After weeks of uncertainty, US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East has become clear: A visit to Israel and also a visit to Bethlehem to meet with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But more significantly, a trip to Saudi Arabia which includes a summit with the GCC together with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
The time now is therefore appropriate to consider how best to make use of the visit to further the interests of the Arab countries. But before doing so, let us consider the benefits both the US and Israel hope to derive from it. This is important as it will allow Arab countries to best position themselves to secure their long-term interests.
First, the visit to Israel would serve two main purposes. A gesture of support for the present Israeli government and the political parties rivaling former PM Benjamin Netanyahu. But also a possible opportunity to lock in the Israeli approach to regional security which was put forward at the Negev meeting last March.
This would mean integrating Israel, through a mechanism of regional military cooperation involving a joint missile-defense system. If this were to happen, it would mean that Israel would have found a way to integrate itself in the region at the ultimate level before meeting the conditions set forth in the Saudi-proposed Arab Peace Initiative API.
The API envisaged normal peaceful relations and the integration of Israel in the Middle East in the context of : Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories, acceptance of a Sovereign Independent state on the Palestinian territories occupied since the 4th of June 1967 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital and, the achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
It is one thing for Arab countries to exercise their sovereign right to enter into normal peaceful relations with any country, including Israel and , it is an entirely different matter to integrate Israel in the region before it meets the conditions set forth by the API and moving towards the creation of a balanced regional security architecture involving an arms control and nuclear disarmament system.
As to the Palestinian dimension, the visit is designed to reverse the enormous damage caused by the Trump administration. It will be an opportunity for the United States to confirm its support of the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, the US will fall short of its commitment to reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem and will only open an office and appoint a special representative for Palestinian affairs. It is here where it is necessary for Washington to hold to its commitments to the Palestinians.
For the US, the visit to Israel although bilateral, has bearings on domestic politics coming ahead of the mid-term congressional elections next November. But it also has implications, as President Biden recently announced, on Middle Eastern regional security. It is for this reason Washington needs to factor in the possible outcome of Biden’s tour. Specifically endorsing the Israeli version of a regional security architecture should be avoided until adequate consultations take place with the concerned Arab countries.
By the visit, the US hopes to achieve a number of objectives. First, to convince the Arab oil producers to continue to increase their production in order to arrest the exponential increase in prices. Second, to shore up the relations with the GCC, particularly with Saudi Arabia . Third, to assuage the concerns of both the Arab countries and Israel in the event of the revival of the Iran nuclear deal. And fourth, to ensure that it can depend on a regional alliance in what appears to be an impending new Cold War involving both Russia and China.
While a summit involving the US president, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will no doubt contribute to improving US-Saudi relations, it should be utilized to achieve more general Arab strategic interests to serve peace and stability in the region in the long run.
The summit will be an opportunity for the Arab countries to frankly exchange views on their political, security and economic concerns with the United States. No doubt that Arab contacts, which took place in the past weeks, created an important opportunity to coordinate stances on what could result in a common view on fears of Israel’s and Iran’s policies.
They also need to understand from Washington how it sees the evolution of the Ukraine crisis and how it can end. They also need to hear from Washington how it views its future relations with both Beijing and Moscow. Ultimately it is important to understand from Washington how it envisages its role in assisting the Arab countries in establishing peace and stability in the region.
But given vagaries of the US election cycle, it is highly unlikely that the US will be able to take concrete steps to address common Arab security concerns before the mid-term elections.
What is possible is that Washington undertakes bilateral security commitments. In the circumstances the objective of Arabs can therefore be reaching understandings with Washington - that can be reflected in a document -that would form the basis for future Arab-American joint efforts to ensure regional security and stability.
The Arab side can seek the following assurances from the US :
First, to coordinate with Arab countries concerning the establishment of a comprehensive and balanced security architecture in the region. This is particularly relevant if the Iran nuclear deal is revived, but also given the concerns concerning Israeli and Turkish policies in the region.
Second, to work towards a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this regard, a reaffirmation of its commitment to opening the US consulate in Jerusalem. Also a commitment to work, including in international fora, to uphold Palestinian human rights. This should not be a major problem for the US given the position announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Palestinians and Israelis “should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy”.
Third, the need to expedite political settlements not only in Yemen, but also in Syria and Libya and to coordinate with Arab countries in this regard.
Fourth, confirm the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Arab territories in Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq.
Fifth, as long-term energy security is a common strategic objective, agreeing on cooperating in the field of renewable energy, including on bridging technologies such as those related to the production of blue hydrogen.
Arriving on such understandings would no doubt be a credit to the host country Saudi Arabia and together with the Arab Peace Initiative would be registered as an additional important contribution in the pursuit of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East.
At this juncture, the US needs the Arab countries more than any other time. It therefore offers an opportunity for Arab countries to align US interests with their own. If this opportunity is missed, a new one may not occur in the foreseeable future.
It will then fall on the Arab countries, both individually and collectively, to ensure that the US sticks to these understandings.