If the Russian invasion of Ukraine hadn’t happened, U.S. President Joe Biden might not be set to land in Israel on Wednesday. Nor would he continue on to Riyadh to end the ostracization of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and an aspiring reformer. A meeting with MBS would never have entered Biden’s mind before the Russian invasion, given the international reaction to the Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, Biden is still trying to downplay the upcoming meeting and portray it as a casual get-together with the Saudi king and various dignitaries.
But everyone knows that, in Saudi Arabia, MBS is the boss. And Biden knows that Americans are now paying five dollars a gallon for gasoline and getting ready to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. A winter is coming during which there will be not only a lack of energy supplies, but also rampant inflation and unemployment. Biden, in desperate need of success, is looking toward the Middle East and MBS.
Israel, of course, is rolling out the red carpet for Biden. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, enthusiastic about greeting the president, is preparing his welcome speech, and streets are being blocked off. Biden is set to stay in Israel for three whole days—a relative eternity—but his visit is not really about the Jewish state.
First, Biden wants to show the world that Putin is not number one. He wants to demonstrate that the Russian leader does not dominate the Middle East despite Putin’s close ties to the Assad regime in Syria and especially Iran.
Second, Biden is desperate to convince MBS to increase oil production in order to bring down prices, and encourage him to normalize relations with Israel by joining the Abraham Accords. This would also serve to reassert American power in the Middle East that began to decline under former President Barack Obama’s disastrous policy of disengagement from the region.
Biden knows that, somehow, he must begin the process of reversing that decline. American weakness in the Middle East will lead to more disasters like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which gutted Biden’s approval ratings. The president likely believes that the decline can only be reversed by a major, sensational event that reasserts American primacy in the region, such as bringing the Saudis into the Abraham Accords.
This is a bitter pill to swallow, perhaps, for someone who took far too long to signal support for the Accords, probably because they were the work of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. Nonetheless, Biden’s chances of success are not great: Saudi Arabia must defend its position as custodian of the holiest sites in Islam, and will not be ready to immediately normalize relations with Israel.
Nonetheless, Israel hopes that it might be, and Biden seems to be hopeful as well. In an editorial in The Washington Post, the president said his upcoming direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia will be “a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.” Biden will want something from Israel in return, however, namely some kind of negotiations with the Palestinians—the standard left-wing demand.
Yesterday, Lapid made a gesture in that direction, making a phone call to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and another to King Abdullah of Jordan. Lapid wished “a joyous holiday” to all Muslims celebrating Eid al-Adha. We hope it will be joyous.
Meanwhile, however, Israel is facing the long-standing question: At what point will the Iranian nuclear threat be too great to be addressed by mere talk? When is the moment of action? Lapid and Biden will no doubt discuss this, and when they do, Israel should remember that it is strong and Biden is not.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.