U.S. President Joe Biden will land in Israel carrying the weight of good intentions and a deaf ear to our region. He is a supportive and true friend to Israel and committed to its security and strong bilateral ties. But while his feet will be in Jerusalem, his thoughts will be far away, focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, China and the midterm elections, which could be painful for the Democrats.
Over the past few months, the president’s staff has been laboring to shrug off domestic criticism of Biden’s Mideast trip and especially his intention to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), who is loathed by human rights activists in Washington.
The Biden administration will make three main demands during the president’s visit: First, that the Saudis check the dizzying rise in oil prices by increasing output. Second, that Saudi Arabia join the other Arab nations that have normalized relations with Israel. Third, that Israel and the Arab states form a defense pact whose purpose would be to counter the Iranian threat and help reduce American involvement in the Middle East.
These demands will make Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meetings with nine Arab leaders in Jeddah the high point of the visit. His stops in Israel and the Palestinian Authority are less important—a kind of layover. In Jerusalem, he will reiterate Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security. In Bethlehem, he will explain to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas why Israel’s transitional government cannot be expected to enter negotiations toward a two-state solution, and that Abbas will have to be satisfied with the doubling of U.S. aid to the P.A.
Iran, as well as Israel, is paying close attention to the results of the Jeddah summit. The Islamic republic understands that the U.S. is trying to create a NATO-style defense pact in the Middle East that would serve as an obstacle to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s aggressive intentions—which are similar to what Putin is doing in Europe. Thus, Iran has just made a pointed statement to the nations slated to participate in the Jeddah event this week, warning them that such a pact would “seriously destabilize” the Middle East.
Does Iran have cause to worry? This author has learned that, ahead of Biden’s visit, the Americans have sent a draft agreement for a regional defense pact to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and a few other countries. The proposal would include not only an “air defense umbrella” of coordinated radar and missile defenses, but also cooperation on economics and politics, among other things.
The matter will be discussed and possibly even decided in Jeddah, but the same Arab states that supported the Sharm El-Sheikh summit last month, which was intended to establish a mechanism for security coordination with Israel, prefer to do such things in secret, without taunting the Iranians.
And it’s already clear who won’t take cover under that “defense umbrella,” openly or otherwise—the Omanis and the Qataris. These two countries have acted as mediators between Iran and the U.S. in order to renew the Iran nuclear talks and do not want to lose that status. Qatar is preparing to host another round of talks after Biden’s visit, and in Jeddah, they will tell Biden that, even if Washington is seeking a deal, there is no reason to annoy the Iranians by publicly announcing a regional alliance.
Oded Granot is a senior Middle East and Arab world commentator.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.