Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Israel’s politics are in turmoil and new elections are on the horizon. Is this a good time for US President Biden to come?
A. Biden has little choice. US midterm elections are also approaching. Political uncertainty in Israel will continue for many months. By coming now, Biden can support moderate forces in Israel, while his hosts can perhaps benefit electorally from the prestige of a US presidential visit and the (hoped-for) strategic benefits it bestows. If he can indeed register strategic achievements, Biden may also score points for the Democrats in November.
Q. Which is the potentially more strategic aspect of the July 13-16 Biden visit to the Middle East: Israel-Palestine, or Saudi Arabia?
A. President Biden’s Riyadh visit (July 15-16) is likely to have the greater strategic impact regionally and globally. This reflects first and foremost the economic dimension and the war in Ukraine. The Biden administration seeks urgently to recruit a Saudi effort to lower energy prices, thereby helping fight inflation in the US. This in turn requires persuading the Saudis to back off from coordinating high prices with Russia, whose war in Ukraine the US opposes.
To make all this happen, Biden has to make amends with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the object of angry 2020 campaign attacks by Biden over the brutal murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MbS is also widely held responsible for the devastating war in Yemen with its huge humanitarian toll: another topic on Biden’s Riyadh agenda.
Q. Yet surely the Saudi-Gulf-Iran dimension is linked to the Israel-Palestine dimension. . .
A. Indeed, Biden will be looking for a Saudi normalization gesture toward Israel in the spirit of the Abraham Accords that link the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain--Saudi neighbors--to Israel. Back in 2019-20 Abu Dhabi and Manama, as well as Morocco far to the west, essentially dropped the traditional demand that Israel bring about the creation of a Palestinian state as a condition for establishing open diplomatic, security and commercial relations with Jerusalem.
Thus far, Riyadh has balked at taking a similar step, even as it expands quiet security and commercial cooperation. Biden wants to persuade MbS to go public with the relationship. Such a step would add prestige to both the Biden administration and the anticipated Yair Lapid-led interim coalition in Israel as elections approach in both countries.
Yet another Biden objective will be to advance a regional security alliance that involves Israel, Saudi Arabia and additional Middle East countries under an American umbrella.
Q. Is such an anti-Iran US-led alliance, conceivably modelled on NATO, a serious prospect in your view?
A. No, at least not yet, for two interlocking reasons. First, the Gulf countries do not seem (yet?) capable of committing openly to fight alongside Israel against Iran. And second, the countries of the region are not convinced that the United States is sufficiently motivated to lead this fight. In both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden will have to combat the impression that the US is gradually abandoning military involvement in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek a US commitment to sell them sophisticated weapons like the F-35 stealth attack aircraft. Not surprisingly, then, so far the ‘Middle East Air Defense Alliance’ appears to involve primarily Israel and the United States.
Still, there are reliable reports that last March the US convened a meeting of military leaders from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and even Saudi Arabia, in Sharm al-Sheikh. A degree of regional early-warning coordination, directed primarily against Iran, had commenced even prior to March, and was expanded at the Sharm meeting. Perhaps it is in this connection that the region has witnessed a round of intriguing high-level visits lately: Bennett to the UAE, MbS to Egypt and Turkey. The Biden mid-July visit apparently seeks to advance this regional framework yet further.
The very fact that a NATO-type alliance initiative is being associated with the Biden visit is a step forward. Were it to reach fruition and become operational, pairing US, Israeli and Arab capabilities, such a regional security alliance would be a genuine deterrent game-changer for the Middle East.
Q. Where do the Palestinians and the Palestinian issue fit into the Biden visit?
A. Even before the recent collapse of the Bennett government, no far-reaching US initiatives were planned. This reflects recognition that controversial and substantial US gestures toward the Palestinians would only weaken the Lapid-Bennett coalition, which for domestic political reasons is pledged to take no serious initiative regarding the Palestinians, and accordingly would facilitate the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu. Now that Israel appears to be headed for elections, these political sensitivities are merely amplified.
Yet Biden can ill afford to totally ignore Palestinian expectations of an American diplomatic contribution. He will hold a ‘safe’ meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in Bethlehem (with its Christian significance)--not Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority capital. Biden will visit an East Jerusalem hospital to signal renewal of US aid for Palestinian health initiatives that had been suspended by President Trump--a win-win initiative.
And in a bit of sleight-of-hand, the US is contriving to upgrade its diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Rather than reopen a consulate in East Jerusalem dedicated to Palestinian affairs--a Biden election promise that Bennett and Lapid have rejected--Washington will ensure that the Palestinian Affairs Unit in its West Jerusalem Consulate reports directly to the State Department rather than to the US ambassador to Israel.
The death of Palestinian-American CNN journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, apparently by Israeli fire, will presumably be on Biden’s Jerusalem agenda too. Arab and American protests, coupled with Israeli mismanagement, have maneuvered this sad incident into an international cause celebre. A number of ostensibly serious observers and institutions have accused Israeli forces in the West Bank of a deliberate execution--a claim totally bereft of proof. The Israel Defense Forces remain clumsily speechless. Biden will be looking for answers.
Q. How will political developments in Israel--the prospect of elections, the Lapid interim government--affect the Biden visit there?
A. Lapid will perhaps be a congenial host for Biden because his centrist politics on the Palestinian issue are more palatable than Bennett’s right-wing pro-settler record. But it is a given that little more than cosmetic progress regarding the Palestinians can conceivably be credited to this presidential visit.
Discussion of Iran, to be spearheaded by Bennett who has carved out this portfolio for himself, should be far more substantive. It will focus on renewal of the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal--a move Bennett opposes but IDF Intelligence acquiesces in--and the US-led initiative to advance joint military planning with the Saudis and the UAE.
Q. Bottom line: what could generate a successful Biden visit? What could make Biden look bad?
A. The potential spoilers are waiting in full view on the sidelines. Hamas could fire rockets from Gaza and provoke another mini-war. Extremist West Bank settlers, with or without tacit approval from Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, could attack Palestinian villagers and/or construct an overnight outpost or two to challenge Lapid during the visit. Extremist Jews or extremist Arabs could stage a provocation on the Temple Mount to embarrass and outflank Biden and Lapid.
Iran or a Yemeni Houthi proxy could again launch a drone attack on a strategic Saudi or UEA target, challenging the US to respond.
The Palestinian issue is not the main strategic focus of the Biden visit. But it could still threaten to spoil the visit. The IDF has already reportedly been instructed to avoid West Bank house demolitions and similar provocations until after the visit.
Apropos Lapid, who is still a relative political novice, the Biden visit will provide a challenging initiation ritual. By mid-July, with Israeli politicians seeking to score campaign points in upcoming elections, Israel’s incoming prime minister may not yet fully control his interim government.