As the fanfare surrounding U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East begins to fade, it can be said that even if the potential for a strategic change in the region was only partially realized, it nevertheless exists. The question now is to what extent the changes in American attitudes toward the region will lead to changes in the regional reality.
Beyond the “Jerusalem Declaration,” the visit illustrated the intimacy that characterizes Israel-U.S. relations, the American commitment to Israel’s security and the two countries’ common interest in promoting relations between Israel and Arab countries. At the same time, the visit highlighted the differences between Israel and the United States on Iran and the Palestinian issue.
Looking ahead, the visit reflected the complex process of American recognition of the new reality created by the war in Ukraine and the failure to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran. This reality is forcing the Biden administration to come to terms, slowly and reluctantly, with the fact that the same forces that threaten the world order and the rules on which it is based—Russia, China and Iran—are also the ones that threaten the regional order in the Middle East and vital American interests there. Thus, the situation requires cooperation with the parties that oppose these destabilizing forces.
During his visit, Biden repeatedly pointed out that the return of the United States to the region is necessary to prevent the creation of a vacuum that Russia and China will fill, implying that they would do so via cooperation with Iran. To this end, given the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine, Biden put aside his human rights agenda, surrendered his dignity and “went to Canossa,” where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Jeddah. Biden’s policy shift on Saudi Arabia shows that the threat from Russia, China and Iran has somewhat shifted his thinking. Unfortunately, there are elements in the Democratic Party that will stand in the way of the policy changes this shift requires.
The president’s moves, however, also reflect the weakening of the United States’ regional position. The Iranians and the Saudis recognized this and took a rigid stance against American expectations of them. Iran made belligerent statements following Biden’s visit, while Saudi Arabia refused to immediately respond to the American request to increase oil output and showed interest in improving relations with Iran. All this made it clear that the U.S. position in the region has eroded, especially since the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. This image of weakness also harms U.S. allies, who have become hesitant to confront Iran as a result. At the same time, however, this shows the importance of Israel as the primary force working openly against Tehran’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony.
The Change in American Perception Is an Opportunity for Israel
Despite everything, the United States remains the most critical superpower in the world—as its elimination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on August 1 attests. The U.S.’s gradual mobilization to prevent a change in the regional order is a positive development from Israel’s point of view. Now, Israel and the U.S. must examine how this goal can be promoted together with other regional actors who share the same fear of radical elements in the region led by Iran.
The idea of a joint regional defense system did not take off during Biden’s visit, but that is no reason to abandon it. It is possible to examine ways to promote it based on trilateral cooperation between Israel, the United States and each of the pragmatic Arab countries according to their needs. The IDF chief of staff’s visit to Morocco is a step in this direction.
The American focus on tensions with Russia and China weakened its relationship with Israel and the Gulf states, which do not see Russia and China as threats to their security. Therefore, the change in Washington restores the confluence of interests that was the basis of strategic cooperation.
The primary goal shared by Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries is to translate this confluence of interests into a change in American policy towards Iran. This change should see the U.S. exert pressure on Iran, including a credible military threat, in order to force it to curb its nuclear program. Thus, Israel and its allies want the dangerous option of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal removed from the agenda.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran on July 19, the tightening of relations between the two countries should be leveraged to bring the Americans closer to a decision to adopt a much more decisive policy.
At the same time, it is necessary to face the risks associated with recent developments, including Russia’s more aggressive approach towards Israel’s freedom of action in Syrian skies and attempts by Iran and its affiliates to continue exploiting the image of American weakness to advance their goals. Iran has already taken advantage of this weakness to make significant progress in its nuclear program without any response from the United States. At the same time, Iran’s Hezbollah proxy may put Israeli determination to the test by attacking the gas rig in the Karish field in Israeli waters.
The Biden visit contributed little to promoting normalization and peace between Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries, except for the Saudi decision to allow Israeli flights to use its airspace and agreeing in principle to direct flights of Israeli Muslim pilgrims.
Against this background, it should be noted that during his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden referred to the “Abraham Accords” by name and was not satisfied with the term “normalization,” as members of his administration had been in the past.
Clearly, the possibility of positive change is developing in the regional context. However, if it is delayed or does not materialize due to the obstacles Biden faces regionally and domestically, chances will increase that forces challenging the current regional order and the position of the United States, such as Iran, will try to promote the order they want, thus exacerbating the risks to Israel and regional stability.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was formerly director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.