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Biden’s Mideast visit will be more complicated than he thought

Israel will want guarantees on any nuclear deal with Iran, while Biden will have to put on a brave face when he meets the Saudi crown prince.

U.S. President Joe Biden during a speech in Washington, D.C., in 2022. Credit: Luca Perra/Shutterstock.
U.S. President Joe Biden during a speech in Washington, D.C., in 2022. Credit: Luca Perra/Shutterstock.
Oded Granot (Twitter)
Oded Granot

Two weeks before visiting the Middle East, U.S. President Joe Biden has been reminded that this is an unpredictable region. In Israel, he will be greeted by political chaos. In Saudi Arabia, he will have to put on a brave face as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), once a pariah in Washington, takes center stage.

The Biden administration deserves credit for deciding to push through with the visit to Israel despite our political upheaval, but circumstances will dull the occasion. Biden will undoubtedly reiterate the United States’ strong commitment to Israel’s security and the need to resolve the Palestinian issue, but he will be careful not to come across as interfering in the election process. He won’t make any promises nor will he flatter the government too much. He will try to hide his well-known aversion to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Saudi Arabia will be the focal point of the Mideast tour. While there, Biden will have to meet and deal with MBS, who until recently was the target of calls for sanctions by Washington. But the war in Ukraine has shuffled the deck and Biden is now forced to reconcile with the crown prince so the latter will keep up the production of oil, the prices of which are soaring.

Moreover, while for a moment it seemed that MBS’s entanglement in the Jamal Khashoggi affair would hurt his chances of succeeding his father, Mideast politics have allowed the crown prince to mark achievements in Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, which he recently visited.

One can point to an inherent and continuous failure in the pattern of thinking of American presidents, especially from the Democratic Party, who believe that tyrants can be “educated” to respect human rights. They only sober up when it’s too late. The same is true of Biden, who has had to acknowledge the unfortunate fact that the price of oil is more important than human rights issues.

To head off criticism in Washington over the reconciliation with MBS, Biden will try to get the crown prince to agree to not only increased oil production, but also to joining the Sunni states that are normalizing relations with Israel.

While the crown prince supports the process of normalization, he is slow and careful, and prefers back channels. He sends his aides to meet with senior Israeli officials, but shies away from public meetings. If he does grant any of Biden’s requests on the matter, it will be via measured steps rather than a dramatic announcement.

As for Iran, Biden’s interlocutors in Israel and Saudi Arabia will meet a president eager to renew the nuclear deal.

Israel will be unable to prevent such a deal, but it should take advantage of the visit to secure a pledge that any agreement will not tie Israel’s hands if it turns out that the Iranians continue to lie about their progress toward a nuclear bomb.

Oded Granot is a senior commentator on the Middle East and the Arab world.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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