Article published by Ynetnews.com, 21 September 2023. © Richard Kemp
Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, US President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday however was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes.
But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the State of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign policy success among a sea of abject failures, perhaps unprecedented in the tenure of any US president.
The catastrophic retreat from Afghanistan was symbolically worse than when the US pulled out of Vietnam. Strategically it was an even bigger disaster, signaling US and NATO weakness to friends and enemies alike, not least Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
The Afghanistan debacle led directly to a second Biden foreign policy failure, as he pretty much flashed a green light to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine just six months later. As the saying goes: ‘Strength deters, weakness provokes.’
Since then, Biden’s ill-judged fear of Putin escalating the war has led to procrastination and heel-dragging over military aid that today sees Kyiv’s forces bogged down in an underpowered counteroffensive that is hobbled by inadequate combat hardware, while also denied the resources to launch a concerted strike campaign into Russian sovereign territory.
In the Middle East, as a result of Biden’s appeasement of Iran and ill-judged insolence toward the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, America has ceded its long-standing role as power-broker to Beijing, enabling Xi Jinping to facilitate what amounted to a phony rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It is Saudi Arabia that Biden has his sights on to salvage his foreign policy train wreck in time for the 2024 election. Specifically, he wants to normalize relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, and for that he needs Netanyahu. Of course he is pushing on an open door, because an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a historic game-changer.
It is possible as well, and in Biden’s requisite time frame, although some believe King Salman might veto it, effectively deferring normalization until Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, accedes to the throne and maybe Biden has left the stage.
Irrespective of that, MbS has a price: US security guarantees, assistance with a civilian nuclear program and access to advanced weaponry. Some of this will need Israel to bite the bullet, but it will be willing to do that given the prize.
More challenging will be substantive Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians and that is above all what Biden needs from Netanyahu. Biden’s real objective here is to go down as the man who advanced ‘peace’ between Israel and the Palestinians. Never mind that history has shown us time and again that successive Palestinian leaders gobble up anything Israel concedes, while giving nothing in return, and certainly not an end to conflict. But for the White House it is all about short term optics and piling up capital for the election.
In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing MbS in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of presentation, the other three conditions are what they really want. The Saudi’s under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.
The other major issue discussed between Biden and Netanyahu is Iran. Biden wants to rehabilitate in some form the flawed Obama nuclear deal that Trump rightly discarded, both to chalk up what he thinks he can portray as another foreign policy ‘success’ before the election and also as the final rebuke to Trump of his presidency.
So desperate has the White House been to resurrect the nuclear deal that in June and July $10 billion of frozen Iranian assets were released and just this week another $6.5 billion were freed up. Some believe that Washington plans a total of $50 billion of sanctions relief by the end of this game.
That amounts to naked bribery for a deal that is not worth the paper it’s printed on and like Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will make the world, and especially Israel, a more dangerous place. It also amounts to rewarding Iranian abetment of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The ayatollahs have supplied thousands of Shahed attack drones to Moscow, with the specific purpose not of fighting on the battlefield but of killing and terrorizing civilians in Ukrainian cities.
Iran’s drone supply is illegal under UN Security Council Resolution 2331 endorsing the JCPOA and should have triggered snap-back sanctions against Iran; not the opposite, which is being done. This appeasement is another mark of Biden’s desperation, that a meaningless nuclear deal trumps what is supposed to be one of America’s main foreign policy objectives — supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression.
As he went into the meeting with Biden, Netanyahu spoke of the need for a credible military threat against Iran. No doubt he argued strongly for that behind closed doors, as well as the crippling sanctions he also mentioned. But neither will happen under Biden, whose undertaking to ‘ensure that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon’ represents demonstrably empty words.
With a craven – or perhaps more accurately an electorally opportunist – White House, Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two state solution.
Image: White House