Joe Biden arrives in Middle East at time of rapid change

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  July 13, 2022

Analysis: Israel has transformed itself from regional pariah to ally to many Arab states.

Joe Biden has made clear that the Middle East is not a priority for his administration: Ukraine, China and the US midterm elections are all more pressing issues. Still, when Air Force One touches down in Tel Aviv for his first visit to the region as president on Wednesday afternoon, Biden will be faced with a rapidly changing – and still unstable – part of the world.

Biden’s main goal is to convince Saudi Arabia of the need to increase global oil supplies to ease the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the fact that he flies directly to Jeddah after two days in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories speaks to a significant shift: Israel’s transformation from regional pariah to ally for many Arab states.

The lead-up to Biden’s trip has been dominated by news of developing defence cooperation between Israel and several of its neighbours to combat the threat posed by the growing military prowess of Iran and its proxies in the region.

Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt – as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries with which Israel does not have formal diplomatic relations – were among the nations reportedly represented in secret talks with Israeli military officials in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh earlier this year.

While Arab countries have downplayed or refused to comment on whether the summit took place, senior Israeli officials stressed the day before Biden’s arrival that US leadership had facilitated “upgraded interactions” between Israel and its regional partners in recent months, and that gradual steps were being made towards normalization with Saudi Arabia.

The warming relationship between two of the Middle East’s most powerful nations builds on the Abraham accords, agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan facilitated by the Trump administration.

The declarations ended a decades-old taboo in Arab diplomacy. The region’s mostly autocratic governments have grown apathetic to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and Israel and the Gulf states have a common enemy in Iran. At the same time, the US – which has traditionally seen itself as the Middle East’s security guarantor – has been pulling away from the region in recent years, forcing its Israeli and Gulf allies to explore alternatives.

“The idea of defence cooperation comes at a time when the US is reluctant to face up to the Iranian threat and to provide protection; based on what we’ve seen recently when Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been attacked by drones [claimed by Yemen’s Iran-supported Houthi rebels]. It seems they are in no mood to do that job, even though beforehand many believed they would,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.

Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister until the short-lived coalition government collapsed last month, recently described what he called the “Middle East air defence alliance” as already operational, claiming it had shot down an Iranian drone fired towards Israel from Iraq.

The Sharm al-Sheikh summit’s participants reportedly agreed in principle to coordinate rapid notification systems when aerial threats are detected, and discussed potential decision-making processes on which country’s forces would intercept drone, ballistic or cruise missile attacks.

Alerts are supposed to be sent via phones and computers, rather than a US-style military data-sharing system. Support from political leaders would be needed to codify broader military cooperation.

Some are worried that formalizing any security mechanisms could push Iran into a corner at a time when Tehran and Washington are still trying to rescue the international deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program scrapped by Trump in 2018.

“All this talk of a regional pact, like a Middle East NATO – that would go too far,” Abdulla said. “It is still possible to engage Iran in talks, and that should be every stakeholder’s priority.”

Several US administrations have attempted to build formal military alliances between Middle Eastern nations in the past, although the reported Middle East air defence alliance would mark the first time Israel has been included in such plans.

“Normalization makes a lot of sense. But what is fascinating is that even though the consensus seems to be that peace with the Palestinians is no longer anyone’s top priority – maybe not even in the top five – and that’s why Arab states can now engage with Israel, the minute the Palestinian issue is resolved peacefully, then all of this could just be out in the open,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House think-tank.

“It may be that these security arrangements are more talk than substance, or they may never materialize. But either way it shows that the Palestinians can’t be ignored completely.”

In a volatile neighbourhood, Saudi Arabia – notorious for human rights abuses at home and in its war in Yemen – is currently perhaps the Palestinians’ most forthright ally. Riyadh appears to be adhering to a 2002 Arab League peace initiative that demands an end to the occupation before relations with Israel can be established.

“Arab countries are free to take any decision they want, any relationship they need to have, but that does not need to be at the expense of a principled position against Israeli occupation,” said Ghassan Khatib, an international studies lecturer at Ramallah’s Birzeit University.

“Our expectations from Biden’s trip are low. The new administration has different rhetoric, but practically speaking they have not moved far from the previous government. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the back burner even when he comes to visit.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian