Hard Questions, Tough Answers- the Biden Visit (July 18, 2022)


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. The most significant achievement of President Biden’s just-concluded visit to Israel appears to be the Jerusalem Declaration. Do you agree? Did the declaration break new ground?

A. The Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration of July 14, 2022 reiterates virtually every historic American commitment to Israeli security and well-being. It pledges an American commitment to make sure Israel can “defend itself by itself” and a “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon”. It pledges to “move forward the US-Israel defense partnership through cooperation in cutting-edge defense technologies”.

The Jerusalem Declaration is basically an agglomeration of everything the two countries have already committed to. It even has eye-catching features like a joint commitment to “Tikkun Olam”, a Jewish concept that literally means “repair of the world” and broadly refers to making the world a better place.

As a feature of a warm, crowd-pleasing visit by a US president who appears genuinely to love Israel and the Jewish people, the Declaration is heart-warming. It is certainly a strategically pleasing feature of a visit that also included an awful lot of schmalz and kitsch designed to warm Jewish hearts.

(My barber, a dedicated Trump and Bibi fan, was so moved by Biden’s embrace of two aging Holocaust survivors that he is seriously considering ‘trusting the guy’. And he likes the promise of accelerating visa-less Israeli travel to the US.)

But is there in the Declaration an agreed US-Israeli deadline on the current Iran-nuclear talks Washington is engaged in, as Prime Minister Lapid and President Herzog both publicly requested? Biden and Lapid agreed that an Iranian nuclear weapon must be prevented at all costs. But throughout Biden’s two days in Israel, the US president advocated diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran while the Israeli prime minister stated that diplomacy would not be enough. True, Biden did not rule out the use of force against Iran as a “last resort”. But who defines “last resort”?

Is there in the Declaration an ultimatum to Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah and negotiate seriously with Israel on an agreed maritime border? Such an agreement would allow Lebanese to prosper from deep-water natural gas deposits shared equably with Israel. It could deliver stability to the region. But apparently the topic never came up.

The Jerusalem Declaration is comprehensive and welcome, but it contains nothing new. This is something Israel can cite to ‘prove’ the Biden visit upgraded relations. It is not something Israel can cite at a time of crisis as if it binds Washington to some new strategic policy departure. 

Q. Biden also visited East Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority. Any major breakthrough here?

A. No. As anticipated, Biden visited East Jerusalem without an Israeli escort, thereby underlining his pledge of US support for a Palestinian capital there within the framework of a two-state solution. Jerusalem, Biden declared, “must be a city for all its people.” But he also stated when he landed in Israel that he is aware how distant a two-state solution is today (“I know it’s not in the near-term”). That rendered it easier for Lapid to declare, without too much political damage among Israel’s mainstream hawks, that the two-state solution is vital for a democratic, Jewish-majority Israel.

Biden pledged an extra $100 million in badly needed aid (that had been cancelled by President Trump) for the East Jerusalem hospital network, which is a hub for Palestinian health services. He paid lip-service to the need for a thorough investigation of the death of Al Jazeera TV journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the latest Palestinian martyr, apparently from Israeli army bullets.

Neither gesture particularly ruffled Israeli feathers. On the other hand, Biden did not respond to Palestinian requests to rectify additional Trump decisions and remove the PLO from the US terror list or reopen the PLO office in Washington. Biden also, in his Bethlehem speech, took the trouble to lecture Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen, last elected to office 17 years ago!) on badly needed governance reform in Ramallah.

There was no joint US-Palestinian Authority declaration. There was nothing that implied the prospect of US pressure on the Lapid government to move forward on the Palestinian issue. The Palestinians made no secret of their disappointment.

Q. Biden flew from Israel to Jedda in Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a host of Arab leaders. Did this, as advertised, prove to be the focal point of Biden’s Middle East visit?

A. No, unless you count the highly controversial fist-bump between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), which placed Biden in the difficult pose of pragmatic ‘realpolitik’ collaboration with someone he had pledged to render a ‘pariah’.

What did Biden get in return for the fist-bump? A fuzzy Saudi pledge to pump more oil (and thereby help Biden fight inflation in the US). And ‘lite’ normalization gestures for Israel: overflights by Israeli commercial aircraft; a promise of pilgrim flights to Mecca for Arab citizens of Israel. But at the strategic level, nothing is known to have been agreed regarding expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia--MbS still insists on a two-state solution first--or formalizing an anti-Iran strategic alliance. Biden and the Saudis (and Israel and Egypt) also agreed on the transfer to Saudi sovereignty of two Red Sea islands near the southern tip of Sinai, without a known Saudi quid pro quo.

The Saudis and Emiratis have not forgotten that the US did not retaliate on their behalf in recent years for Iranian-proxy drone and missile attacks on their energy infrastructures. Nothing happened during Biden’s 24 hours in Jedda with regional leaders to indicate that next time will be different. On the contrary, Biden repeatedly took credit for the non-involvement of US forces in regional conflicts. Nor did anything happen in either Jerusalem or Jeddah to back up alarmist cries that the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are jointly plotting a war against Iran.

Q. But didn’t we witness the advent of at least one new regional-global strategic alliance involving Israel?

A. Not one but several were mentioned or celebrated by way of displaying a low-key but firm American pledge to regional security and stability. During the Biden visit, I2U2 was introduced via a Zoom summit between the leaders of Israel, India, the US and UAE. They talked development, not security. At the earlier Negev Summit last March (bringing together the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and the US), development and security (i.e., Iran) were discussed.

Is Washington encouraging the emergence of these largely virtual frameworks of cooperation as a way of rationalizing its determination to withdraw from direct military involvement in the Middle East? Or can we be reassured by Centcom, which recently integrated Israel into a US-Middle East security framework? More ambiguity.

Just prior to his journey, Biden wrote that he would be “the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without US troops engaged in a combat mission there. It’s my aim to keep it that way.” This declaration, which underlines an important element in American Middle East strategy since President Obama, was duly noted by Israeli and Arab leaders. And by Iran and Russia as well.

Q. Indeed, the Biden visit was intended to be perceived globally as a reassertion of the US role in the Middle East. And it seems to have provoked Iranian and Russian reaction. What are the international ramifications?

A. Biden’s efforts to promote US-led strategic cooperation produced very mixed results. Israel and the US find themselves dealing with Middle East countries like the UAE that are hedging their bets by expanding relations with Iran. The Saudi summit in Jedda that Biden attended featured countries like Qatar and Oman that maintain strict neutrality regarding tensions with Iran, Iraq which frequently tilts toward next-door neighbor Iran, and Egypt that maintains its distance. Alliance “partners” further afield like India of I2U2 have close strategic ties with Iran.

Not coincidentally, Russia’s President Putin is on his way this week to Iran, where he will reportedly lay claim to a large shipment of Iranian attack drones for deployment against Ukraine and, indirectly, against Kiev’s western backers. The visit and the arms shipment are an aggressive statement by Tehran and Moscow regarding how they view not just the Middle East. Iran, now openly threatening to produce nuclear weapons, will soon be inducted into the Moscow-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It may join BRICS, another international alliance promoted by Moscow. A Russia-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas-Houthi alliance (RISH3?) is already informally on the books.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Could the Biden visit have contributed inadvertently to the advent of a Middle East ‘infiltrated’ by a new Cold War, with two superpowers pushing their alliances yet Russia seemingly far more committed militarily to its regional allies--and they to Russia--than the US?

Or were strategic cooperation agreements advanced by the Biden visit and agreed in Jerusalem and Jedda that are best left in the shadows? Closer Israel-Saudi-UAE-Egyptian early-warning coordination that integrates air defenses? US-Israel military understandings regarding Iran? More normalization with Saudi Arabia? Let’s hope so.

At the bilateral level, Biden’s visit certainly reiterated the emotional depths of US support for Israel. If symbolic gestures laden with pathos--biblical pathos, Holocaust-related pathos--are required to cultivate that support, so be it. As Alon Pinkas, former Israel Consul-General of Israel in New York, summarized in Haaretz, “When the president of the United States visits Israel without . . . any substantive achievement, but rather because he feels a need and a desire to visit an ally--that’s good. . . . Israel-US relations and Israel’s deep dependency on the US are such that any presidential visit is important, even when it’s not important.”

Finally, coming down to earth and to the nitty gritty of Israeli and American politics, did the Biden visit boost PM Yair Lapid’s leadership profile? Only marginally. And will the next leadership generation of the Democratic Party in America remain as viscerally committed to Israel, warts and all, as Joe Biden? Doubtful.