JERUSALEM — Arriving Wednesday to meet with Israeli leaders, President Joe Biden will confront a Middle East dramatically changed since his last visit to the region.
Israel’s ties to several Arab states under the Abraham Accords have reshaped security dynamics, agreements that were not in place when Biden was in office as vice president during the Obama administration.
Iran’s nuclear advances are another looming factor. Biden took office promising a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal is known, but negotiations have yet to yield results. In its wake, Iran’s nuclear breakout time has shrunk to one week or less by some estimates.
“This trip may be about trying to flesh out what a plan B looks like,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.
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Israeli officials said Biden would begin to tackle the issue through a joint memorandum they said “commits” the two countries to using “all elements of national power” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Biden, who begins his first meetings with Israeli officials on Thursday, is expected to unveil the so-called Jerusalem Declaration after meeting Israel’s caretaker, Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
But differences between the United States and its partners over how to approach Iran could slow that process, Katulis said.
During a dinner hosted by the mayor of Jerusalem and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides on Tuesday, the focus was pinned on Biden ahead of his arrival Wednesday, his 10th visit to the Jewish state.
The most important thing is to reinforce the “unbreakable bond” between the Biden administration and Israel, Nides told the Washington Examiner.
“He calls himself a Zionist — we want to emphasize that while he is here,” he said, “and obviously also emphasize the idea of a two-state solution and keeping that vision alive.”
In Bethlehem later this week, Biden will meet Palestinian leaders, though few expect major developments.
“At best, the focus of the administration overall seems to be to reverse as much of the Trump legacy as possible on Israel and Palestine but while extending the least amount of political capital,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said this week.
Biden has two major problems in the region, the frayed Palestinian issue and what to do about Iran, said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.
With each, “the president has very little leverage,” Miller said. “There’s very little opportunity on either of them. Both of them have serious domestic drawbacks for him.”
The Biden administration has helped fostered closer cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and is seeking to build those ties further.
In a symbolic gesture, Biden will travel from Israel to Saudi Arabia, a history-making flight between two countries growing closer but that do not yet have diplomatic relations. Those budding ties are a driving force behind Biden’s visit, the president has said.
Katulis said he expected any advances to be “very small baby steps,” with normalization between the Jewish state and Riyadh a ways off.
“We are not going to be announcing a normalization with Saudi Arabia on this trip,” Nides said during a recent podcast with Haaretz, an Israeli news outlet. Still, he said steps are underway that would form the basis of a process to “show the importance of regional security.”
Said Miller, “It’s a certain amount of virtue signaling to demonstrate to the region that a very busy president, preoccupied with tremendous challenges at home and a foreign policy dominated by Russia and rising China, has not forgotten about this region.”
“It’s by no means a full embrace,” he added.
Perhaps Biden’s most important task will be to explain the purpose of the trip to the public back home.
“People aren’t clear what he is driving for a year and a half into his administration,” Katulis said.
Despite facing pressure in Washington to drive down gas prices, Biden has insisted the visit’s purpose is not to urge Saudi Arabia, a major energy producer, to pump more oil. Instead, the president said in Madrid that it comes at the request of Israeli leaders.
But six months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, and as pressure on energy markets sends global gasoline prices soaring, Biden is looking for a fix, and he may also have another purpose for the visit coming in the middle of a scorching hot Middle East summer.
“Biden did not want to repeat the mistakes of his former boss by failing to visit Israel in his first term,” Miller said.
In an op-ed, Biden said his task was to forge “a new and more promising chapter” in the region through a “more secure and integrated” Middle East that benefits America’s national interest.
“Compared to 18 months ago, the region is less pressurized and more integrated. Former rivals have reestablished relations,” Biden wrote in the Washington Post, touting efforts to restore deterrence and slow fighting in regional conflicts.
“These are promising trends, which the United States can strengthen in a way no other country can,” he added. “My travel next week will serve that purpose.”
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That message may or may not resonate with an American public wary of the prospect of further U.S. military commitments in the region.
”Not everyone reads long op-eds in the Washington Post,” Katulis said. “When it comes to domestic political messaging, [he is] going to have to do more than that and be more consistent on the trip, connecting back to the American public what he’s doing.”
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