President Biden is traveling to the Middle East this week, his first as the Chief Executive and his first since his tenure as Vice President. A lot has changed between then and now. The likelihood of a nuclear deal with Iran has diminished significantly, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is bleaker than ever, and the world seems more reliant on Middle Eastern energy at a time when many would prefer to be transitioning away from fossil fuels entirely.
On top of those pressing issues, Biden has also placed himself in a bind with the final leg of the trip, a visit to Saudi Arabia. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden condemned the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known informally as MBS), as a pariah for his alleged involvement in the murder of American resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Perhaps the biggest change since Biden’s last official visit is the Abraham Accords, a landmark agreement brokered by the Trump Administration, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab states and brought the region one step closer to establishing a unified front against Iran.
Despite the broader warming of Arab-Israeli relations, a critical holdout has been Saudi Arabia. Biden’s comments about the Saudi heir-apparent won’t make a breakthrough any easier. The President and his team have been dodgy on whether he will meet directly with MBS, but he may not have much of a choice as the 86-year-old current king, Salman, retreats from public life. U.S. officials do not expect any dramatic improvements regarding Israeli-Saudi relations.
Biden’s personal statements about MBS are also likely to hinder his administration’s attempts to persuade the Kingdom to increase oil production, thereby easing the pain at the pump for Americans in the runup to the midterm elections.
The President’s visits to Israel and Palestine may be less confrontational than his visit with the Saudis, but it is just as uncertain to see any breakthroughs on the Palestinian question. The official White House policy still supports a two-state solution, but its refusal to rescind President Trump’s recognition of Israeli settlements in the West Bank gives the Palestinian Authority little hope.
Casting a long shadow over the entire trip is Iran and the specter of its joining the nuclear club very soon. Despite the diplomatic victory that was the Abraham Accords, the Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran Deal) was seen by Iran as an opportunity to charge ahead with its nuclear efforts, and is now closer than ever to creating a nuclear bomb.
Here, Saudi Arabia and Israel see eye-to-eye in needing to address the growing risk from Tehran, but the Kingdom’s insistence on tying normal relations with Israel to an independent Palestine puts the Biden Administration’s agenda in a difficult bind.
Unless the President can commit to a course of action, his refusal to make hard choices will end up boxing him in with no good options.