Last Tuesday (12), Joe Biden left for his first trip to the Middle East as President of the United States. The president will pass through Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia on his trip, which will be filled with sensitive issues and debates, both within his country and in the places where he will visit. In your government’s mind, however, two issues will have clear and full priority.
We could use and abuse the clichés about the Middle East being a region that is currently delicate or that attracts a lot of attention from the world. All of this is true, but in the last and next few weeks it may be more true than average. A number of issues coincided with Biden’s schedule on his visit, the first after nearly a year and a half in office.
In Israel, Biden faced an interim government, led by Yair Lapid, in the midst of his fifth election campaign in four years following the dissolution of parliament. The unusual scenario contributed to a meeting between Biden and Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and potential winner of elections to be held in November.
Another aspect of the visit is the fact that Israel is a country where Republican Donald Trump is still very popular, for having moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, a decision that has received criticism from some sectors of Democrats. This aspect of the visit ends up having repercussions on the internal political discourse of the USA, where we will have legislative elections in a few months.
In the same field is the main issue of Biden’s visit to Belém, Palestinian city, where he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this Friday, the 15th. The Palestinians resent the setbacks in the bilateral relationship in the Trump years, as well as the peace plan proposed by the then US government, prepared by Jared Kushner. The Biden administration has already shown signs that it intends to restore this relationship.
First, the announcement of aid to Palestinians totaling US$316 million, especially for the local health sector. Second, Biden has stressed more than once that he advocates a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, keeping that as official US policy. These two initiatives, however, do not seem to be enough for a positive balance of the visit.
Delegations will make separate press releases without a joint statement. In addition, Biden, while saying he defends the two-state solution, said that it “is not feasible at the moment.” Finally, representatives of the US government refused to meet family members of journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, a Palestinian with US nationality who was probably killed by a shot by an Israeli military.
already in Saudi Arabia, Biden will have to deal with the fallout from the meeting he himself condemned two years ago. In the 2020 election campaign, he criticized Trump for his closeness to Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, heir to the throne and true Saudi president, who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed and dismembered in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
At the time, Biden said it was necessary to make the Saudis “pay the price” and treat the country’s government “like the pariah they are”. As is often the case when speaking idealistically about international politics, realism came and ran over Biden’s electoral proposals. He will even meet with the prince in a bilateral meeting, confirmed this Thursday, the 14th.
In Saudi lands, Biden will also attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, plus three guests; Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. At that table will be the issue of the international price of oil, with the US seeking to convince countries in the region to produce more oil, lowering the price and alleviating inflation that erodes popular opinion of the Biden administration.
The main agenda of Biden’s tour, however, revolves around Iran. He and Lapid signed a joint statement saying the US will use “every element of its national power available” to deny Iran the ability to develop nuclear weapons and that the country will maintain military aid to the Israelis. Bearing in mind that, at this moment, negotiations on the nuclear agreement are taking place in Qatar and are cooling off.
Trident against Iran
In Saudi Arabia, the theme will also be the Will, the main Saudi rival, with the two powers fighting a regional “Cold War” in recent years. Another theme will be the closer normalization of relations between Israelis and Saudis. Also last Thursday, the 14th, the Saudis authorized the arrival of flights directly from Israel. The first one features journalists covering Biden’s trip.
The normalization of relations between Saudis and Israelis has been a Palestinian fear in recent years, as the Saudis are the last regional power to prioritize Palestine. Of the various peace proposals made, perhaps the one that most benefited Palestine was precisely the Saudi one, the Arab Peace Initiative, made in 2002 and resumed in 2009, during the Netanyahu government.
That no longer matters, to the point that the Saudis rejected a visit from Abbas earlier in the week, “reducing” the conversation to telephone contact. The fact that several Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel and the economic possibilities of this relationship are some of the issues that overshadow the former Saudi protection of the Palestinians. And, of course, Iran.
The US idea is to create a regional front of allies against Iran, based on a trident formed by Israel, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. A complete normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations is possible, although it may not happen overnight. One possible obstacle is King Salman, and normalization would come under his son, after his death, to “skip a generation” in relation to the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud.
Iran, on the other hand, is also moving, of course. Next week he will receive Vladimir Putin, Russian president, in a possible announcement of greater military cooperation. It is also necessary to wait for the concrete fruits of Biden’s visit. The fact is that the losers on this visit are clearly the Palestinians, who are now considered a minor topic compared to the dispute for influence with Iran.
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