US hopes to attract support for regional initiative
US President Joe Biden last week paid a quick visit to Jerusalem — with a sprint to Bethlehem — and then, on Friday and Saturday, was in Jeddah. The international environment was not very helpful for his efforts to achieve what he wanted. After Biden’s departure for Jeddah, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid cryptically said that the short visit included “achievements that will take years before we can talk about them.” We will all look forward to learning what these achievements are.
Despite much talk about the visit over many months, the outcome has yet to be seen. The Biden administration had long ignored former President Donald Trump’s pet project, the Abraham Accords. When it was first launched by Trump, it looked like some sort of Arab NATO, but the Middle East is nowhere close to such an idea. During Biden’s visit, it was raised almost as a side issue.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the increase in oil prices have become a headache for the US administration. Biden had to plead with the world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, to produce more oil to make up for the shortfall in the Russian supply.
During his visit, Biden reconfirmed his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. This was one of the subjects that attracted the attention of the Arab countries. But on this important issue, the devil is in the details. Biden has a reputation of being generous in his pro-Israeli favors and such favors may vex Arab countries. If the US attitude ends up with the usurpation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, many Arab countries will probably react to it.
There was no sign of Biden stepping back from Trump’s decision to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With this move, the US reversed its attitude on a UN Security Council resolution that it backed in 1947. Resolution 181 had divided Palestine into two States: One Arab and one Jewish, with Jerusalem as a “corpus separatum,” which means an independent city state. Thus, Trump’s initiative meant moving the US Embassy from the Israeli capital Tel Aviv to a state that is not Israeli. Big powers unfortunately believe that they may indulge themselves in ignoring a resolution they had endorsed in the past.
The US president has said Washington will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East, but this is more easily said than done.
The biggest headache for the US in the Middle East is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran. Washington is trying to set up a global coalition to stop Iran’s nuclear program, but several countries will not support the maladroit policies adopted by successive US administrations. In fact, the unilateral denunciation of the original JCPOA by the Trump administration released Iran from its contractual obligations and allowed it to enrich uranium to the level of 60 percent purity. Nuclear weapons can be manufactured once 90 percent purity is reached. Experts claim that increasing the level of enrichment from 60 percent to 90 percent is easily achievable.
Biden started his official program with a call on King Salman, followed by a working session with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi ministers. There were no unpleasant surprises. On Saturday, Biden held a regional meeting with the GCC countries plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq and, as expected, made a statement with a wide scope on Washington’s strategy for the Middle East.
The US president has said Washington will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East for China and Russia, but this is more easily said than done.
Biden’s combined visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia was extremely important, but whether the US has obtained what it expected is another matter.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.