What to expect from Biden's trip to the Middle East

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7 min read
12 July, 2022
Analysis: Preoccupied with domestic economic concerns, Biden seeks to elevate Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states as key partners, but he is travelling to the region with an extraordinarily weak hand.

While the global public is closely watching how US President Joe Biden’s Middle East visit will shape and define his administration’s policies in the region, his domestic political position ahead of the US midterm elections is weakening.

After meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, the US president will travel to the Saudi city of Jeddah this week, where he will attend the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit.

While his ambitious agenda includes bringing down sky-rocketing oil prices and pushing forward normalisation ties with Israel, he will also have to reckon with a broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a very uncomfortable meeting with a Saudi crown prince whom he once pledged to make a “pariah”.

"Although Biden's trip will include a visit to the occupied West Bank, there have been no signs at all that he will specifically address Palestinian grievances"

No change on the horizon for Palestinians

Although Biden’s trip will include a visit to the occupied West Bank, there have been no signs at all that he will specifically address Palestinian grievances.

On the contrary, one of the main purposes of his trip to the Middle East is to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region”.

But this leg of the trip follows months of mounting Israeli injustices against Palestinians, including the killing of veteran Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who is a US citizen.

The US State Department said in early July that its investigation could not conclusively determine the origin of the bullet that killed the journalist and that the gunfire that killed her was “unintentional”.

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Monitoring by the UN Human Rights Office, together with independent investigations by The Associated Press and other media outlets, concluded she was killed by Israeli forces.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem called the American investigation a “US-backed Israeli whitewash” while Abu Akleh’s family said that its findings were “incredulous”.

Israel had initially claimed that Palestinian gunmen killed Abu Akleh, before backtracking and refusing to hold a military inquiry.

Furthermore, Biden’s administration will sooner or later have to deal with another diplomatic issue.

On 10 July, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), revealed evidence that a joint US-Israeli plan for construction of the new US embassy in Jerusalem is located on Palestinian private property.

According to the organisation, “the land on which the US Diplomatic Compound is to be built is registered in the name of the State of Israel, but it was confiscated illegally from Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians using the 1950 Israeli Absentees’ Property Law”.

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Biden's trip comes amid months of mounting Israeli injustices against Palestinians. [Getty]

Descendants of the original owners of the land, including US citizens, have demanded that the Biden administration cancel the plan.

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, is one of them.

“The fact that the US government is now participating actively with the Israeli government in this project means that it is actively infringing on the property rights of the legitimate owners of these properties, including many US citizens,” he said.

For most analysts, this is simply further evidence that Biden is unlikely to use the considerable leverage the US has to deter Israel from ending its occupation or expanding illegal settlements. 

“This is a pattern that goes back 55 years with virtually no exception, and there is no reason to believe that Biden will deviate from the behaviour of his predecessors, whether Democrats or Republicans,” George Bisharat, professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, told The New Arab.

Others, such as professor Russell Lucas, Associate Professor of International Relations at the Michigan State University, say Biden will address these issues, including an announcement in May for 4,427 new settler homes, but it will be done privately and as a secondary focus of his visit.

"Despite wanting to elevate Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states as key partners, Biden does not have the determination or leverage to pressure them on key issues such as the occupation of Palestine, the war in Yemen, or oil production"

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians await Biden’s visit with low expectations. Their requests to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, closed by former president Donald Trump, or lift the terrorist classification of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) remain unaddressed.

But the PA has very little leverage in the US and has low approval ratings at home.

“Deeply unpopular, indeed, viewed by many Palestinians as the security subcontractor of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the PA is dependent on outside funding and diplomatic support, which is why it is reduced to asking for pitifully minor concessions like reopening the US Consulate in East Jerusalem,” Bisharat said.

While the US may offer token gestures to the PA, “it is equally or more likely that it will offer nothing at all,” he added.

Meanwhile, Ranjit Singh, Associate Professor from the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at the Virginia-based University of Mary Washington, points out that even if Biden were to reopen the US Consulate it would do little to address wider Palestinian concerns.

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“If anything, it might just consolidate the Abraham Accords by putting a nice fig leaf on the very real injury done to the Palestinian cause,” he said.

In his opinion, mass protests or armed confrontation are sadly the only leverage Palestinians in the occupied territories have.

As a result of such frozen and asymmetrical power dynamics, it is likely that the violence in Gaza of May 2021 and the unrest within Israel between Jewish and Palestinian citizens will likely reoccur in the coming months.

“This is due to the simple fact that many Palestinians are at breaking point, with relentless violence being meted out to them by Israel, either by its troops or by armed settlers acting in concert with the Israeli state,” Bisharat said.

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While Biden may try to ignore the Palestinians, another tough encounter awaits him in Jeddah, where he will meet his Saudi host MBS. [Getty]

Uncomfortable meeting in Jeddah

But while Biden may try to ignore the Palestinians, another tough encounter awaits him in Jeddah, where he will meet his Saudi host the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). 

Although Biden tried to save face by saying that the decision to go to Jeddah was circumstantial, saying the meeting “is in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not about Saudi Arabia”, it is evident that he was forced to alter his initial approach to Riyadh.

Changing his tone towards MBS is especially important if he wants to continue the legacy of the Abraham Accords and convince the Saudis to increase oil supplies.

“This humiliating climb-down is necessitated by Biden's desperate domestic political situation, largely related to consumer fury over sky-rocketing energy prices, which he hopes the KSA and other Gulf oil and gas producers will help him to tamp down,” Rashid Khalidi told TNA. 

Although Biden is expected to attempt to bring Riyadh and Israel closer together, which again helps with his domestic audience, it is not yet clear how far this will lead.

"Changing his tone towards MBS is especially important if he wants to continue the legacy of the Abraham Accords and convince the Saudis to increase oil supplies"

The US has no leverage over its Middle East partners  

Nevertheless, despite the objective of elevating Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states as key US partners, Biden does not have the determination or leverage to pressure them on key issues such as the occupation of Palestine, the war in Yemen, or oil production. 

Indeed, Biden, who prides himself on his foreign policy acumen, is travelling to the region with an extraordinarily weak hand, according to Singh. In his view, almost everything he'll be saying and doing will be with his domestic political scene in mind.

“The fact is that Biden's poll numbers are in the gutter, inflation and gas prices are high - something that Americans obsess over - and his party is facing a potential catastrophe in the fall with the congressional elections,” Singh told The New Arab.

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Anders Persson, Senior Lecturer and expert on the role of the European Union in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Linnaeus University in Sweden, says he can’t recall a time when the three leaders from the US, Israel, and Palestine were all so weak and unpopular.

Consequently, “there are very few expectations on what Biden’s trip may bring, at least when it comes to the Israel-Palestine peace process, while we may see some progress with Saudi Arabia, in the context of oil and his relations with the Saudi ruler”.

However, both the Israelis and Saudis know that Biden is weak and according to Singh, “possibly mortally wounded”, and therefore likely to make concessions to them.

In need of good headlines back home, especially vis-à-vis Ukraine, he might not trumpet the favours he grants the Saudis, but Riyadh can at least expect to extract some gains from his visit.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence