ANALYSIS: Why Biden’s Middle East Trip Was Ultimately a Failure

Many see Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia as a success. But that is only partially true due to his falling into some of the same old mistakes.

By Yochanan Visser | | Topics: Biden
US President Joe Biden departs for Saudi Arabia after two days in Israel.
US President Joe Biden departs for Saudi Arabia after two days in Israel. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

US President Joe Biden returned to the White House after a four-day visit to the Middle East. In addition to Israel, the President visited Saudi Arabia, where he participated in a virtual meeting of moderate Arab leaders. Biden also met with leaders of the Gulf states and with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who also participated in the virtual conference on security matters in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.

Looking back on Biden’s visit, it can be said that it was only a partial success because no real breakthrough was achieved in the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Biden further conveyed confusing messages about his approach to the conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel while appearing to make the same old mistakes that have failed to bring a solution to the now century-old conflict.

In Israel, Biden stole the hearts of Israelis by declaring upon arrival that “you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.”

The President, furthermore, moved many when, during his visit to the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, he knelt before two survivors of this genocide of six million Jews, and in Israel is referred to by the word ‘Shoah’ (Disaster).

During a speech in Yad Vashem, Biden reminisced about his father, who instilled in him a love for Israel and talked to him a lot about the Holocaust.

See: Biden: ‘As long as there is a USA…’

 

Repetition of old political mistakes

While confirming that the United States sees Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Biden also showed that under his leadership, the US has returned to old political stances on the Palestinian issue.

The President said, for example, that the so-called two-state solution remains the best path to peace.

This position has been held by every US president since Bill Clinton, except for Donald Trump, who broke radically with the traditional approach to the conflict and instead of the land for peace strategy that previous presidents had unsuccessfully applied to the peace process, introduced a peace for peace strategy.

In doing so, Trump’s team, which consisted of Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, took the Palestinian response into account.

When this response again showed a total rejection of the Trump peace plan, it eventually led to the so-called Abraham Accords.

The leaders of the Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel had grown tired of Palestinian behavior and now prioritized their own interests.

Trump previously closed the PLO offices in the US and stopped the significant US sponsorship of UNRWA, the UN body responsible for Palestinian refugees and all their descendants. But this part of Trump’s policy was also reversed by Biden’s Democratic administration.

See: Is American Foreign Policy Flip-Flopping the New Norm?

 

Resumption of funding UNRWA

After his meeting in Bethlehem with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last Friday, Biden announced that his government would again transfer $220 million to UNRWA, which brings the total US contribution to the UN body to more than $280 million this year.

Trump stopped funding UNRWA in 2018 because of the downright corrupt practices in the organization and the ongoing hate education provided in UNRWA schools, which contributes to the aggravation of the conflict and not to the solution of it.

See: EU Slashes Funding for Antisemitic Palestinian Schoolbooks

During his visit to Israel, Biden admitted that he doesn’t think the time is right for new peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and interestingly omitted any criticism of Israel’s policies in relation to the so-called “settlements” in Judea and Samaria.

 

Visit to Arab Jerusalem

In Israel, however, people were surprised by the way the American President handled his visit to a hospital in Arab Jerusalem.

Biden’s limousine was decorated with the American and Israeli flags during his visit to Israel, but when he went to the Arab part of Jerusalem, the Israeli flag was gone and replaced by the Stars and Stripes, the American flag.

Speaking at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Arab Jerusalem, Biden compared the Palestinian Arabs to the Irish who lived under British occupation for 400 years and quoted a well-known Irish poem expressing hope for a “tidal wave of justice.”

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides later denied that Biden’s comment had been politically tinged and said the entire visit was about health care, not politics.

The US President gave $95 million to hospitals in Arab Jerusalem, and Nides explained this was due to the soft spot Biden has for hospitals and anything related to healthcare because his son Beau died of brain cancer (Glioblastoma Grade 4) in 2015. Biden’s first wife and his daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident earlier.

After Biden’s departure from Israel, a majority of Israeli commentators said the visit had been a success and expressed their expectation that this success would continue in Saudi Arabia.

After all, all kinds of changes were observable in Saudi Arabia’s behavior towards Israel. But ultimately, the only apparent result of secret negotiations between the US and Saudi Arabia was an Israeli fiat for the transfer of two islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

 

Returned islands the only success

These uninhabited islands, Tiran and Sanafir, had been captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 from Egypt, which controlled the islands since 1950.

The islands returned to Egyptian rule in 1979 following the signing of the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Much later in 2017, Saudi Arabia and Egypt reached an agreement in which the administration of the islands would in principle be transferred to Saudi Arabia, but the agreement also had to be ratified by Israel under provisions of the Camp David agreement.

Tiran and Sanafir are part of the Saudi mega plan NEOM that provides for the foundation of a huge city along the Egyptian and Saudi coasts.

Saudi Arabia wants to turn the islands into a tourist attraction, and this will give peace in the area a more definitive character.

Up till now, a UN peacekeeping force has been based in Tiran and Sanafir and will now be replaced by monitoring cameras.

The islands were used by Egypt prior to the Six Day War to close off the waterway to Eilat in Israel, providing Israel with a casus belli for a pre-emptive strike on the Arab armies led by Egypt.

Israel’s consent to Saudi control was now portrayed as the first real step towards normalization of relations between the countries, while the government in Jerusalem also claimed the Saudi announcement about opening the skies to all carriers was the first step toward normalization.

The Saudi government later vehemently denied this and repeated the demand for an Israeli withdrawal from Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem as a pre-condition for normalization in relations.

 

Frosty conversation with Saudi Crown Prince

Some observers say Biden was responsible for the disappointing outcome of his mission in Saudi Arabia and appeared to want to win on all fronts.

Biden opened his conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) by reprimanding Saudi Arabia’s lack of human rights and by hinting at MBS’s role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

MBS reportedly reacted with irritation and in turn denounced alleged American violations of human rights in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.

The start of the conversation was described as “frosty” by an American official who wished to remain anonymous.

By doing this Biden showed that he does not understand the Arab mentality and certainly not the importance of honor in the Middle East.

See: The Strategic Fallout of Biden’s Failure

At the beginning of his presidency, the US President promised to treat Saudi Arabia as an outcast for the murder of Khashoggi and other human rights violations in the Kingdom.

However, new realities in the world forced him to renege on his earlier intention and this also explains why during the conference in Jeddah Biden met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who also has no clean slate when it comes to human rights.

The talks with both Arab leaders aimed to strengthen the anti-Iran coalition with the United States in a lead-from-behind role, the same observers noted.

 

Iranian threat becoming more urgent by the day

The issue of the increasing Iranian threat is what led to the rapprochement between Israel and the Arab Gulf States and to the speculation about normalization in the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian threat to world peace and to the existence of Israel is becoming more urgent by the day since Iran is now capable of producing a nuclear weapon, according to Kamal Kharrazi, a close confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

Kharrazi claimed that the regime in Tehran has not yet made a decision on the production of a nuclear weapon but, according to new information released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Iran has recently commissioned new IR-8 centrifuges that can quickly produce uranium enriched to 90 percent which will allow Iran to break out to an atomic bomb in a matter of weeks.

It is for this reason that Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said last Sunday that the Israeli home front must be prepared at an accelerated pace for a war against Iran.

Kochavi’s remarks came after it became clear from Biden’s visit that the US is unwilling to use a “credible military option” against Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid requested during a joint press briefing with the US President.

See: Israel Disappointed With Biden Over Approach to Iran

 

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