/ 14 November 2023

The casualties of Biden’s stance on Israel

US President Joe Biden joins Israel's Prime Minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by MIRIAM ALSTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

In the wake of 7 October, Joe Biden repeated his long-held view on US-Israel relations — and on America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. “If Israel didn’t exist,” the US president said, “we would have to invent it.”

But when Biden first expressed this sentiment, the subject wasn’t Israel per se, but Saudi Arabia.

In 1986, then-senator Biden gave his views during a debate over president Ronald Reagan’s proposal that the US sell $354 million in advanced missiles to Saudi Arabia. The senate rejected the proposal, undermining the Reagan administration’s longstanding efforts to strengthen ties with the Saudis — a relationship which some viewed as an affront to the superpower’s ally, Israel.

Biden began his 1986 speech loosely quoting Voltaire. “If we believe in absurdities, we are bound to commit atrocities. And I would suggest to you that our Middle East policy under both Democrat and Republican presidents has been riddled with some absurdities,” he said.

“One of the absurdities is the mythical notion that the Saudis — even if they were so predisposed — are able to be agents of change and able to be agents of US interests in the Persian Gulf region.”

It was Biden’s contention then that, when push came to shove, the Saudis had no choice but to side with the Arab world and against US interests in the region. The future US president used Saudi Arabia’s support of the Palestine Liberation Organisation as evidence of this.

Nearly four decades later, the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia dynamic is again at play, this time as the Middle East reels from Israel’s siege of Gaza, which has killed more than 11 000 Palestinians and has precipitated a humanitarian crisis.

The 7 October attack and Israel’s subsequent mass killing of Palestinians have delayed Biden’s ambition to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together — a plan which could have a profound effect on America’s battle to maintain its economic primacy.

It wasn’t too long ago that Saudi Arabia’s bid to join the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) alliance caught the attention of commentators, many of whom surmised that the development would dent Riyadh’s ties with Washington. 

The decision to include Saudi Arabia and five other countries, announced at August’s Brics summit in Johannesburg, signalled the creation of an influential economic bloc consisting of six of the world’s top 10 oil producers. Saudi Arabia has also recently undermined Western sanctions against Russia by ignoring calls to boost oil production to temper energy market volatility in the wake of Moscow’s war.

Despite a view that these developments would damage US-Saudi relations, a month later it emerged that they were on the cusp of brokering a strategic deal between themselves and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly described the pact as “the biggest historical deal since the Cold War”.

Indeed, the deal would have a significant effect on the region — as well as on the so-called second Cold War between the US and China.

Prior to a trip to the Middle East last year, Biden wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post explaining its importance. “A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways. Its waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” he wrote.

“And a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation — rather than coming apart through conflict — is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on US military forces and their families.”

Later in the article, he noted that his job as president was to keep the US “strong and secure” by countering Russia’s aggression and putting the economic superpower “in the best possible position to outcompete China”.

As some have noted, China’s blossoming relationship with Saudi Arabia has played into the Biden administration’s eagerness to close the deal.

As Adam Gallagher, the managing editor for public affairs and communications at the US Institute of Peace, recently pointed out, one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first post-pandemic trips was to Saudi Arabia, where he signed a number of bilateral deals on technology, infrastructure and security. 

At about the time of the Brics summit, it emerged that Saudi Arabia was weighing a Chinese bid to build a nuclear power plant. The Washington Post reported that the move was designed to pressure Biden into compromising on conditions for US help in Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of nuclear power.

Moreover, while the US has weaned itself from Middle Eastern oil, China is the biggest purchaser of Saudi oil.

Last week, Carnegie analysts noted that, in the wake of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, “rarely has the seven-decade relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia been more fraught”. 

Last Friday, at the inaugural Saudi-African Summit, the Saudi crown prince condemned Israel’s siege on Gaza, which, after his initial fierce support, Biden has tried to rein in.

That said, many agree that the deal to normalise Saudi-Israeli ties is not dead yet — even if the US has chosen to put backing its proxy in the Middle East much higher on its agenda.

But in choosing this route — and in perhaps underestimating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political quagmire, and the lengths he is willing to go to to hold on to power — Biden has shown his cards. 

In the eyes of the international community, as well as many Americans, he is no longer the lesser of two evils. Nor has he ushered in a return to the globalism his predecessor rebuffed, instead doubling down on a politically perilous nationalist agenda.

It remains to be seen what Biden’s desire to hold on to the Israel invention, which he once called one of America’s best investments, will do to the superpower’s standing in the world’s economy. But we do know that these US-created fractures in the global community leave us all worse off.