The follies of Biden’s Middle East trip

The president’s July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia picked up where his predecessor’s regional policies left off.

By Daniel Levy, published on Responsible Statecraft on 12 July 2022.

President Biden’s trip to the Middle East is in danger of delivering a moment of self-mockery, taking to a new high the incredulity of the administration’s own efforts to cast its reactions to Russia’s Ukraine invasion as based on universally applied principles of law and democracy.

Saudi Arabia welcomed a U.S. president who had promised a principled change in U.S. relations with the Kingdom. Biden arrived as a supplicant pleading for increased oil production. The administration’s responses to the Ukraine crisis have accentuated a politically threatening energy crisis, paving the way to Jiddah.

Before that, of course, Biden landed in Israel, where the sense of his own political transience in some way matches that of the now-ousted Israel coalition (its new status is that of caretaker government). He offered little beyond continuity with Trump policy.  

That is most evident in Biden’s enthusiastic championing of the Trump-Kushner Abraham Accords.

To recap, the Arab state normalization drive with Israel under Trump was led by the UAE, followed by Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

The president has justified his Saudi trip as being about more of the same, specifically “national security for Israelis.” The visit was expected to produce some incremental upgrades in Saudi–Israel relations, such as overflight rights, while falling well short of establishing full relations.

More significant perhaps is a prospective U.S.-led institutionalization of Iran-facing cooperation on air and missile defence between Israel and several Arab states (extending beyond the Abraham Accords signatories). That may have been on the formal or side meetings’ agenda during Biden’s summit with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council +3 (Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq) in Jiddah.

Chalk up another win for arms manufacturers and bloated military budgets, but it’s hard to see how broader U.S. interests or the credentials of the Biden administration will have been burnished by this visit. Quiet, tentative cooperation of additional Arab states with Israel already exists. Forcing it prematurely into the public eye — as cover for an embarrassing presidential climbdown visit — has more downsides than up.

Biden’s shameful presidency

Of continuity with Trump

Even in narrow political terms Biden’s jumping on the normalization bandwagon, while producing scraps in comparison to Trump’s veritable banquets, only makes this administration appear as a less capable version of its predecessor.

However, the need for a Biden course correction on the Middle East runs far deeper. Biden should be focused on de-escalating regional tensions, on shrinking the selective application of norms gap in the Middle East versus Russia/Ukraine policy, and on facing up to the Achilles heel of the normalization equation — Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

It is in this last realm that Biden has most shamefully offered a presidency of continuity with Trump.

Palestinian-free normalization was the product of a Kushner-Netanyahu-Mohammed bin Zayed fix. It was designed to upend the conflict resolution-promoting incentives of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative so as to give Israel a freer hand in trampling Palestinian rights and to advance a militarist zero-sum approach to regional “diplomacy.”

A bitter legacy against

Palestinian freedom

The Biden administration should want no part of it and should instead reintroduce actual peace-making into its Arab-Israeli regional toolbox.

Yet in this arena, as elsewhere, Biden has normalized Trump’s bitter legacy against Palestinian freedom, eviscerating any residual prospect of a two-state outcome as America beds down in its role of handmaiden to a regime which PalestinianIsraeli and now the global blue-chip human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have defined as meeting the legal threshold of apartheid.

Certainly, U.S. administrations have a long history of failure when it comes to advancing peace, holding Israel accountable, or standing up for Palestinian equal rights. Trump took America’s embrace of Israeli maximalism and permanent disenfranchisement of Palestinians to a whole new level.

Whether in its unconditional endorsement of Abraham Accord-style normalisation, its retention of the relocated U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, or maintenance of the unprecedented inclusion of Israel’s illegal settlements in bilateral agreements between the United States and Israel, Biden has conspicuously failed to fundamentally alter, let alone reverse Trump’s policies.

Israel continues to enjoy unconditional aid and wholesale American diplomatic cover in international fora, never held accountable for its illegal actions and human rights violations, including its immiserating the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, who have endured an illegal Israeli-led siege and naval blockade for more than a decade and a half. The U.S. statement regarding Israel’s killing of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, diverging from independent U.N. and media investigations and seeking to underplay Israel’s role, is the latest addition to a risible Biden record.

Cover for a policy

Of malign neglect

Even the promised minimal gesture of reinstalling the U.S. Consulate General to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem has failed to materialize in the face of Israeli objections.

The two areas in which Biden tweaked Trump policy add up to very little of consequence. He and his team have resumed rhetorical incantation of the “two-states” mantra, while adding a new linguistic flourish in the form of a call for Israelis and Palestinians to enjoy “equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy.”

That would be quite something, perhaps even a game-changing aspiration, were it matched by policy. However, as inequality in every realm is exacerbated by Israeli actions, the phrase takes on an Orwellian sense, as cover for a policy of malign neglect.

In a second shift, the Biden administration has re-established channels of communication with the Palestinian Authority and the PLO leadership. More significantly, however, an administration that professes itself to be leading a global battle between democracy and authoritarianism failed to support, and secure the necessary Israeli compliance with, a plan to hold Palestinian elections — or to hold the increasingly isolated and unpopular leaders of the “moderate PA” to account when elections were indefinitely postponed last April.

Under current conditions the PLO/PA is so hollowed of public legitimacy, so bereft of political strategy, and so divided, that sustaining it, primarily serves to strengthen Israel’s free hand.

So far, so bad.

What makes this moment so poignant and the message of this visit so intolerable, however, is the new geopolitical context.

Neither American double standards nor its indifference to the well-being of those living in the Global South are the stuff of breaking news. And that reality is not lost on most of the world. But the tone of moralizing crusade Washington has adopted in regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a moment in which its “do as I say, not as I do” reality could hardly be made more stark.

In taking to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to justify his visit, Biden wrote of applying universal human rights standards to the Middle East, of fundamental freedoms, and of ending U.S. combat missions in the region.

Laudable goals all.

That is, until the yawning gap between those words and the realities of U.S policy kick in —` for Palestinians especially, but also for millions more of the region’s people who must suffer continued U.S. mollycoddling of allied human rights abusers, U.S. drone strikes and arms sales or Israeli spyware.

Mind that gap, Mr. President.

Daniel Levy, who is British, is President of the US Middle East Project, and was an Israeli peace negotiator under Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Camp David process of 2000.

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