How to reverse the trend of the US distancing

Various global developments are weakening American influence in the Middle East, and China is filling the vacuum. This is bad news for Israel. To help the Americans help us, the government must abandon the regime coup and resume political horizon for Palestinians

Tehran’s recently renewed relations with Riyadh under Chinese auspices would not appear to be linked in any way to the regime coup being promoted by the Israeli government since January. However, each of these seminal events reflect the same process: a decline in American influence in the Middle East, with potentially dramatic impact on regional reality and Israel’s standing.

While the weakening US grip on the Middle East stems from global trends and its impact extends beyond our neighborhood, it is undoubtedly an ominous process for America’s main ally in the region – Israel. Could the Israeli government turn around this direction in the interests of its national security?

What went wrong with American-Saudi relations

The process of US withdrawal from the Middle East can be dated back to 2011 and the Bush Administration’s failed attempts to impose the neoconservatives’ vision of forcing democratic governments on the countries of the region. These failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya created a vacuum which drew in ISIS and Iran. This process was impacted further when the United States became the world’s leading oil producer due to the development of shale oil extraction technologies. American energy independence severed the Gordian knot between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, and brought to the surface the cultural and moral contradictions between the countries.

The Iranian-backed Houthi attack on Aramco’s oil facilities in 2019 marked a further milestone in this process, with the Trump Administration’s lack of response signaling to its allies that they should not rely on the US to deal with the Iranian threat and prompting Saudi disillusionment with its expectations of Uncle Sam’s protection.

Tensions had already intensified following the 2018 murder of exiled Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and even more so after the 2021 US intelligence report, which blamed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing. The report made it very difficult for the Democratic Party to prioritize realpolitik with the values it seeks to promote, especially given the erosion of US energy considerations.

However, the Americans did not give up. During his visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, President Biden tried to repair somewhat relations with the Wahhabi kingdom and even agreed to meet with bin Salman. But his overture was met with a chilly reception, leaving him neither here, nor there: on the one hand, he had legitimized the leader he accused of murder, and on the other, he was met with a cold shoulder, in stark contrast to the warm welcome accorded in Riyadh five months later to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The cooling of relations between the Biden Administration and the Saudis is not merely symbolic. It has practical implications, such as the Kingdom’s decision to blatantly ignore US expectations to lower oil prices at an August 2022 OPEC meeting. This, in turn, not only encumbered American efforts to help Europe withstand the energy pressures induced by the war in Ukraine, but also to combat domestic inflation, with its major impact on political support for the administration.

These developments, along with China’s growing influence and the threat it has begun to pose to Taiwan and other US allies in the Pacific, have made East Asia more important to US interests than the Middle East, both economically and in terms of competition with China for dominance of the global economy and technological leadership. The United States has therefore shifted its involvement to the eastern Asian continent. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which restored a measure of American attention to Europe and NATO, also contributed to the declining priority to US interest in the Middle East.

Democracy or money

President Xi’s deepening foothold in the Middle Eastern arena, even as American policy is trying to maneuver carefully between its values and the nature of the strategically important monarchical regimes in the region, makes clear that he has much more in common with Mohammed bin Salman than President Biden does. These two authoritarian leaders, Xi and bin Salman, make no secret of their ambitions and willingness to take risks in order to expand their international influence. The fact that China has also become Saudi oil’s biggest customer has further strengthened the alliance between the two countries.

This turn of events highlights the fundamental difference between China and the US – the first examines international developments through the lens of economic empowerment without ethical considerations, while the second is a self-appointed “policeman of the world,” which, alongside the economy, seeks to promote its values. In this case, these values are diametrically opposed to the nature of the Saudi regime, as well as to those of its neighbors in the Gulf and Maghreb.

Western divisions of the world into “good and bad guys” are alien to the Middle East. The more the United States tries to inculcate them into regimes in the region, the lesser the influence it enjoys. The region’s authoritarian rulers are not interested in the struggle for democracy or in the Western values that President Biden seeks to promote. In the face of American morality, they prefer to seek avenues to other powers that, like them, are indifferent to “Western” democratic values.

Iran’s rapprochement with China and subsequently with Saudi Arabia (with Chinese encouragement) was prompted by economic considerations. The US pullout from the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and the re-imposed sanctions on Iran naturally led Tehran directly into China’s arms. China offered it an escape route from the sanctions’ regime in the form of an agreement guaranteeing Chinese investments of up to $400 billion in exchange for Iranian oil, while easing its path to the status of a nuclear threshold state.

China has not stopped in Tehran, using its influence and Iran’s dependence to advance other regional goals, such as a ceasefire in Iran’s proxy war in Yemen against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, under Chinese pressure, Iran seems less enthusiastic about supplying weapons to its Houthi proxy rebels in Yemen. China is also carving inroads into the UAE through large-scale economic cooperation, and as a by-product, also striving to rehabilitate relations between the UAE and Iran.

Israel is paying the price

International relations abhor vacuums, and when one power moves away, another takes its place. Israel is paying a heavy price as a result of these geopolitical shifts.

It is no coincidence that although in its third year in office, the Biden Administration has yet to reach agreement with Iran on a return to the nuclear deal (the JCPOA). As long as Iran believes it has a reasonable alternative in China, which is indifferent to its nuclear ambitions, it is in no rush to commit to shutting down its centrifuges.

Iran’s mistrust of US ability to meet its obligations, as was the case when the Trump Administration withdrew from the nuclear agreement signed by the Obama Administration, is further disincentive to reconstitute the 2015 deal. Iran’s motivation to return to the deal is expected to diminish further given its renewed relations with Saudi Arabia and warming ties with the United Arab Emirates, leaving Israel almost alone in its confrontational approach to Tehran.

Israel’s interest, of course, is to maintain American involvement in the Middle East. While it could benefit from eased tensions between Iran and the countries of the region, Israel prefers to do so under American rather than Chinese influence, since the Chinese, unlike the Americans, do not take Israel’s geostrategic interests into consideration when planning their policy.

Troubling aspects of Israeli policy

Two aspects of its policy at this time drive a wedge between Israel and the United States and accelerating the American withdrawal: the regime coup and its attitude toward the Palestinian issue.

The government’s moves to crush Israeli democracy run counter to American liberal-democratic values and cast a dark shadow over the moral alliance between the two countries. The defense of these values underpins the existence of the American nation and is also reflected in the growing majority of the liberal public in the United States vis-a-vis receding support for Trumpist populism. The deepening US involvement in the war in Ukraine – with resources, weapons and intelligence on the one hand, and the formation of a coalition against Russia, on the other – illustrates its commitment to these same values.

Therefore, the Biden administration cannot stand idly by while the Netanyahu government leads a revolution that seeks to dismantle Israeli democracy. During a recent visit to Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that Israel must respect human rights and the rights of minority groups, and ensure an egalitarian judicial system, the rule of law, a free press and a robust civil society. This is the price of the alliance between the two countries. The more Israel refuses to pay it, the lesser the commitment of the United States to fulfill its part.

The government’s destructive policy on the Palestinian issue compounds the problem. It is not limited to a decade of political stalemate and rejectionism on the part of the Israeli leadership (which now includes staunch annexation supporters such as Smotrich and Ben-Gvir), but also moves such as the repeal of the Disengagement Law, the return of de jure annexation to the discourse, and the deepening of de facto annexation, along with trigger-happy fingers and a record number of Palestinian fatalities.

Despite Israel’s interest in US involvement in the region, the Netanyahu government is doing everything in its power to make it difficult for the Americans to operate in this arena and stand by its veteran ally. Israel’s adherence to fanatical positions – both in terms of domestic policies and vis-à-vis the Palestinians – therefore undermines its own interests and helps distance the United States from the regional arena.

Risks and rewards

The United States has an opportunity to leverage the change wrought by the Abraham Accords by increasing the influence of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco on Israel to advance the Palestinian cause. This is based on the regional consensus over the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Relying on the Arab Initiative, also known previously as the Saudi Initiative, is also the way to draw the Saudis into the arena. Such a move is in Israel’s clearest interest, otherwise it will find itself isolated in a region devoid of American influence.

The United States, as a global power with global interests, also has an interest in maintaining its dominant player status in the Middle East and not letting the Russians, Chinese, and Islamists fill the vacuum. However, the political fear of the so-called pro-Israel lobby prevents the Americans from exerting their full weight to advance the Palestinian issue, and also makes it difficult for them to return to the path of agreement with Iran.

Since Israel can never rely geo-strategically on China, we have an obligation to do whatever is necessary to facilitate enhanced US regional influence. This makes it incumbent on the Netanyahu government to abandon the regime coup not only in order to preserve Israeli democracy and economic robustness, but also to safeguard Israel’s security.

The claim by Israel’s supporters in Washington that Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East guarantees its strong alliance with Washington is highly doubtful – both because we are undermining liberal democratic values and making it difficult for the Americans to realize their interest in stability in the region, especially in the Iranian and Palestinian contexts. The agenda of the Netanyahu-Haredi-messianic coalition, as set out in the coalition agreements, contravenes Israel’s main national security interest: strengthening the alliance with the United States and helping it restore its dominant position in the region.

The Hebrew version of this  article was published in Telem, a journal of progressive Zionism founded by the Berl Katznelson Foundation.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.