In a few weeks, Joe Biden will head to the Middle East for the first time as president. Even without the recent upheaval in the Israeli government, his time in Israel would have been the least important part of the trip.
There is certainly political value in Biden’s separate meetings with interim Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. But the American president’s two days in Israel will mainly serve as a prelude to the main event: Saudi Arabia.
The primary benefit of Biden’s time with Lapid will be to show his support for the outgoing coalition that Lapid and now-former prime minister Naftali Bennett taped together last year. Biden’s approach to Israeli domestic politics can be roughly summarized as “anyone-but-Bibi,” so publicly demonstrating to Israeli voters the strength of his relationship with Lapid can serve both to bolster their new leader and marginalize Netanyahu at the same time.
Similarly, Biden and Abbas are not expected to achieve any breakthroughs when they get together the next day. This meeting, too, is mainly about geopolitical positioning and messaging. Just as Biden wants Israelis to understand that he is a close ally to their leader, the president’s goal in Bethlehem will be to reassure the Palestinian people that he will pursue a more even-handed approach in the region than the Trump administration.
Once those two communications goals have been achieved, Biden will not only move from Israel to Saudi Arabia but from symbolism to substance. This is where the president’s trip will really start to matter.
The most obvious and urgent task for Biden with the Saudis is to convince them to start pumping more oil. The war in Ukraine has created a worldwide energy crisis, and Biden’s first appeals to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier this spring to increase Saudi output were completely ignored. Over the past few months, senior White House and Cabinet officials have dramatically stepped up their outreach to Riyadh, resulting in some additional oil being made available to world markets. But as Russia and Ukraine settle in for a prolonged conflict, the only way to persuade Saudi Arabia to release enough additional oil to offset Russia’s resources is for Biden and the crown prince to meet face to face. Given the harsh criticism that Biden has leveled against MBS in the past, that reconciliation will be very awkward.
But in addition to the urgent need for gulf oil, this leg of Biden’s trip is substantively important for many other reasons as well. The war in Ukraine will end at some point, but the long-term complications of Middle East politics would become much easier to navigate with enhanced cooperation from the Saudis. The most important step would be for Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accord agreements that Israel has achieved with four other Gulf states to normalize relations and to cooperate more closely on economic, cultural and security matters. This in turn would not only strengthen Israel’s standing in the Middle East, but would enhance the largely unofficial coordination between the Saudis, the Israelis and the United States toward their shared goal of containing Iran.
Long after the Ukraine war has ended, and long after today’s sky-high gasoline prices are an unpleasant memory, the threat that Iran poses to Israel, to the Middle East and to the world will remain. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Israel participated in American-led naval exercises in the region, a joint effort that was surely noted by Iran’s leaders. But publicly acknowledging and formalizing the partnership between the two countries would send an even stronger message to Tehran.
Biden seems to be willing to sacrifice some personal dignity to be able to repair his relationship with MBS. He might not have taken that step if it were not for the energy emergency that the Russia-Ukraine war has created. But even if cheaper gasoline is the immediate motivation, an officially recognized collaborative effort between Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran would be an even more consequential outcome of his first trip to the Middle East.
Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of California Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www.lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 p.m.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.
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