve of him. The real issue is that while most Democrats approve of Biden they also prefer another candidate in 2024 — and that is precisely because they fear he lacks the stamina to campaign against a spirited and supernaturally motivated Trump.
In that light, perhaps the fist-bump with MBS is not the most important image of the trip, but rather the one of Biden coming off the plane at Ben Gurion: ramrod straight he stood, taller by at least a head than the trio of Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Yitzhak Herzog. What could be more presidential than that?
(Originally published in the Jerusalem Post)