President Biden’s visit to the Middle East: Strategic implications for Israel
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi and Dr. Moshe Albo | July, 2022
|Photo: GPO - Haim Zach|
President Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East was conceived out of necessity due to the U.S. administration’s strategic troubles: An energy and food crisis leading to a sharp rise in oil prices (the price of fuel has reached an all-time high in the United States), and a severe shortage in grains; the inflation rate breaking a forty-year record (the inflation rate in the United States has reached 8.6%), and the growing fear of an acute recession; an ongoing crisis of trust with the Gulf states and their disinclination to close ranks with the western sanctions against Russia, while also advancing their relations with China; and a growing concern that, without significant change, the Democratic Party could suffer a sharp blow in the midterm elections.
This state of affairs has forced the White House to rethink its situation with the Middle East, particularly with regard to Saudi Arabia, who has the keys to reducing the scope of damage caused by the global energy crisis to the prices of fuel and soaring inflation, while attempting to market this strategy by reinforcing U.S. commitment to tis regional allies’ safety. It is our understanding that the decision to dissolve the government and go to elections is not expected to have any significant impact on the U.S. President’s upcoming visit to the region.
The world economic crisis
Unlike other global economic events that have taken place in recent years, the current crisis is deep and multidimensional, if only in view of the basis fact that the shortage of wheat and fuel is authentic, and cannot be overcome by economic tools alone, to a large extent due to the war in Ukraine and weather damage. In addition, the ability to create a worldwide solution these days that will be coordinated with and agreed on by Europe’s and the United States’ economic forces is highly unlikely due to disputes between various actors on the policy that should be embraced vis-à-vis Russia, particularly since there are still no real alternatives to Russian gas and grains, nor have economic global powers such as China and India agreed to the steps being promoted by the United States.
Thus, the World Bank has slashed its global growth forecast for 2022 to 2.9%, primarily due to the rising food and energy prices, and the soaring interest rates worldwide. Most economists now believe that the global system will not be able to recover and exit this crisis in 2023 either, and that the current state of affairs may even worsen. Moreover, the fear of an escalation in the Ukrainian campaign that would accentuate the damage to the global energy and grain markets, coupled with the possible resurgence of the Covid pandemic, which would lead to lockdowns and further hurt the international supply chains, as well as a consistent interest-raising policy may lead countries in the Middle East and Africa to near-bankruptcy, food insecurity and extreme poverty in view of uncontrollably rising prices, the debt crisis, and authentic shortage of wheat.
The campaign in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has been raging for over four months, and neither party seems capable of taking decisive military or economic action, as the profound gaps between the parties’ positions are unbridgeable. In such a state of affairs, the conflict seems to have taken the course of a long and bloody war of attrition. Despite the unprecedented economic sanctions imposed on Russia, and the fact that hundreds of corporations and companies have abandoned the Russian economy, President Putin is evidently determined to continue with his military campaign at all cost, systematically damaging Ukraine’s ability to function as a state (one third of Ukrainian citizens are already either refugees or displaced persons), and increasingly using the energy and wheat weapon to exert pressure on the west while limiting the effect on the Russian economy, which sees higher revenues when prices soar (despite the reduced scope of export to some European countries).
Russia continues to provide wheat to Egypt and other countries in Africa and the region, demands to be paid for the energy it supplies in Rubles, and does not hesitate to cut off the flow of gas to various countries across Europe. It is likely to increase its use of the energy and wheat levers as a countermeasure for western efforts in view of the expected growth in wheat shortage in upcoming months, and the West’s concerns that gas supplied by Russia will not meet demand come winter.
The midterm elections in the United States
The U.S. midterm elections will take place in November 2022, and all 435 Congress seats in Congress will be on the ballot (at present there are 221 Democratic seats and 208 Republican ones), as well as 35 of the 100 Senate seats (these days there is a tie between Republicans and Democrats, and vice President Kamala Harris has a tie-breaking vote). The midterm elections are an indication of the level of satisfaction in the public with the President’s conduct. Recent polls show that Biden currently enjoys about 40% support on average, one of the lowest scores given to presidents during their second year in office in recent decades.
The political polarization in the United States, profound disputes on core issues such as abortions and the right to carry firearms, alongside the declining economic situation directly project onto the rate of support for the president and, despite the consensus on the need to support Ukraine and avoid sending U.S. forces, most members of the public do not understand why they must pay such a heavy toll, and have their standard of living take a hit. A defeat in either house, especially the Senate, will make it very difficult for President Biden to promote his policy during the second half of his term in office.
The road to Canossa
Upon entering the White House, President Biden had prioritized human rights as one of the key values in his domestic and international policy. Thus, in February 2021, the White House Press Secretary had stated that the Biden Administration would recalibrate its strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, and that the President would not be contacting the Saudi Crown Prince, underscoring that King Salman is the president’s counterpart. The reason being that many in the Democratic Party, human rights organizations, and major civil organizations believe the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to be responsible for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and view him as a persona non-grata.
Just over a year later, the U.S. administration is forced to recalibrate its take on Saudi Arabia once again. Thus, President Biden will meet with Mohammed bin Salman for the first time in the upcoming summit in Riyadh. This expected meeting is already cause for harsh criticism in the United States, forcing the president to clarify that he would not be holding a meeting with MBS per se, so much as encountering him during the summit.
The U.S. administration is attempting to brand the upcoming visit in its official statements as part of its commitment to Israel’s safety, the desire to advance the strategic security partnership with its regional allies against the threat posed by Iran, and the fact that this visit proves that the United States has no intention of abandoning the Middle East. Its primary aim is to dial down domestic criticism over the expected meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince, resolve the crisis with the Gulf states, and assure Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel that the United States can serve as a reliable source of support capable of addressing the threat posed by Iran in the region and in the area of nuclear.
Despite these messages, we believe the key reason for the visit to be to increase Saudi Arabia’s oil production output in an effort to mitigate the global energy crisis, while maintaining the overall (economic and diplomatic) pressure exerted on Russia, and avoid the erosion of the anti-Russian coalition in view of the heavy economic and political prices that are expected to rise further in preparation for the upcoming winter.
Implications and recommendations for Israel
The U.S. president’s visit to the Middle East harbors potential for a demonstration of Israel’s valuableness to Washington’s strategic posture in the Middle East, as well as for closer strategic ties between Israel and the pro-American camp in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, in view of the aggravating threat posed by Iran.
Nevertheless, seeing as the Palestinian issue is in the deep-freeze, strategic dialogue is underway between Riyadh and Tehran, with economic ties between the UAE and Iran tightening, and Iraq is refusing to have any contact with Israel (the Iraqi parliament has recently passed a law defining any contact with Israel as an offense carrying the death penalty or a life sentence), the chances of an anti-Iranian “regional NATO” forming, of which Arab states and Israel will be member states, is highly unlikely. Yet Israel’s regional valuableness is increasing thanks to its strategic alliance with the United States, its positioning as a regional power effectively contending with Iranian entrenchment efforts in the region, and its reputation for having advanced military and technological capabilities. Furthermore, the Abraham Accords have demonstrated the economic potential of a partnership with Israel, which should further increase in light of the world economic crisis.
At the same time, President Biden’s visit harbors potential for progress in Israel and Saudi Arabia’s bilateral relations, namely the assessment that the U.S. President will declare the transfer of the strategically important islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia (Egypt has approved the islands’ transfer back in 2017, but the military appendix to the peace agreement requires Israeli consent as well), and the withdrawal of multinational forces from these islands. In exchange, Saudi Arabia will allow Israeli airlines to fly over its airspace. This step has significant economic potential; however, at this stage, we expect no further development in the overt relations between the two countries.
In addition, in view of the Saudi monarchy’s resentment of the Biden Administration, the deep relationship between Russia (and China) and Saudi Arabia, and the commitments to OPEC+, Biden’s ability to obtain significant considerations from Saudi Arabia is already being questioned. As part of the persuasion efforts, the U.S. administration may try to promote new weapons deals, and Israel must ensure that this will not compromise its qualitative military edge (QME) principles, while also receiving appropriate considerations from the American government.
As for the matter of the Palestinians, it is a marginal item on the U.S. President’s overall agenda for his visit in the region. The political crisis in Israel will prevent any feasibility (which was very low to begin with) of promoting a peace process with the Palestinians before a new government is formed, and therefore, the visit to the Palestinian Authority will likely focus on the U.S. administration’s basic commitment to the two-state solution with no practical policy. Israel, for its part, should lower its expectations and avoid taking any steps and making any statements that could lead to escalation or embarrass the U.S. administration, inter alia with regard to the visit to Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem.
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