U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to the Middle East in the middle of July received, and in many respects rightfully so, a multitude of headlines and analyses surrounding the visit's motives, especially its expected and possible results. The prominent element was skepticism regarding the chances of its success and the emphasis on the "road to Canossa" of the President during his visit to Riyadh and his meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Given this, it is important to look at the visit's results with a more realistic and considered eye.
The president visited Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia, given several aspects which are essential to emphasize:
- The war in Ukraine and the American effort to ensure a broad and committed front against Russia (politically and energetically) as much as possible.
- The trampling concerning the attempt to return to the nuclear deal with Iran.
- The complex and charged relationship with Saudi Arabia.
- The feeling in the region that there has been a decrease in the degree of American attention and commitment to the region.
- The pre-election period in Israel (which has become more common and routine in recent years).
It is easy, therefore, to understand the load of expectations concerning the visit and the clear conclusion, even before it took place, that it is impossible to meet them all. This explains the feeling of skepticism that accompanied the visit throughout.
However, it is essential to emphasize several key points, which we will delve into below, which give the visit, in the bottom line, quite positive marks, even though it did not provide overly dramatic headlines and results.
The Israeli Chapter
The presidential visit to Israel was characterized, despite the complex timing of the pre-election period in Israel, by the warmth and ease radiated by Biden and his hosts, based on the president's rich and proven record and experience vis-à-vis the Middle East in general and Israel in particular.
It seems that it was clear to all the regional players that even if there are no apparent breakthroughs or tangible achievements at the U.S. President's disposal, Jerusalem cannot be overlooked in a Middle Eastern visit of this kind, especially by President Biden.
Fundamentally, the "Jerusalem Declaration" should not be taken lightly, especially the repeated emphasis of the American commitment to Israel's security, and concretely in the Iranian context - "Washington is ready to use all the elements of its national power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." This is in addition to the president's words at the press conference alongside Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who believes that "diplomacy is the best way to achieve this goal."
It is essential to mention that in the last year, the Israeli American dialogue on the Iranian issue has been characterized by more discretion, despite the notable differences of opinion regarding the negotiations and a possible return to the agreement.
The Palestinian Chapter
In this context, none of the parties had any expectations for progress or an American effort to renew the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Precisely because of this, the clarification of the American position on the part of the President, which supports the two-state solution, is of considerable importance.
This was important to remind everyone who had forgotten the position of the Biden administration and was intended not only for Israeli and Palestinian ears, but also for regional ones. This is even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been pushed to the margins in recent years in the face of more dramatic developments in the region and the international arena.
From a certain point of view, this mention may have served, to one degree or another, the Saudi government, which preferred to "settle for" the opening of the kingdom's airspace to Israeli planes, but not beyond that in terms of normalization between the two countries (despite excessive build up in the Israeli media before the visit), and revitalized the Arab Peace Initiative, and the connection between the deepening of normalization and progress in the Israeli-Palestinian channel.
The Saudi Chapter
In many respects, this was the "juicy" angle that attracted the most attention, certainly from the view of the American media, given the Khashoggi affair. The clear accusing finger that the Biden administration pointed at the crown prince, which was also illustrated by the president's clarification after his meeting with MBS that the matter was definitely brought up and discussed during the meeting, did not bode well for the results of the visit.
Despite this, perhaps with necessary caution, it can be concluded that the hurdle was passed successfully. Despite the lack of overly demonstrable warmth between the two, the visit itself, the Saudi promise to increase oil production (despite its limited importance from a practical point of view) and of course the "Jeddah Summit", which brought together an impressive gallery of the leaders of the Gulf states, including Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan – did its thing.
The Regional Chapter
In many ways, this is the most important angle. The American goal, as well as the expectation in the region, was twofold - to project a unified regional front as much as possible in front of Iran (and this is despite the interest of the Biden administration to return to the nuclear agreement, not necessarily to the satisfaction of all the players in the region). Moreover, demystify the impression, or perception, which has gained traction for quite a few years, that the U.S. is less committed to the region.
This is essential in the face of China's effort to strengthen and deepen cooperation in various fields in the region, as well as in view of the ambivalent position of quite a few players in the region towards Russia and the war in Ukraine.
Time will tell that to what extent the American president succeeded in changing the prevailing feeling in the region. Still, this is a goal for the advanced time frame, and that the Biden administration had to deal not only with the legacy of the Trump administration, but also that of Obama's.
The Regional Cooperation against the Iranian Threats
The Israeli-Arab regional security cooperation against the threat of Iranian missiles and drones (including through its proteges) constitutes one of the most central and important issues surrounding the American commitment to its allies in the region.
In this respect, the discreet discussions and meetings that took place (some of which are given a bit of publicity) illustrate the sense of threat shared by all the players involved, and their willingness to move forward with this cooperation, as mentioned, without putting it completely out in the open.
In many respects, this kind of discreet process is more important than the public one, and even than the establishment of a "regional NATO", as quite a few have dealt with in recent weeks. This process is taking place under an "American Umbrella". It is important for regaining and strengthening the trust of the relevant regional actors in the American commitment to the security and stability in the Middle East.
President Biden's visit to the region did not create or provide a dramatic dynamic. But it wasn't meant for that, and he couldn't do it now. By its very nature, and under the given circumstances, it has set a positive and serious platform for the results that will be seen in the advanced time frame. Precisely, it was an important, positive, and timely visit.