In Israel, this week’s visit by U.S. President Joe Biden will be examined from an Israeli point of view, even though the president has much more on his mind. Does this visit help Israel in any way? Is it at all important? And how will it be perceived politically? Even its postponement from June to July was seen as a direct result of the political situation in Israel.
Yet before analyzing the importance of the visit, we need to understand why the U.S. is taking such a sharp turn in its policy and returning to the Middle East. After leaving Afghanistan with haste – and with much failure – in the hope of leaving the Middle East behind, the U.S. is forced to return, but not on its own terms this time.
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The reason for this lies in the war of the superpowers – the tripartite cold war between the U.S., China, and Russia. Were it not for these last two, and despite Israel’s importance to the U.S., Washington would not have made a return to the Middle East, and it is likely that the current visit would not have taken place, either.
The war in Ukraine and the upcoming midterm elections have made Biden realize that only Saudi Arabia can help him escape the crisis of gas prices, now rising to more than $4 a gallon, a cost that promises a big loss in the midterms.
No more looking at the Middle East through the perspective of human rights; the same perspective that Biden promised his voters during his campaign, when the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was high on the agenda. In fact, the perspective through which Saudi Arabia is examined today is much darker and only sees black gold.
The U.S. exit from the Middle East has also invigorated the entry of its biggest rival, China, into the region in general and into Saudi Arabia in particular. A quarter of Saudi Arabia’s fuel exports flows into China, making it the largest supplier after Russia. There is now talk that Saudi Arabia is considering accepting Chinese yuan instead of U.S. dollars for its oil sales, a shift that will hurt the U.S. currency’s dominance.
Chinese construction companies are building Saudi Arabia, the multinational technology corporation Huawei is setting up infrastructure there and, above all, Saudi Arabia is considering, heaven forbid, the purchase of Chinese fighter jets.
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The U.S. cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia to the Chinese. To maintain its position in the Middle East, Washington must first allay the region’s grave concerns about Iran’s growing power. This is especially so in light of the fact that the U.S. is determined to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Biden will have to take big steps, like creating a regional defense alliance, supplying a significant quantity of weapons, ending the war in Yemen, weakening the Russians in Syria, advancing talks between Israel and Lebanon on maritime borders, and promoting normalization between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.
All this, and indeed much more, is needed to underscore the message: the U.S. is back, and Iran is the common enemy. Meanwhile, Russia’s stumbles in Ukraine provide a certain wind in the sails for the U.S., which up to now hadn’t caught the wind.
The visit to the Middle East is more critical for Biden than anyone else. He must restore the image of American power, persuade Saudi Arabia to produce more oil, pacify the growing fears of Iran, narrow China’s pathways into the region, weaken Russia and – most importantly – commit to the fact that the U.S. is there to stay.
These circumstances provide Israel with a certain advantage coming into this week’s visit: the burden of proof is on the Americans, and this is a great opportunity for Israel.
Jacob “Yaki” Dayan is a former policy adviser at Israel’s embassy in Washington and Israeli consul-general in Los Angeles.