Does the US Currently Have a Strategic Policy Regarding Israel? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- March 6, 2023)


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. To answer a question with a question: does the United States have a strategic policy for the entire Middle East, Israel included?

A. It does. On February 14 of this year, a “Biden Doctrine” to guide American engagement in the Middle East was articulated by White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk. It comprises five basic principles: partnership-building, deterrence, diplomacy, integration and values. It was first presented by President Biden to a GCC + 3 Arab forum meeting in Saudi Arabia last July. It has been incorporated into US National Security Strategy.

McGurk’s “Biden Doctrine” is historically in good company. Apparently the Middle East beckons to American presidents to codify their strategic approach. The George W. Bush administration wanted to establish democracies and deny safe haven to Islamist terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. The Clinton presidency boosted “dual containment” vis-à-vis Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf. The “Carter doctrine” followed upon the catastrophes of the Khomeini revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Needless to say, these doctrines were not always successful.

The five principles outlined by McGurk can be analyzed specifically in terms of US-Israel relations, and generally with regard to US-Middle East relations. While flawed and incomplete, they provide a useful set of benchmarks for judging the efficacy of Washington’s Middle East policy initiatives and military stance in the region.

Q. Start with US-Israel relations. Does this tell us how Washington will deal with escalation in the West Bank? With the current crisis in Israeli domestic politics? With a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear project?

A. Regarding West Bank escalation, it is tempting to say that the Biden Doctrine does not give us American guidelines beyond ‘values’ that of late have been expressed in scolding statements from a “disgusted” State Department spokesman and admonitions from Secretary Blinken during his recent visit. Yet as always with US-Israel relations, it’s complicated, if only because those relations encompass far more than the Palestinian issue.

The most relevant recent and current policy activity regarding US-Israel relations appears to be mutual high-level visits that fall under multiple headers in the nascent Biden Doctrine. Thus, following Blinken’s visit, last week Israel hosted General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. And this week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is coming. These visits fairly naturally fall under the Biden Doctrine headers of partnership building, deterrence, and integration: US-Israel partnership to deter Iran; and integration of Israel, under US sponsorship, into strategic partnership with the UAE, Bahrain and possibly Saudi Arabia.

But Milley and Austin are almost certainly also talking to Israel not only about deterring Iran but also about not attacking Iran unilaterally, particularly insofar as this ultimately could involve US military losses that the American public is not ready for. They may also be seeking to deter Israel from launching a major military incursion into the West Bank that could disrupt the entire region. That bespeaks strategic ‘diplomacy’—another Biden Doctrine principle and a possible reason also for trips to Washington this week by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi.

Q. Where do ‘values’ enter the Israel-US picture? PM Netanyahu’s government is moving ahead with an unpopular judicial revolution that could radically downgrade Israel’s High Court as a guardian of justice.

A. Note that the Biden administration, like its predecessors, cooperates strategically with a host of Arab and other Middle East countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, where a genuine balance of powers between branches of government does not exist and the judicial is under the thumb of an authoritarian ruler. Then too, tampering with the judicial branch is technically a domestic issue in Washington’s strategic partner countries, where traditionally the US does not interfere. What’s more, some of Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, such as appointment of judges by politicians, long exist in the United States.

Hence Biden administration criticism of Israel’s judicial revolution and Netanyahu’s right-messianic government is muffled. It consists so far mainly of admonitions by the likes of US Ambassador Tom Nides and a threat not to allow Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to enter the US this week following his call (since tactically obfuscated) to destroy the Palestinian town of Hawara.

Many among the huge crowds of weekly Israeli protesters against the judicial revolution are disappointed: shouldn’t Washington be more agitated by the prospective demise of democracy in Israel, a strategic partner with which it famously has ‘shared values’? True, Biden has not invited Netanyahu to the White House, but is that all?

Yediot Aharonot’s Nachum Barnea wrote on Monday that “Israel’s strength in the US rests on three pillars: shared values, shared interests and the political power of the Jewish community and the Evangelicals. [Netanyahu’s judicial revolution] damages all three.”

Test case number one: Will an American Jewish establishment that is horrified by the likes of Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich be supportive of Israeli military actions in the West Bank, where under his coalition agreement Smotrich has a policy say?

Test case number two: When Israeli F-15 pilots refuse to train in protest against the judicial revolution, which could deny them adequate legal protection in international courts, how should the US Air Force address the prospect of joint maneuvers with the Israel Air Force?

It appears that the Biden Doctrine is not a suitable vehicle for generating and channeling American criticism of Netanyahu’s government at a time of great need on Israel’s part for tough guidance. Is there a better vehicle, or will the Biden administration suffice, for a host of domestic and geostrategic reasons, with minor and nuanced admonitions while Israel tears itself apart?

Q. How does this list of five principles apply to US strategy in the rest of the Middle East?

A. We have already dealt with the Biden Doctrine’s principle of values: it seems to barely apply to Israel in its time of need, and not at all to the likes of Saudi Arabia. Here and there, ‘values’ are cited to justify sanctions against minor partners like Sudan over human rights abuses.

Deterrence certainly is cultivated, particularly vis-à-vis Iran and its proxy forces. Indeed, the Biden administration’s failure or inability to renew the JCPOA Iran-nuclear agreement translates into a need for ever-greater nuclear deterrence of Tehran.

Partnership-building and integration (is there really a difference?) are key recognizable components of US relations with the region. They translate into arms-supply and encouragement of burden-sharing or even burden-bearing by Arab partners and Turkey against shared enemies or antagonists, Iran and militant Islamists.

Are these partners up to the task? For some in the region who feel threatened, burden-sharing has come to mean genuine concern over a lowering of the American military profile, for example in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia, that corresponds with the pivot-to-Asia doctrine launched under the Obama administration. Israel, on the other hand, apparently hopes to adapt these principles to an eventual attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in which Israeli and American strategic forces bear the burden but with reliance on Arab geostrategic infrastructure: basing, refueling and the like.

Q. Where does US diplomacy, one of the five principles, enter the picture?

A. This is problematic ground. In the Middle East, diplomacy appears to play second-fiddle to partnership-building and integration. Thus, the Biden administration has avoided wasting diplomatic capital on a futile attempt to mediate significant progress between Israel and the Palestinians. It did recently succeed in persuading the UAE to withdraw a UN Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank by pledging greater US involvement.

Accordingly, it convened Israeli, Palestinian and Arab security officials in Aqaba in Jordan last week, an event greeted with disparaging remarks by the Netanyahu government’s extremists and same-day violence at Hawara in the West Bank. Elsewhere, American success in resolving the Yemen civil war has been minor and incremental, lest the Saudis and Emiratis, US allies with highly flawed human rights and war crimes records, get rattled.

Where diplomacy has triumphed, albeit a Trump achievement adopted by Biden and one where deterrence and integration play major roles, is in the Abraham Accords, the 2019 breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Here the Biden administration has worked with Israel to expand the accords to include Saudi Arabia and Oman (thus far, at the overt level, only regarding air transit rights for Israel), and to translate an official but stillborn breakthrough with Sudan into reality.

Then too, in the last year or two we have witnessed US facilitation of additional emerging broad regional strategic-economic partnerships that build on the Abraham Accords: the Negev Forum and I2U2. It is too early to judge the net value of these intriguing attempts by the US at regional integration. In contrast, Washington’s success in facilitating the Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal has already proved to be stabilizing and could eventually be judged as spectacular.

Still, Washington has to live with the contradiction built into the Abraham Accords regarding the Palestinians. Back in 2002 the entire Arab and Muslim worlds subscribed to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) formula of normalizing ties with Israel only as a reward for a two-state solution for the PLO. The Abraham Accords, which normalized ties without a two-state solution, have bypassed the API. Here the Palestinians are sorely disappointed in US policy. If more Abraham Accord breakthroughs are in store under the Biden administration, then conferences in Aqaba to improve Israel-Palestinian Authority security are little more than empty gestures as far as Ramallah is concerned.

Q. Can the Middle East aspects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict be understood to conform to the new Biden Doctrine?

A. Not really. Most Arab countries refuse to actively condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine even as they buy more US weaponry. Israel and Turkey have both obfuscated their alliance requirements: Israel rejecting US requests to sell key weapons to Ukraine, and Turkey preferring mediation efforts to toeing the NATO line.

Note that both Jerusalem and Ankara figuratively or geographically border on Russia and its new ally Iran (Israel by virtue of its border with Syria, where allied Russian and Iranian forces bolster the Assad regime and Iran penetrates yet closer to Israel’s borders). Hence their caution. There seems to be nothing in the Biden Doctrine principles of partnership-building, deterrence and diplomacy to alter Israeli and Turkish calculations. Indeed, McGurk’s presentation of the five principles in his mid-February speech to The Atlantic Council did not attempt any serious integration between US Middle East policy and the more overriding American preoccupations with Russia and China.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The Biden Doctrine is, as far as it goes, solid. But it is limited and full of lacunae. It is not an earthshaking departure.