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Sink or swim? Biden’s tour puts US reputation on the line

The President has a delicate balancing act as he courts favour with America's Middle East allies

biden lapid Reuters/Atef Safadi
Joe Biden and Yair Lapid have begun their relationship well, but the question of the Iran nuclear deal will be firmly in each other's minds

US president Joe Biden arrived in Israel this week for an official three-day state visit before embarking on the next leg of his Middle East tour to Saudi Arabia.

This was his tenth visit to Israel, his first being in 1973, as a young senator from Delaware. 

The president’s latest visit to Israel was set amid a fluctuating political scene. The current Israeli Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, who was sworn into office a mere two weeks ago, on June 30, is already involved in a four-month election campaign. On November 1 Israelis will cast their ballots for the fifth time in three years.

The decision made by Biden and his team to meet the novice Israeli prime minister will have been taken, in part, with a view to bolstering Lapid’s credentials. It reflects the strong preference of the Democratic party under President Biden’s leadership to see Lapid form the next Israeli government. 

The alternative of a return to office of former Israeli prime minister and favourite of the American right, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is currently standing trial in Israel, is far less appealing to the Biden administration – especially as Americans will cast their votes on November 8 in the US mid-term elections. 

Indeed, Biden’s visit launched Lapid’s four-month term in office and adds to his credibility before the Israeli public. The Jerusalem Declaration, which was signed publicly by the two leaders, will add to his authority by linking Prime Minister Lapid to a document reaffirming the US-Israeli strategic partnership.

The Jerusalem Declaration, apart from reaffirming the “enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security”, addresses some specific issues.

It pledges the two countries to “never allow[ing] Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and underscores the United States’ willingness to “use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome”.  

In addition, the Declaration affirmed the two countries’ intent to “combat all efforts to boycott or de-legitimise Israel”, including the BDS campaign, and US support for Arab-Israeli regional cooperation.

As important as President Biden’s visit might be for US-Israeli bilateral relations, amid the growing tensions between US allies and Iran, soaring energy prices and the war in Ukraine, it is also highly significant for US policy in the Middle East more broadly. 

This international agenda has marginalised what in the past would have topped the agenda of any Democratic president: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his remarks at the arrival ceremony, the President placed the issue squarely on the diplomatic backburner mentioning briefly that “we’ll discuss my continued support — even though I know it’s not in the near-term — of a two-state solution”.

Much higher on the President’s agenda is the evolving Arab-Israeli regional axis.

Biden is the first US president to have flown directly from Ben Gurion Airport to Saudi Arabia, following the kingdom’s announcement on July 14 of the end to its longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory.

This significant step on the path to normalising Saudi-Israeli relations comes on the back of the Abraham Peace Accords, signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, under the Trump administration in 2020.

The Accords have already yielded significant dividends. In May, Israel and the UAE signed a free trade agreement, the largest ever between Israel and any Arab country, with some estimating bilateral trade to increase to more than $10 billion over the next five years. 

A month later, Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz confirmed that Israel was building a US-sponsored regional air defence alliance with US-aligned Arab states, which has already foiled attempted Iranian attacks.

Thus, key to Biden’s agenda will be the reinforcement of the US’s central role as the main backer of the emerging Arab-Israeli axis against Iran, its nuclear ambitions and its expansionist regional aspirations.

The Biden administration will face a delicate balancing act between achieving its proclaimed goal of reviving the Iran nuclear deal and the deep apprehensions of its key allies in the region – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states – about this prospect. 

The administration’s ability to reconcile these contrasting foreign policy interests will be highly significant.

It will have a bearing on whether the US is able to retain significant sway over the international relations of the Middle East and its close allies, or has become a declining power no longer able to count on its allies in its attempts to derail Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and deal with the current energy crisis and soaring food prices.

Amnon Aran is professor of International Politics at City, University of London, and author of Israeli Foreign Policy Since the End of the Cold War