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Carrie Hart
News Analyst

Expectations rise as Biden heads to Israel and the Middle East

Jerusalem at sunset. Photo by Carrie Hart
Jerusalem at sunset. Photo by Carrie Hart

As the Israeli public awaits the arrival of U.S. President Joseph Biden to the Middle East, July 13-16, 2022, there is both posturing and leveraging taking place by political, diplomatic, and military players in the region and in the international community. There are also confidence-building measures being offered to America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinians.

A historic Jerusalem Declaration on the Israel-U.S. strategic relationship will be unveiled in a ceremony on Thursday, after Israeli Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Biden sit down for talks. The document will serve as a blueprint and compass for the next few years. It contains a very clear and united stand between Israel and the U.S. — against Iran and its nuclear program — as well as against Iranian aggression in the Middle East. It commits both countries to use all elements of power available in dealing with Iran. This Memorandum of Understanding speaks about the importance of regional stability and will be followed-up by substantial actions that address the threats and realities on the ground.

Iran remains at the top of the list in what Israel sees as a major threat to its national security. Iran is continuing to violate its obligations and to deceive the international community. Israel’s position is that Iran is playing for time. As long as Iran believes that time is on its side, it will not stop its nuclear program, nor be willing to give any concessions. Israel believes the time has run out on the JCPOA, and that it is crucial to put pressure on Iran, including through actions taken at the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, the Biden trip should prove that the partnership between Israel and the U.S. remains strong, and that includes Israel’s regional partners, as well. This is what Israel sees as needed for a transformation in the Middle East to occur. Israel wants the U.S. to be an integral part of building relationships with these nations that are considered equal and responsible members of this expanding regional alliance.

In statements that will make the joint U.S.-Israel strategy clear, the allies will affirm their understanding that Iran will never be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, which also includes America’s commitment to allow Israel to defend itself by itself.

While this has been stated before, the Jerusalem Declaration puts this in writing as an official document, considered to be the closest mutual understanding between Israel and the United States in years. This is necessary as Iran continues to defy all demands to stop its race toward a nuclear weapon.

To confirm how important the military partnership is between Israel and America, Biden will begin his visit by looking at Israel’s state-of-the-art missile defense systems, especially the Iron Dome, which the U.S. Administration continues to fund. Also, a model of the Iron Beam laser system, will be on display, which is currently in development. Israel is looking for American funding to help complete the Iron Beam, and then will deploy it. Biden’s focus on Israel’s defense systems, so early in his visit, is a strong signal to Israel’s enemies that there is close, direct, and continued U.S. military support for the Jewish State.

Another confidence-building gesture by the U.S. towards Israel would be for America to activate the sanctions mechanism against Iran, in full force, with the international community supporting it. This may occur soon after Biden’s visit to the region.

Lapid has indicated that Biden will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, the first president to fly this route, which is scheduled for Friday.

For Israel, it is not possible for the region to be completely transformed without normalizing the relationship with Saudi Arabia. There are gradual steps that are being taken, some of which are already being reported.

Meanwhile, Israel is fully supporting a “re-start” between America and Saudi Arabia, which Israel sees as important for the security of the region. But, the ties between these two countries have been damaged for years, and much has to happen for any advancement in relations.  The U.S. will need to signal to Saudi Arabia that it is committed to a relationship based on mutual interests, according to a journalist from Saudi Arabia, and not just one-sided interests. Saudi Arabia is expected to take a hard stance with the U.S. when Biden comes to ask for an oil deal to alleviate high gas prices for Americans. It’s important for the Democrats who have a mid-year election coming up in November. However, the Saudis have seemed more content dealing with Republicans than Democrats in the past, so it will not be an easy transaction for Biden.

Meanwhile, Biden will carry to Saudi Arabia, a message of peace and hope from Israel. Lapid said that Israel is extending its hand to all the countries of the region, calling on them to build ties with Israel. These are gestures, both by Biden and Lapid, to nations that will be participating in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC + 3) summit in Jeddah, expected to include: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

The advancement in Israel-Saudi relations that is currently on the table is the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. These islands, called Sanafir and Tiran, are located in the northern part of the Red Sea, at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. In the Israeli-Egyptian 1979 peace deal, these islands ended up in Egypt’s hands. Israel’s requirement was that the islands would be demilitarized with the presence of a Multinational Observer Force. Eventually, it was agreed by Egypt that the islands would be returned to Saudi Arabia.

Israel expects the same written promise from Saudi Arabia as stated in the peace agreement with Egypt. But, it seems that there will be much more than just an observer force. This will be an opportunity for Israel and Saudi Arabia to work together in the Straits of Tiran to protect ships in the Red Sea.

According to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Iran is methodically basing itself in the southern part of the Red Sea with warships patrolling that part of the region.  This year, Iran has become the most significant military presence in that area, presenting a direct threat to international energy supplies, trade, and the global economy.

Gantz has focused on strengthening the military bond with the U.S. Pentagon, including the development of a “Middle East Air Defense Alliance,” which is being sponsored by the U.S., and is expected to advance military cooperation throughout Middle East countries.

A great concern that should be addressed by Lapid with Biden in their talks will be the roots of instability in the region that could lead to another major conflict in the north. Israel’s natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea (which are located within Israel’s boundary waters, but disputed by Lebanon), are being targeted by Iranian proxy, Hezbollah. This is threatening to start a conflagration. Hezbollah recently sent three Iranian UAV’s towards Israel’s “Karish” gas rig, which were shot down by Israel’s air and sea forces. However, that bold move by Hezbollah is an indication that Israel is losing its deterrence in the north.

Hezbollah has not only increased forces, which are integrated into civilian populations in south Lebanon, its more than 100,000 rockets are directly aimed at Israel. It has built at least 15 new outposts on Lebanon’s border with Israel. Hezbollah has also sent more forces into Syria and is preparing for a future war with Israel on the Syrian and Lebanese borders.

Lapid recently met with French President Emmanuel Macron. France is a country with close ties to Lebanon, and Lapid enlisted Macron’s help in restraining Hezbollah. He was hoping for a direct French appeal to the Lebanese government. Israel is trying to negotiate with the Lebanese government over the territorial sea borders both countries share, but Hezbollah is preventing this line of direct cooperation.

Meanwhile, the statement from Macron, released to the media, was encouraging Lapid to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians for a “two-state solution,” something Lapid did not touch on in his remarks. Though Lapid and Macron claim to be close friends, Macron seemed to be using leverage — willing to help Israel with Lebanon — as Lapid shows a willingness to promote the political track with the Palestinians.

For their part, some factions within the Palestinian Authority, led by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, have sent their demands to Biden, thinking he will act upon these demands when he briefly visits the Palestinians in Bethlehem, most likely on Thursday. One of those demands is a return to the “land for peace” formula that has not worked in years past to bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer together.  U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides went as far as to say, at a gala event in Jerusalem for journalists arriving for the Biden visit, that the purpose of Biden’s visit to the region is to emphasize again and again the vision of a “two-state solution.” But, Israel does not see progress on that track at this time.

However, in coordination with Israel, there will be a few confidence-building measures given to the Palestinians by the U.S. on this trip. The Palestinian Authority is expected to receive financial aid from the Biden Administration that was stopped during the Trump Administration. Biden has claimed that in working with Congress, his administration has restored about $500 million in support for the Palestinians.

During Biden’s visit, U.S. officials hope the Palestinians will be satisfied with the financial aid, and the prospects of a robust economy. Confidence measures by Israel will be legalizing the status of thousands of undocumented Palestinian residents in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), as well as additional work permits for Gazans. The measures will also include approving new Palestinian housing projects in the West Bank, and opening up a new West Bank crossing for the Palestinians.

Israel hopes that these measures, along with an improvement in Internet communications for the Palestinians (a 4G network), will have a positive effect on the Palestinian population. Israel views this as a significant step for America. Biden’s visit is an opportunity to role-out measures that are important for economic integrity within the Palestinian population.

While Biden may state his hope for a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, there will be no significant progress on that issue during his short visit to the Middle East. But, both the Jerusalem Declaration, and some advancement in relations with Saudi Arabia – both for Israel and the U.S. – should be cause for a fruitful trip to the region.

Former President Reuven Rivlin, and Former U.S. Vice President (now President) Joseph Biden, stop for a minute to chat at the President’s Residence in 2016. This was the last time Biden came to Israel before his current trip here. Photo by Carrie Hart
About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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