It remains to be seen whether President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party will lose next November’s mid-term congressional elections, as almost all polls predict. All the more so after his tour of the explosive Middle East region, from which, in my opinion, he emerges stronger.
From the moment he landed in Israel on his first stop, Biden had a vast minefield in front of him, any one of which could blow up the grand objective of a trip that had been carefully outlined in every detail. By the end of the trip and his many meetings, the US president has succeeded in defusing the mines, restoring much of the trust that the Arab world, Palestinians and the more orthodox sectors of Israel had lost in the White House, and has raised hopes of a long-term solution to some of the most entrenched problems in the region.
The most explosive mine of the tour was in Saudi Arabia, and more specifically in the personality of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the regime’s undisputed strongman. Biden did not shake hands with him, but merely shook hands with him and warned him that he would have a response, presumably a forceful one, if there were any further attacks on dissidents, while reiterating that he held him responsible for the “scandalous” murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was hacked to death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In turn, MBS denied Biden’s responsibility for the murder, citing the prosecution and conviction of the perpetrators as justification.
Obviously, neither Biden nor MBS could publicly go any further, both aware that those who demand greater radicalism and forcefulness towards the heir to the Saudi throne will persist, and will not fail to recall Biden’s election promise to turn him and his country into international pariahs. But the truth is that, with this main mine deactivated, the two leaders were able to discuss and agree on the major geopolitical problems. Thus, Saudi Arabia agrees to open the tap of oil production to alleviate both the shortage of supplies and the rise in prices in the face of the West’s decision to do without Russia’s energy sources.
In the same line of confidence, Riyadh will continue to give the United States the role and business of being its top arms supplier, maintaining at least 80 per cent of American supplies to Arabia, currently the world’s largest arms buyer. MBS in turn gets assurances that the White House will continue to guarantee the security of the Kingdom, acting with the necessary determination, speed and forcefulness in the event of an external attack.
Iran, always in the spotlight
In reality, this agreement, as with Israel, has one main addressee: Iran, the common enemy of both. A relatively easy agreement to conclude in Jeddah, especially after the Jerusalem Declaration, signed by Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, in which Washington reaffirms its commitment to work “together with other allies to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilising activities, whether direct or through terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad”.
By this agreement, in addition to continuing to preserve Israel’s military supremacy in the Middle East (38 billion dollars a year for the Israel Defense Forces), the United States aligns itself with the Jewish state, and thus with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, in preventing Iran from finally obtaining a nuclear weapon. A deal that may instead immediately result in a significant and definitive halt to talks to reinstate the JCPOA between Iran, the US and the EU, forcing Tehran further into closer ties with Moscow and its president Vladimir Putin.
Biden also scored another coup by announcing the evacuation before the end of this year of international forces, especially American forces, who have been stationed for the past forty years on the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, located equidistant between Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The islands, under Egyptian sovereignty, were claimed by Saudi Arabia, but their transfer to Riyadh required not only Cairo’s assent but also Israel’s consent. It is a gibberish whose triple-consensual resolution Biden is aiming for.
Change to put the Palestinian solution back on track
And finally, on the eternal and unresolved Palestinian problem, the US president has not found a solution, but he has opened a window of hope. Firstly, he has moved away from the radical stance of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who was decidedly in favour of Israel’s annexation of the increasingly numerous and populous Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which the former prime minister, current head of the opposition and perhaps future prime minister again, Benjamin Netanyahu, wanted to put into effect.
Biden has taken up the old two-state doctrine, after all what the United Nations determined when the state of Israel was created in 1948, advocating that the creation of this Palestinian state should be based on the pre-1967 borders. It was in that Six-Day War, fought between 5 and 10 June, that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, in what is considered Israel’s last crushing victory over its Arab neighbours.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is perhaps the last hurdle before Saudi Arabia establishes normal official diplomatic relations with Israel. Biden has smoothed the waters when he stated, when meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), that ‘the Palestinian people deserve an independent and sovereign state of their own, viable and contiguous, with an agreed exchange of territories’. A formula that has always been accepted by the majority of the international community, and which breaks with Trump’s line, which accepted a discontinuous Palestinian state.
The president has garnished this announcement with other more substantial ones, especially for the day-to-day life of a Palestinian population subjected to great hardship. Thus, the $316 million in aid to the health system and UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees, will alleviate what had already become an unsustainable living situation.
All this did not prevent Biden from subtly reminding Abbas that he has artificially extended his mandate, which expired in 2009, without calling elections under various pretexts. It is true that there is no real authority in the Gaza Strip other than that of Hamas, and that Hamas is also taking over the will of the Palestinians in the West Bank on the basis of discontent over the poor quality of life and corruption, but the Palestinian Authority will have to seek a political solution that does not further entrench and fester the situation.
Last but not least, Biden pledged to ensure that the death of prominent Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was killed during an Israeli army raid in Jenin, is cleared up in a transparent manner. The PA provided the US with the bullet that killed the journalist, and the forensic investigation argued that ‘the poor condition of the bullet did not make it possible to clarify the responsibility for the shooting’, which the Palestinians attributed to an Israeli soldier. This conclusion has been taken up by media outlets such as The New York Times and Associated Press. These media outlets and many others will remind Biden of this.
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