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Was Biden’s Middle East trip truly successful?

How much did President Biden advance American interests during his five-day trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia? Unlike the palpable animus that President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry showed for the Netanyahu government, Biden exuded a sincere warmth in reaffirming the strong relationship between Israel and the United States. And unlike the progressive wing of his Democratic Party, the president evidently believes a strong Israel is essential for American security interests. This is especially true with America’s gradual withdrawal from the region, which both Israel and the Arab world interpreted as abandoning long-term U.S. commitments.

One of the most significant but overlooked accomplishments of Biden’s trip was his public reaffirmation of being a lifelong Zionist, a toxic word to progressive Democrats who too often equate Zionism with racism. Biden’s affection for Israel was evident — even if there are significant policy differences regarding how to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and dealing with a corrupt and unreliable Palestinian Authority. 

Israel is America’s primary — and only reliable — ally in the Middle East, the only one that is democratic and shares our Western values. It is the only nation willing and capable of opposing Iran’s aggressive expansionism. The intelligence that we receive from Israel, especially the human intelligence, which we have lacked since we packed our bags and left the region, is worth every cent we invest in Israeli security. It allows the Israelis to defend themselves by themselves without asking for American soldiers to be put in harm’s way. 

The glaring omission of Biden’s trip was his failure to demand anything of the Palestinians. He has not upheld America’s Taylor Force law, which mandates an end of payments to the Palestinian Authority until they stop using American taxpayer money to pay for terrorism. The Palestinian Authority rewards terrorists and supports their families after they commit atrocities against Israeli civilians; the more heinous the terrorist act, the higher the payment. It sounds ghoulishly implausible, but it is entirely and sadly true. 

Biden’s decision to provide additional funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) missed an opportunity to take an important step to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Instead of calling for reform of UNRWA, he is rewarding and thereby legitimizing a group under the auspices of the U.N. that spouts anti-Israel propaganda. UNRWA defines as refugees in perpetuity anyone with a Palestinian ancestor. The U.N.’s other refugee agency, UNHCR, prioritizes the resettlement of refugees.  

On the positive side, we should commend the president for attempting to advance the Abraham Accords and to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together. He said he “strongly supports” the Accords, resisting the progressives’ impulse to throw away everything his predecessor did. Biden deserves credit there for his statesmanship. 

The administration also advanced a new regional defense alignment to confront the hegemonic ambitions of Iran through the aegis of America’s CENTCOM. The beginnings of an integrated electronic sensor system of anti-missile and anti-drone defense are analogous to Israel’s multi-layered anti-missile system. The wise decision to invest in Israel’s “Iron Beam” laser anti-missile/anti-drone system will protect our soldiers in the future. Israel’s Iron Dome costs at least $50,000 each time it is activated. In contrast, the Iron Beam system costs just a few hundred dollars per use and could change the playing field in military theaters for generations. Unfortunately, the Saudis “poured cold water” on U.S. and Israeli hopes that the summit could help lay the groundwork for a regional security alliance by publicly distancing themselves from including Israel.  

Whether this trip was a foreign policy victory for the Biden administration remains to be determined on Aug. 3. If the Saudis lobby the OPEC+ members at the August meeting to pump more oil and gas, the trip would be considered a true success. Biden said at the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia, “I’m doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America, which I expect to happen.” However, the more straightforward way to lower U.S. energy prices and inflation would be to end the regulatory stranglehold suppressing U.S. energy development. This is a bridge Biden won’t cross, lest he lose the support of his party’s progressive wing. 

Obama wanted to create daylight between Israel and the United States and elevate the status of Iran, but Biden has taken a more jaundiced view of Iran’s leaders. Yet there is still a chance that Iran and the United States will rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, since billions of dollars in sanctions relief may be too hard for Iran’s Supreme Leader to resist, knowing Iran is already a nuclear threshold state.  

However, America should resist rejoining the JCPOA unless there is a permanent end to the nuclear weaponization program. It is impossible to rejoin the JCPOA as it was written in 2015, as Iran has violated far too many of its obligations and breached the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. 

Although Israel asked Biden to give Iran a deadline to sign the deal, he did not commit to a timetable. This was a prudent move. Although having no deadline appears to be in Iran’s interest, the Biden administration remembers how Obama looked when he declared he would act if Syria crossed a “red line” regarding chemical weapons and then failed to act, undermining American credibility worldwide.

Iran interprets the lack of a credible American military threat as weakness and evidently feels encouraged to push ahead with its quest for nuclear weapons, confident there won’t be significant consequences. My recent meetings in Israel with high-ranking intelligence and security officials highlighted that the lack of a credible military threat has dramatically weakened the U.S. negotiating position. 

The Jerusalem Declaration signed by Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks of the mutual desire never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. However, the American and Israeli understanding of when Iran will cross the threshold of nuclear capability apparently is as wide as the Grand Canyon. We don’t know what Biden and Lapid said behind closed doors regarding Israel’s own “red line” to strike Iranian nuclear weaponization facilities. 

Biden will face many challenges in the Middle East in the coming year. Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel from Lebanon, which would be unleashed if Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, could precipitate a major regional war. And the possibility of a military confrontation between Israel and Russia if Vladimir Putin decides to end his policy of not interfering with Israel’s attacks on Iranian precision-guided missile shipments on their way to Syria and Lebanon could cause a significant crisis.

But assessing Biden’s scorecard for the Middle East trip: He did bring the Saudis and Israelis a little closer together. His unequivocal statement that he is a Zionist should not be underestimated. However, the money offered to the Palestinians and UNRWA, marketed as humanitarian aid, appears to be an effort to appease Palestinian leadership and get them to continue security cooperation with Israel to avoid a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. And if oil and gas output increases significantly after the August OPEC+ meeting, the White House may acclaim the trip as a resounding success. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg. 

Tags Biden Middle East trip Iran aggression Israel–United States relations Joe Biden John Kerry Obama Palestinian nationalism Saudi Arabia

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