Biden's tricky balancing act in the Middle East

As controversies swirl, a relatively uneventful trip would probably be a win

President Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

On Wednesday, President Biden embarked on a four-day trip to the Middle East. What prompted the president's decision to visit Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia, what does he hope to achieve, and why are some critics already outraged by some of the administration's decisions? Here's everything you need to know:

Where is Biden visiting?

The president's first stop on Wednesday was in Israel, a close ally of the United States, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog. A caretaker executive until the country holds its fifth national election in three years in October, Lapid called Biden "a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known." President Biden was briefed on a variety of Israeli security concerns, including the Iron Dome missile defense system, and publicly embraced diplomatic gains made under President Trump, when Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sudan, and Bahrain. Israel would like to see that model extended to Saudi Arabia and beyond, and hopes to influence the shape of any potential revival of the Iran nuclear deal, which it opposes.

Biden will also visit the occupied West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Unlike his predecessor in office, the president is expected to pledge his support for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to announce aid to Palestinian hospitals. But no one really expects a diplomatic breakthrough. And while Palestinians would like Biden to reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, it is not clear that the president can deliver even that over Israeli objections.

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On Friday, President Biden heads to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Saudi leaders including Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Sultan, the country's de facto leader, as well as other regional heads of state. There, he is expected to press for an extension of a truce in neighboring Yemen, as well as to obtain Saudi pledges to further increase oil production in response to gas prices that, while they have come down in July, are still causing economic and political mayhem in the U.S. In response to U.S. pressure, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) had already announced a production hike in early June and it is unclear whether any further increases are possible. The Saudis, meanwhile, are expected to try steering President Biden away from engagement with Iran.

What are critics saying?

President Biden's decision to thaw relations with the Saudis has disappointed many longtime critics of America's cozy relationship with Riyadh. Saudi academic Abdullah Alaoudh argued that the meeting "will send a clear message to tyrants everywhere: You can always count on America to betray its values and reward bad behavior." Writing for Foreign Affairs, Dalia Dassa Kaye calls the decision "a visit that should never have been planned," and argues that with production already near capacity, Saudi Arabia will be unable to make a meaningful dent in oil prices anyway.

That reality means that the moral compromise of rapprochement won't do much to help Biden, who promised to make the harshly authoritarian kingdom "a pariah state" during the 2020 campaign. And so long as the administration continues to be open to a new agreement with Iran, making amends with the Saudis is also unlikely to placate conservative skeptics of the White House's regional policy including Commentary's Noah Rothman, who called the administration's Saudi policy as "incomprehensible as it was unsustainable."

There is also heat coming from the left on Israel-Palestine. The president is pointedly refusing to meet with the family of slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by gunfire while reporting from the Israel-occupied West Bank in May. And Palestinians, who have long regarded the United States as an unreliable intermediary that takes Israel's side on nearly all consequential matters, expect little from the meeting anyway. As long as the Biden administration intends to push for further diplomatic breakthroughs while sidelining the Palestinians, many believe things will get worse before they get better. Yet Biden's decision to go to the West Bank and meet with Abbas has also inflamed conservatives. In The Jerusalem Post, Maurice Hirsch criticizes the meeting with Abbas, who he calls "a failed dictator" whose policies still encourage terrorism against Israelis.

What's the big picture?

The tempered expectations and pointed criticisms from all sides probably say as much about President Biden's diminished political standing in the United States as they do about the trip itself. As chatter grows about whether Biden should step aside and allow another Democrat to run in 2024, his administration continues to battle headwinds, including soaring inflation, that will undoubtedly limit the president's desire and ability to spend political capital in the Middle East. That means that big diplomatic pushes for peace are highly unlikely prior to the midterm elections, especially given the frustrating history of American presidents and their grand schemes to bring peace to the region. U.S. efforts there are further complicated by Washington's not-terribly-secret desire to reduce America's footprint in the Middle East, one of the rare areas of agreement between the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations.

In that sense, if he returns to Washington after a relatively uneventful trip with some nice photo opportunities and the hope of further lowering gas prices, the White House will probably call it a win. Whether such modest gains will be regarded as worth the cost of re-engaging with a Saudi regime that remains unrepentant about its bloody policies in Yemen as well as the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi remains to be seen. But in a summer that has already seen President Biden's public approval ratings tumble even further amid economic turmoil and the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, any positive news — even if it is not game-changing — would be welcomed inside the White House.

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