President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel marks the 12th official visit by a U.S. president in the past half century, but after all of America’s peacemaking, the Israeli-Palestinian divide remains intractable. With American help, Israel has developed trade and security cooperation with regional Arab neighbors, but U.S. efforts to be a handmaiden to an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, at times tantalizingly close, have led lately to a stalemate.
Nonetheless, Biden wants to expand on the 2020 Abraham Accords, which dramatically improved ties between Israel and a few Sunni Arab states—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and later Sudan. Unlike the cold peace with Egypt since 1979 and with Jordan since 1994, relations have quickly warmed between some of the Gulf states and Israel. The flight board at Ben Gurion Airport shows regular daily flights to Dubai.
Biden’s push for normalization is a harder sell in Saudi Arabia before, during, and after this trip. There’s symbolism in the president making the first direct flight by an American commander in chief from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a once-unthinkable flight path, and Riyadh may have given its tacit blessing to the Abraham Accords. Still, it’s hardly ready to sign them—even if security concerns about a near-nuclear Iran weigh heavily on the kingdom, as they do on the United States.
The president is going to have to humble himself to make progress. Despite his 2020 campaign vow to make the Saudis “the pariah that they are” for the 2018 murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, Biden must balance admonishment with courtship if he’s to get the kingdom to pump more oil to a world suffering from high fuel prices.
With the U.S. focused on Asian security challenges and finally on the verge of ending its combat mission in Iraq, Washington still has vital interests in the Mideast—especially in an era when Russia and China are making economic, political, and even security inroads such as Moscow’s naval facilities in Syria and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Criticisms of Biden’s visit to the Saudi kingdom come from the families of 9/11 victims, human rights groups, and Americans who want him to press for human rights. Biden said he plans to do so, and he has, to be fair, sanctioned the Saudis for the Khashoggi killing, including sanctioning the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force involved and issuing 76 visa bans for anyone found to be harassing dissidents abroad. But he should make that commitment clear now and in the future to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince blamed by U.S. intelligence for the operation that led to Khashoggi’s slaying inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A grim-faced Biden gave the prince a fist bump when they met.
“From the start, my aim was to reorient—but not rupture—relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” Biden wrote in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post. He hopes that this outreach will lead to more regional integration between Israel and some former Arab enemies, and he wants Saudi Arabia on board.
This Mideast trip can move the needle on regional security, laying a foundation for increased cooperation to counter aggression from Iran and its militant minions—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. One initiative Biden will continue to push after this trip is to build an integrated air defense system among Israeli and Arab adversaries to blunt Iran’s threat. That will take time and realistic expectations. Ending the brutal war in Yemen is a top priority for Biden, and with the help of U.S. diplomacy, there is now a truce in place, but America needs the Saudis to help ensure that it endures.
Former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who helped lead Mideast policy and conducted peace negotiations for three American presidents, told me while the U.S. might not get the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords, Riyadh does see the benefits of regional cooperation in which Arab states share the burden with Israel on security measures, monitoring Iranian missile launches and interdicting Tehran’s weapons shipments. The U.S. provides antimissile defense systems to the region already.
“The Israelis do a lot of things that they don’t admit. We should do that too,” Ross observed. “We should restore deterrence and create a common early-warning and missile defense system.” Experts suggest that a mutual air defense system is a long way off, but there are stepping stones that could overcome mistrust, like Israel sharing intelligence with Arab states and regional powers adopting compatible weapons systems. The prospect of a Sunni-Israeli air defense system—what might be called a Mideast military alliance—has drawn fire from Shiite Iran, which argued, not surprisingly, that it would only increase regional tensions and the prospect of war.
The Saudis have taken some steps toward better relations with Israel: allowing some Israeli business travelers to visit on non-Israeli passports, discussing how the kingdom might make use of Israel’s technological advances, and allocating millions for investing in Israeli tech companies (ironically, through Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s new private equity firm). As the administration hoped, the Saudis announced that they would open their air space to all carriers, paving the way to allowing Israeli airliners more overflights and to blessing direct flights from Israel to the kingdom, bringing Muslim pilgrims to the Hajj. Ross and others would like cooperation in water infrastructure to benefit the Palestinians, which he said would require the Saudis to work directly with the Israelis. That’s not a pipe dream. As for oil, U.S. officials said they did not expect any Saudi announcements to increase global oil supplies during Biden’s visit.
After the recent Negev Summit in Israel in March, the participants—the U.S., Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, and the UAE—announced a framework for regional cooperation and launched working groups on issues of mutual interest: clean energy, education and coexistence, food and water security, health, regional security, and tourism. The Saudis could join this step-by-step process when ready, but the Palestinians, who could benefit from this cooperation, are not formal members of the Negev forum.
Palestinian officials called the Abraham Accords “a stab in the back” by Arab nations who had rejected relations with Israel until there was an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group J Street, told me there needs to be strong American diplomacy to bring the Palestinians into the regional integration process and to incentivize Israel to work toward a two-state solution, which even Biden admitted is unlikely “in the near term.”
Ben-Ami observed that “the real state of conflict is that Israel is sitting on land that belongs to the Palestinians” and the concern that the Abraham Accords might be “a detour around the peace process and not a way toward it.” (Ben-Ami sees the agreements less as diplomatic treaties than as business agreements.) He has called for Biden to denounce the expansion of Jewish settlements, settler violence, and the mass demolition of Palestinians’ homes—all creating what the former Clinton administration official called a “creeping annexation” that will choke off the possibility of an independent Palestinian state. J Street wants Biden to take concrete steps toward Palestinian integration, a two-state solution, and equal justice for the Palestinians—including reopening the shuttered U.S. consulate in Jerusalem as a diplomatic mission for Palestinians.
Ben-Ami might be right, but Biden and the leaders he’s meeting see this trip as primarily aimed at building a new security architecture for the region. American actions haven’t always helped promote security. Trump recklessly pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018. Since that abrupt move, Iran has been ramping up centrifuges and enriching nuclear material. Israel launched a sabotage campaign to chip away at the program to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, but Iran continues to build it. The Biden administration and Iran recently ended another round of indirect JCPOA talks in Qatar to salvage the 2015 deal, but without any progress. Ross told me the breakout time for Iranians to put a nuclear weapon together now is down to just “10 days to two weeks.” Prospects for restoration of JCPOA seem dimmer than ever, and while in Israel, Biden said the U.S. would consider using military force to prevent Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon, but “as a last resort.”
Israelis are fearful and deeply suspicious of the Iran nuclear deal and see military force as the best resort, if needed, to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Jewish state has its problems too. On the first leg of his journey, Biden landed in an Israel led by a caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid. The country is readying for its fifth parliamentary elections in three and a half years. In the Palestinian territories, the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, continues to be viewed as weak. Part of the reason Arab states began negotiating the Abraham Accords was frustration over the lack of progress on peace talks. Almost 30 years after the Oslo agreements, neither Israelis nor Palestinians see the other as a reliable partner.
Still, Palestinian officials are calling on America to hold Israel responsible for the killing of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May in the West Bank. Abbas has demanded that the U.S. “maintain its credibility,” and other PA officials denounced a State Department statement that the veteran Al Jazeera journalist likely died from a shot fired from Israel Defense Forces positions but declined to endorse the Palestinian claim that the shooting was “intentional.” Biden mourned her slaying while in Israel.
The killings of Abu Akleh and Khashoggi weighed heavily on the president’s four-day trip, which is fitting. It behooves him to champion human rights. Despite the smiles around the conference tables in Jerusalem and Jeddah, the holy lands are soaked with blood. Arriving in Israel, Biden underscored his commitment to “a two-state solution that remains in my view the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” But the commitment rings hollow to Palestinians without meaningful steps to get there. The two sides are so far apart now that there is little prospect of restoring the confidence the parties need to return to the negotiating table, let alone discuss a path to peace.