The Biden era is increasingly understood in the Middle East as one that attaches relatively little importance to the region, and in its renewed emphasis on issues of democracy and human rights. US energy independence has freed it from reliance on Mideast imports and is pushing the focus of American foreign policy on the strategic challenge posed by China, and on economic opportunities in Asia. This trend is deepening the strategic vacuum in the Middle East, which is drawing in Russia and China, countries that lack sentiment for Israel and that are seeking to amass achievements in the inter-power competition with the United States. Russia continues to reinforce its presence in Syria and is even establishing a sphere of influence in Lebanon. The discovery of the rich gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean has intensified Russia’s economic interest in the region and added yet another strategic tier that has the power to provoke conflicts, push the formation of alliances, and also deepen interest in overcoming divisions and advancing cooperation.
China sees the Middle East as a vital source of energy and a developing market for its products. The massive Belt and Road Initiative, which is channeling Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects, is making China a significant, powerful player in the region. The more intense the inter-power confrontation becomes, the more Israel will have to be attentive to the demands of the Biden administration which, like its predecessor, disapproves of Israel’s burgeoning economic ties with China, particularly in fields related to defense technology and knowhow (China has become Israel’s second-largest trade partner). Israel’s close relationship with the US may provoke Chinese antagonism and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an issue that, for China, is a pawn on the chessboard in dealing with the United States. Operation Guardian of the Walls drew harsh Chinese criticism of Israel, and the Chinese foreign minister chose to personally chair a special Security Council meeting on the issue (May 16, 2021), both to stress China’s commitment to the Palestinians and the Arab world, and to confront the US over its support for Israel. The Chinese foreign minister tweeted during the operation: “The US claims that it cares about the HumanRights [sic] of Muslims. But it turns a blind eye to the sufferings of Palestinian Muslims.”
The threat posed by Iran is spurring the Sunni Middle Eastern states to inter-Arab cooperation (a noteworthy summit brought Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi heads of state together in Baghdad this past June). But it is also deepening security cooperation and normalization with Israel, as reflected in the historic Abraham Accords between the Gulf states and Israel (this new attitude was revealed in Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow one of its athletes to compete, for the first time, against an Israeli athlete in the Tokyo Olympics).
The Middle East region is characterized by chronic instability and the constant danger of deterioration into violent clashes between Israel and Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and the Palestinians. The region is saturated with conflicts and sociopolitical trends that undermine its stability. The negative economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region (a drop in oil and gas revenues, a tourism freeze, a decline in remittances by foreign workers in the Gulf states) compounded the region’s more fundamental ills – war, terrorism, floods of refugees, humanitarian crises, stagnant economies, corruption, unemployment, and governmental failure. Tunisia, the sole nation whose “Arab spring” left a real mark, disappointed those for whom it had saw it as evidence of the Middle East’s march toward a future of freedom and democracy. Following widespread public protests against the government (among Tunisian youth the unemployment rate is 40%), President Kais Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament, fired its prime minister, and seized power (July 25, 2021).
Against this background, the following developments of the past year are relevant to Israeli resilience:
Syria – President Assad, who controls 70% of Syria’s territory, won 95% of the votes in the elections held on May 27, 2021. Neither the Western countries nor the Syrian opposition recognized the election results, meaning that the chances of those results bringing political or economic relief to a country ravaged by civil war are not high. Syria is divided into four enclaves, with the dominant element in each of them relying on at least one foreign state: Russia, Iran, Turkey, or the United States. Russia, which is pressuring the Arab League to reinstate Syria as a member, is driven by considerations that could make it hard for Israel to attack Iranian targets in Syria. Indeed, recent reports suggest that Russian advisers are helping Syrian air defenses intercept Israeli missiles fired at Iranian targets.
Lebanon – The country that was once a symbol of modernity and prosperity is in a particularly deep economic crisis. Within two years, Lebanese currency lost 90% percent of its value, half of its citizens have slipped into poverty, and its infrastructure is collapsing. The ability of the political system to deal with these challenges is minimal, among other things, due to Hezbollah’s opposition to economic or governmental reforms that would harm the organization’s status or its revenues. Without a commitment to the necessary reforms, the international aid Lebanon so badly needs will not be forthcoming. The chaotic situation has enticed Iran to deepen its influence via Hezbollah, and to establish a military presence near Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah apparently has no interest in another war with Israel, and the organization’s spokesmen even say so openly – but in a situation where the state is crumbling, an unplanned or unintended escalation could occur. In such a case, Israel would face an organization of trained fighters that possesses 140,000 missiles and rockets, some of them precision guided. The IDF is preparing for such a deterioration and is readying itself to deploy ground forces deep into Lebanese territory in order to neutralize Hezbollah’s missile arsenal.
Jordan – The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the kingdom’s ongoing economic crisis (Jordan is dependent on American aid – 1.5 billion dollars per year). The country’s unemployment rate has climbed from 15% to 25%, with one out of every two young Jordanians jobless. Criticism of the king has permeated the younger generation of the Bedouin tribes that form the mainstay of the Hashemite Dynasty. In early April 2021, the Jordanian government claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy against King Abdullah II involving Prince Hamzah, who was temporarily placed under house arrest. Relations between Israel and Jordan have been in crisis over the past year: a visit to the Temple Mount by the Jordanian crown prince was cancelled, Jordan refused to allow Prime Minister Netanyahu to fly through its airspace on his way to the UAE, and, in response, Israel delayed approving the supply of additional water to Jordan during an especially severe water shortage. The Bennett-Lapid government is working to turn a new page in Israeli-Jordanian relations, and a secret meeting took place between Bennett and King Abdullah II in Amman. In an open meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers (July 8, 2021), it was agreed that an additional 50 million cubic meters of water would be sold to Jordan.
Saudi Arabia – Washington has hardened its stance toward Saudi Arabia and allowed the publication of an intelligence report that places responsibility for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the shoulders of senior officials in the kingdom, including Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The US has imposed sanctions on the suspects and is restricting the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia to keep them from being used in the war in Yemen. A diminished US presence in the region, and a harsher Biden administration stance toward the Saudi government and other autocratic regimes, could have contradictory consequences: On one hand, they might strengthen these countries’ interest in relying on Israel’s capabilities; on the other hand, they might be drawn to strike agreements with Iran. Indeed, the Saudi Crown Prince has openly acknowledged a desire for dialogue with Iran, and there have been numerous reports of such a dialogue, which could fracture the regional front against Iranian aggression in which Israel has an interest.
Turkey – Erdoğan’s aggressive policies in the international arena, and the involvement of Turkish forces in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Azerbaijan, have not helped in addressing the country’s domestic economic challenges. The same is true of Turkey’s diplomatic confrontation with the US, reflected in the purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia, in contravention of Turkey’s NATO membership (a move by Erdoğan that led to US sanctions and Turkey’s removal from a program to develop the next generation of F-35 stealth jets). The economic crisis, the change of administration in the US, the ruling party’s declining popularity, and concern for the results of the next elections (June 2023) are leading Erdoğan to reverse his confrontational approach. This year he has initiated dialogue with Egypt to normalize the unstable relations between the two countries; he has also employed conciliatory language toward Israel (“The time has come to end the rivalries and seek friends”), and made a congratulatory phone call to then Israeli President-elect Isaac Herzog (July 12, 2021).
Nevertheless, Erdoğan is having a hard time sticking to the conciliatory line. During a trip to Northern Cyprus, he announced the reopening of the abandoned town of Varosha and called for a two-state solution to the conflict on the island (a solution that is unacceptable to the international community, which advocates a federal arrangement). In light of these moves, Israel was quick to declare its full support for Cyprus, a testament to the growing strategic axis between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, as well as an expression Israeli concern about a possible Turkish military presence near its shores.
The transition from the Trump era to the Biden era could potentially ignite significant areas of disagreement between the United States and Israel. The two mains geopolitical issues that may be at the heart of a dispute are the Iranian threat (nuclear and regional), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Confrontation between Jerusalem and Washington can, of course, be expected to come at a significant price, including an escalation of tension between Israel and American Jews, and an erosion in the strength of the strategic triangular relationship: Washington-Jerusalem-US Jewry. Smart and prudent management of Israeli foreign policy vis-à-vis the Biden administration has now become a challenge of the highest order.