US President Biden has accepted an invitation to visit Israel in the near future, probably before the end of June. This would be his first visit to Israel and the region since he has taken office in January 2021.
From the outset of the Biden administration, it was obvious that the Middle East was not going to be a priority. The prevailing wisdom was that none of the conflicts that afflict the region, in particular the Palestinian-Israeli and Syria, is ripe for a solution. US policy in the Middle East would therefore focus on de-escalation and reviving the JCPOA (the 2015 Iran nuclear deal). Therefore, there is no need to demonstrate active engagement that usually comes with expectations associated with a presidential visit. Devoting time and energy to what is perceived as the insoluble problems in the Middle East would divert resources away from the goal of stopping the ascendency of the United States main strategic competitor: China.
Since the 1970’s every US president visited during his tenure the region. The timing of each visit was influenced by different factors.
This time round the timing is influenced by a number of factors, but especially the lower priority accorded by the US to the region and the discomfort felt by many Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, towards the Biden administration.
But it is also noteworthy that the visit is happening against the background of two important developments: the attempt at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the crisis in Ukraine.
While the hopes for reviving the JCPOA appear to be receding, there is still a possibility that an arrangement may be found to overcome the remaining problems - which are largely political and not technical - that have so far prevented an agreement. A visit by the US president at this juncture would help assuage the concerns of Israel, and for that matter the GCC countries, if a deal ultimately materializes.
Also the crisis in Ukraine provides an opportunity for the US to shore up the strained and somewhat edgy relations with some Arab countries and, thus the rationale behind giving a regional dimension to the visit. Apparently Washington is interested in using President Biden’s visit to hold a summit for some of the regional countries that have relations with Israel. But probably Tel Aviv is even more keen on such a summit for a variety of reasons, including to lock in the process it hopes to have launched at the Negev meeting last March.
At the meeting the Israeli foreign minister, Lapid, used the opportunity to announce the inauguration of what he described as a new Middle East regional security architecture “…based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation,… and intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies”.
In essence a military arrangement in the guise of a security system designed to counter Iran in different ways, apparently including a regional air-defense system which Israel has been advocating recently. The latter is a proposition raised by the then commander of CENTCOM General McKenzie on a trip to the region last February where he endorsed “an integrated approach to air and missile defense as a means to collective security in the region.”
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Israeli vision for a regional security system appears to have the endorsement of the US. Arab countries that participated in the Negev meeting have been mostly circumspect. GCC countries are understandably concerned about Iranian policies in the region, but at the same time they have been engaged in bilateral talks with Tehran. So entering into a politico-military arrangement against Tehran, at least at this stage, may not be in the cards. At least until the situation with respect to the JCPOA is clarified and results of the bilateral talks become apparent.
I have always maintained that the Arab countries’ interest lies in a comprehensive and inclusive regional security architecture. Comprehensive meaning that it has, military, political, human rights and economic dimensions. Inclusive in the sense that it includes all states in the region, Arab and non-Arabs, and is not directed against any one party. This will require a flexible and gradual process that allows countries to join the process at different times and on different issues. Ultimately the process should be steered into one similar to the one that produced the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE (my article of 17 April ).
It is obvious that the US pivot to Asia policy, has diverted Washington’s attention away from both Europe and the Middle East. With the crisis in Ukraine, however, the US has come to realize the importance of not only retaining but shoring up its traditional alliances and friendships around the world. Nowhere is this more urgent than in Europe and the Middle East. In Europe to prove that the US continues to retain the leadership of the West. As to the Middle East, and particularly in the wake of the debacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington needs to prove that it remains a reliable ally and friend that is interested in playing a role in ensuring the security and stability of the region. This assumes added importance given what appears to be Washington’s intent to engage in a prolonged confrontation with Russia and possibly China.
Moreover, given that the Biden administration has taken the political decision to use and build upon the Abraham Accords to bring a greater measure of stability to the region, a regional summit involving the Arab states that have relations with Israel would be helpful. The summit can also be used to underline the administration’s declared commitment to solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict according to the two-state formula. What emerges in tangible terms is immaterial. In politics, form and perception is often more important than reality and achieving tangible outcomes.
In short, both Washington and Tel Aviv have a vested interest in holding such a summit. The question is: do the concerned Arab countries see any virtue in such a meeting?
The only possible virtue for the Arab participants is that it will be an opportunity to express directly to the US president their concerns and apprehensions, not only with respect to the regional security environment - including with regard to the policies of Iran, Turkey and Israel - but also concerning the ramifications of the Ukraine crisis.
Beyond that would be wandering into dangerous territory. The concerned Arab states need to avoid being locked in a regional security process before they consult amongst themselves. They need to adopt a comprehensive and inclusive approach to Middle East security. This requires a process of consultations to identify the common threats, agreement on what kind of a security architecture would safeguard their interests and, agree on how to cooperate amongst themselves in establishing mechanisms that would enhance their negotiating power vis a vis the other regional states that will ultimately be part of the regional security architecture.