US President Joe Biden’s success in reunifying and revitalizing the alliance of Western democracies, even expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Finland and Sweden, has given Washington its most dynamic international leadership role in decades. Now he’s going to try to do the same in the Middle East when he visits the region this week.
There, the common adversary is Iran, not Russia. There’s nothing as galvanizing as the invasion of Ukraine to bring together fractious neighbors Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. But Iran’s nuclear progress, growing missile arsenal and network of extremist militia groups across the region is, or should be, the next alarming concern in geopolitics.
There won’t be a spontaneous re-embrace of US leadership or renewed trust in Washington as there was in Europe. There has been a growing sense that the US is losing interest in the region as it focuses on China and Russia. But there’s an existing pro-American — or, more precisely, counter-Iranian — Middle East camp, and Biden will be meeting all of it.
His biggest challenge is that the two most important actors, Israel and Saudi Arabia, don’t have diplomatic relations, and can’t or won’t cooperate extensively, especially in public. To bring them together in a de facto US-led coalition, even if quietly and behind the scenes for starters, Biden must ascertain what they want from each other and the US, and, especially, how to deal with the Palestinian issue.
Unlike its smaller neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which normalized relations with Israel in the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia needs meaningful concessions on the Palestinians to take any major diplomatic steps.
Israel, Biden’s first stop, is again in political tumult, with the coalition government having collapsed last month. Yet this may provide an opportunity: A productive meeting with Biden could give the interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, greater stature heading into elections this fall. Lapid is far more open to restarting talks with the Palestinians than other Israeli leaders.
At the meeting, Biden should stress a halt on the building or expanding of settlements (especially beyond the West Bank separation barrier); protecting the status quo at religious sites in Jerusalem; and halting provocations like evictions and nightly raids into Palestinian-ruled areas.
Biden needs to press Israel to recommit itself to a two-state solution, which remains a key Saudi goal, by expressing support for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state and promising not to annex occupied areas. (Biden is also meeting with former, and possibly future, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won’t be receptive to any of this.)
Washington has some carrots, mostly in terms of military hardware, but Biden must reinforce the primacy of countering Iran, and that working with the Saudis is the best way to ensure Israel’s safety.
When he meets with Palestinians in Bethlehem, Biden should reassure them the US is serious about a two-state outcome, something former President Donald Trump tried to dump.
But he should also press Palestinian leaders to develop their national institutions, especially in health and education services; to promote, not inhibit, civil society in the West Bank; and to prepare for competitive elections. He should pledge to line up major US and Gulf Arab financial support for this, which would give the Palestinians a tangible as well as aspirational stake in the emergence of a US-led regional partnership.
On Friday, Biden will meet with Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he has shunned because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In addition to pressing the crown prince on human-rights issues, Biden should make clear to him and King Salman that Washington is willing to sincerely recommit to Saudi security on two conditions.
First, Saudi Arabia needs to seriously undertake aiding the US to manage energy pricing, beyond the modest production increases reached by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and thereby abandon the production-limitation agreement reached with Moscow in 2017.
Second, Riyadh must eschew budding ties to China that threaten US security, such as joint manufacturing of drones and missiles. It’s fine for China to buy Saudi oil, but Biden should remind Saudi leaders that Beijing is Tehran’s primary economic and security ally, and emphasize that they can expect much more from Washington, especially in the context of a growing regional partnership.
As Biden presses Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate, the Saudi corner of the triangle is crucial. Meaningful Israeli steps to ease pressure on the Palestinians and re-embrace the goal of a viable two-state agreement should prompt Riyadh to respond with diplomatic outreach and strategic engagement, even if formal relations remain off the table.
Finally, on Saturday, when Biden joins a summit of friendly Arab governments — the six Gulf Cooperation Council states plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq — they should all hear the consistent message that their interests are best protected through a US-led grouping aimed at maintaining regional order and stability, to which they can each contribute and from which they will all benefit.
In the end, Biden’s trip will raise this question: The US plus Israel plus the Palestinians plus the Saudis plus all the other Arab states equals … what? If the answer is “not much,” then it’s back to business as usual, relying on a hodgepodge of bilateral arrangements with regional partners to contain Iran, combat terrorists and secure other key US goals.
That hasn’t been completely ineffective. But a new de facto regional partnership would be much more potent in advancing both Washington’s interests and those of its Middle East partners.
Biden could be looking at another, even more unexpected, international coalition-building project than he helped forge in Europe. His ambitions for a “transformative presidency,” largely thwarted domestically, might be realized globally.
More From Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
A Middle Eastern NATO? Not Gonna Happen: Bobby Ghosh
Biden’s Reversal on Gulf States Is the Wrong Kind of Realpolitik: Emma Ashford
Biden Can Repair a Rift and Push Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: Hussein Ibish
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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