Elections have consequences. And nowhere are the consequences of Joe Biden’s election more worrisome than in Jerusalem and Riyadh. In the past week, the president has signaled to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the region’s two biggest egos—that the sugar high of the Trump years is over.
Biden isn’t interested in fundamentally altering these relationships. But he is looking to rebalance the Israeli and Saudi accounts, restore Israeli and Saudi respect for U.S. interests absent during the Trump years, and signal to Bibi and MBS—who are now wondering where they stand among Biden’s priorities—that they are no longer the center of America’s world and should think very carefully before they take actions to undermine U.S. interests. Biden isn’t looking for a fight. And whether he takes tougher actions against Israel and Saudi Arabia will depend on whether they willfully ignore or undermine U.S. interests in creating greater security and stability in the region.
It’s still stunning to reflect on the fact that Trump’s initial stops on his first foreign trip as president in May 2017 were to Saudi Arabia and Israel. From that point on, Trump’s presidency was a gift that just kept on giving. Never in the history of U.S. relations with either country has so much been given with so little asked for in return—and with so much bad behavior swept under the rug.
Without making Israel earn U.S. favors with any concessions of its own, the Trump administration orchestrated a campaign of maximum pressure on Iran; declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital and opened an embassy there; turned a blind eye to Israel’s settlement expansion; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; promulgated a peace plan that all but conceded 30 percent of the West Bank to Israel before negotiations with Palestinians had even begun; downgraded U.S. diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority; drastically curtailed U.S. assistance to the Palestinian people; and perhaps most significantly, made a major effort to facilitate normalization between Israel, the Gulf states and other Arab countries.
The Saudis also got in on the action. The Trump administration gave a blank check to Riyadh to pursue its disastrous military campaign in Yemen and aided and abetted it with U.S. military assistance for Saudi operations; acquiesced in MBS’s repression at home and covered up his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and lavished arms sales on the Saudis over Congress’ objections.
If Trump made Israel and Saudi Arabia top foreign policy priorities, Biden seems intent on downgrading their importance. Much has been made of the nearly one month delay in Biden calling Netanyahu; Trump’s third call was to Netanyahu, and former President Obama reached out to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on day one. One delayed call does not a relationship make or break. But Biden was sending a message nonetheless: I’m busy with domestic recovery and the Middle East is not a top priority, he was saying. I’m pro-Israeli, but not necessarily a pro-Netanyahu president.
Biden has also set out to put some distance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Candidate Biden issued some very strong words about the Kingdom on the campaign trail, describing it as a pariah nation on human rights and promising to end U.S. support for its catastrophic campaign in Yemen. Days after Biden’s inauguration, the administration declared an end to American support for Saudi operations in Yemen and pledged to review current arms sales to Riyadh. And in an unmistakable sign of displeasure with the reckless and ruthless Crown Prince, White House press spokesperson Jen Psaki spoke of “recalibrating” U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and indicated Biden will be speaking with his counterpart King Salman not MBS.
Biden is sending an unmistakable message: We can still be friends but it has to be with more benefits for the United States. Given my focus on domestic and other foreign policy priorities, I may not have a great deal of time to focus on your problems; don’t make it harder for the United States in the region or things between us will get complicated.
Biden’s early warning signals to Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t necessarily mean he is seriously prepared to make significant changes in either of these relationships. If the president, provoked by troublesome behavior by Jerusalem and Riyadh, decided to fundamentally alter rather than adjust these relationships, he would need to be far more assertive and bold.
With Israel, the reset would likely focus on injecting real accountability for actions Israel takes on the ground toward Palestinians and some conditionality with respect to U.S. assistance should Israel ignore American expectations.
Biden would call for a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opposing all construction beyond the 1967 lines, including east Jerusalem, as inconsistent with international law. The U.S. would not expend effort defending Israel in the U.N. and other international organizations from actions resulting from its settlement activities. And Washington would enforce its longstanding determination that no U.S. government funds could be used to support settlement activity and establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with this requirement. Biden would also make clear that any Israeli initiative designed to annex territory would result in severe consequences, including a potential cut-off of assistance or recognition of Palestinian statehood.
Biden also has plenty of options to make life unpleasant for Saudi Arabia if it attempts to sabotage a new nuclear agreement with Iran. These include slapping sanctions on MBS and his hatchet men for their complicity in the killing of Khashoggi; permanently cutting contacts with MBS; making it clear that the United States will not stand in the way of others bringing the Saudis to the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes in Yemen; mounting a major campaign of public criticism of Saudi human rights abuses; halting all new arms sales to the Kingdom; withdrawing the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and treating the Saudis as diplomatic pariahs; upping public pressure on the Saudi government to cut way back on its carbon emissions; and twisting Saudi arms to open a dialogue with Tehran on regional security issues.
It’s highly unlikely that Biden would move in these directions with either Israel or Saudi Arabia unless their behavior leaves him no alternative. The president’s overriding priority is domestic recovery; he would prefer to avoid problems that might undermine progress toward that goal. Indeed, his presidency will succeed or fail based primarily on what occurs at home, not abroad, and he has much bigger foreign policy challenges in dealing with China and Russia.
Israel is the tougher problem and whether he can get what he wants from the wily and ever-suspicious Netanyahu isn’t clear. Biden isn’t Obama; he’s more like Clinton, whose support for Israel was baked into his political DNA. Biden will be much harder for Netanyahu to attack. He will expect Bibi to refrain from an active campaign to undermine his diplomatic efforts with Iran, as Netanyahu did in 2015 by end running the Obama White House and making his case directly to Congress and mobilizing the Gulf Arab states against Iran. But Netanyahu is much weaker at home and in Washington than he was in 2015 and Biden is boxing him in on Iran, not with threats necessarily but, paradoxically, with kindness.
By coordinating and consulting with Jerusalem, he is not giving the Israeli prime minister an easy justification to openly oppose the American approach on Iran; for example, he informed Netanyahu in advance of last week’s announcement by the U.S. and Europeans about starting negotiations with Tehran, and at every turn mentions the importance of a longer and stronger agreement to address the deficiencies in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That would include addressing extended sunset provisions in the JCPOA, as well as Israel’s concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programs and its efforts to expand its influence in the region. If Israel cries foul, undertakes some political effort to sabotage the negotiations, or launches an unwarranted military move against Iranian assets that triggers an escalation, it will be Netanyahu who’s isolated by actions that will be seen as a blatant effort to kill the U.S. negotiating initiative.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Biden’s expectations for Netanyahu are pretty low. Unlike Obama, who pressed Netanyahu on both Iran and progress toward a two-state solution with Palestinians, Biden will not make waves, knowing full well that prospects for significant progress are slim. In a nod to Netanyahu, he has praised the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump administration and appears willing to support the benefits the Trump administration has offered the UAE (F-35s) and Morocco (U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara) for concluding the agreement.
Netanyahu won’t be happy with the administration’s intention to upgrade relations with the Palestinians but won’t fight it. If there is conflict, it will be over Biden’s focus on changing the situation on the ground and restoring cooperation and some measure of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. Biden will expect Netanyahu to refrain from moving ahead with major infrastructure and high profile settlement projects, on the West Bank or Jerusalem, let alone the annexation of territory. Should Netanyahu win the upcoming elections on March 23 and form a narrow right-wing government, however, the stage could be set for a major confrontation with the administration on these issues.
Unless the Saudis attempt to scuttle a new nuclear agreement with Iran—or pursue other regional policies that are destabilizing and detrimental to U.S. interests—Biden’s actions will follow the path he’s already outlined. The dialogue with Saudi Arabia will be structured and disciplined, not left to presidential relatives who were given a blank check to kowtow to MBS’s reckless activities. Biden will continue to press Riyadh on human rights. And the anticipated release of the Intelligence Community’s report on MBS’s role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will provide a focal point for the administration to press for the release of Saudi dissidents. Biden will also press Saudi Arabia to do its part in ending or at least tamping down the violence in Yemen.
The administration has rightly undertaken a review of at least two arms sales to the Kingdom. Whether it will go farther or not is unclear. But it should. For years, administrations have supplied Saudi Arabia with weapons that it wants rather than weapons it needs to address the real military threats the Kingdom faces. Helping the Saudis to improve their defenses against Iranian missile attacks on critical infrastructure and cyber and terrorist attacks is perfectly appropriate and legitimate. The same cannot be said, however, for providing weapons systems that would improve Saudi capabilities to project force beyond its borders and especially against Iran. The Kingdom does not face a credible threat of a large-scale conventional attack by Iran or any other countries in the region. The world has seen the havoc the Saudis have wreaked in Yemen with advance combat aircraft and munitions, and the Saudi military was missing in action in the battles against ISIS in Iraq and Yemen.
Joe Biden is no revolutionary—at home or abroad. As a cautious moderate Democrat, he’s more interested in remodeling the house than in tearing it down. And that applies to Saudi Arabia and Israel, too. Saudi Arabia isn’t a U.S. ally; but it is an important partner—at least until the rest of the world weans itself off Arab hydrocarbons and America benefits from U.S.-Saudi cooperation on counter-terrorism. And Israel, the region’s only democracy—however imperfect—is the one state in the region that shares any real coincidence of both interests and values with the U.S., and is a subject fraught with domestic political risks for any U.S. president.
After four years of one-way street relationships, Biden is right to want to inject real reciprocity and a measure of conditionality into the U.S. relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. He may well succeed if he simply recognizes that these two countries need America a hell of a lot more than we need them—and if he is prepared to use U.S. leverage to advance our national interests if they force his hand.