Way back during the Napoleonic era, the ace Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich once quipped that “when France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.” For allies and clients of the United States, Metternich’s wit is a useful guide to navigating the whims of a disoriented hyperpower that appears to have gone down an Alice in Wonderland-type rabbit hole where the police must be abolished to ensure the safety of poor neighborhoods, men celebrate their victories in women’s sports, and economic progress is achieved by shipping your entire manufacturing base off to your supposed great-power rival in China. Yet since even a hyperpower run by the Mad Hatter is still a hyperpower, it is best to tread carefully.
America’s Alice in Wonderland foreign policy carries special dangers for watchful allies and client states, who must balance their concern for their own citizens against the folly of alienating the most powerful country on the planet. The new watchwords of American Middle East policy—“de-pressurization,” “balance,” and “integration”—signal that America is no longer interested in pursuing the time-honored path of rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Rather, wise American policy consists of downgrading friends while integrating enemies into the trade and security structures they seek to destroy, in order to achieve a more “balanced” policy.
Sound nuts? It is. But when President Joe Biden schedules his first official visit to your country, you bend over backwards to accommodate your superpower ally and patron. In pre-visit preparations, you strive mightily to paper over areas of disagreement that cause friction. If your American guest is determined to amp up the friction, you answer with a smile during the joint presser, offer noncommittal statements, and move on. Such is the Israeli playbook for Biden’s visit, and the Saudi playbook, too. It’s worked before.
Of course, it is wishful thinking by the leadership of both countries if they imagine the Biden visit to be this kind of run-of-the-mill diplomatic episode. Relations during the three terms of Barack Obama have been chilly if not outright hostile. Israel and Team Obama have been directly at odds on the critical issue of Iran—which is to say, on the U.S. posture in the region as Obama reimagined and realigned it, in order to promote “balance” between America’s friends and its Iranian foes. Biden has pronounced the Saudis to be “pariahs.”
The leaders of the current Israeli government had defined themselves in terms of banishing the coldness in Israel’s relationship with the Obama team, which they blamed on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But theirs is now a caretaker government, having lost the majority in the Knesset. Prime Minister Yair Lapid will serve for the next four months, until new elections take place. The weakness of Israel’s caretaker government, combined with the delusional belief that Netanyahu was the root of all friction in the relationship with the United States, is a recipe for getting slapped around by a White House team that has been as short on successes as it is long on pseudo-moralistic phraseology.
Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia on Friday is first and foremost about bringing down high gasoline prices that are likely to hurt the Democrats in November. However, given how hostility to Saudi Arabia became a plank of Team Obama’s realignment doctrine, Biden has been forced to go to comical lengths to justify making the trip to the kingdom while distancing himself from the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler.
A recent Washington Post op-ed published under Biden’s name took credit for the decisions already made by Saudi Arabia and Israel to deepen and publicize their bilateral ties, which flourished in response to Obama’s effort to downgrade both U.S. allies in favor of closer ties with Tehran. True to form, the op-ed never once mentions the words “Abraham Accords,” an achievement that took place on the Trump administration’s watch and is therefore anathema—and which was designed in part as a regional hedge by Israel and the Gulf States against America’s efforts to “integrate” and “balance” the region. The word “integrate” appears in Biden’s op-ed no less than three times, providing a clear signal of where the administration’s priorities lie.
In order to achieve those priorities, it is necessary to set the Saudis and Israelis back on their heels and keep their budding alliance in check. And while the Saudis make a poor punching bag at the moment, given that the United States is playing the role of a supplicant in Jeddah in order to bring down prices at the pump, Israel is, politically speaking, the local weakling, ready to be punched.
The White House set the stage for Biden’s trip by sticking it to Israel over the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh—despite the fact that an American-led forensic examination of the bullet that killed her could not determine who fired it. Nor was the bullet of a type that is used by snipers. In other words, there continues to be zero evidence that Abu Akleh’s death was anything other than the kind of accident of which the United States itself is regularly and depressingly guilty. To further fan the flames, Abu Akleh’s family was invited to Washington to meet personally with Secretary of State Antony Blinken—an honor not afforded to the families of the seven Afghan children murdered by a U.S. drone strike in August as the administration implemented its shambolic withdrawal.
It could be argued this is petty stuff—to be swallowed out of necessity with only limited heartburn. Other steps on Biden’s agenda while in Israel, however, are more serious. The U.S. president, according to an Axios report, “will announce $100 million in aid to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem,” and refused to allow Israeli officials to accompany him on his trip to the hospitals, which are located within Israel’s capital.
The administration then “asked Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar to match the U.S. aid to the hospitals” (the Saudis are said not to have committed). Why? Two unnamed U.S. officials explained that the administration wants Saudi Arabia and the UAE to improve their relations with the Palestinian Authority, and “that the normalization process among Israel and Arab states will also benefit the Palestinians.” In other words, the United States is using the Palestinians as a device to disrupt warming relations between the Gulf States and Israel, not to advance that relationship. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, a former Hillary Clinton aide who became a key messenger between the Obama White House and Iran, then publicly stated the American desire to reopen a U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, over the previously stated objections of his Israeli hosts. (White House spokesperson John Kirby later tried to walk back Sullivan’s remarks.)
In other words, the Biden administration is using its trip to the region not to draw closer to Israel, or to enhance the Israeli relationship with the Saudis, but to disrupt the budding alliance between Israel and the Gulf States, while causing their hosts as much heartburn as possible. Strategically, the White House is attempting to bind the Saudis and the UAE to Obama’s adoption of Palestinian maximalism and the “1967 lines” framework through orchestrating the passage of U.N. Security Council resolution 2334—thereby undercutting the Abraham Accords in favor of the failed “peace process” paradigm.
The Palestinians are not the only instrument the Biden administration is using to ram things down Israel’s throat during his visit. In keeping with the overall realignment, the administration is pushing the caretaker Israeli government to sign a maritime border deal with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. The explicit purpose of this deal was always to have Lebanon make money and, in the words of State Department senior adviser for energy security, Amos Hochstein, the Biden envoy who is leading the mediation effort, to “invest” in “southern Lebanon.”
In recent days, Israel shot down drones that Hezbollah launched at the offshore Karish gas rig in Israeli waters, after months of threats. Hezbollah, which has been the Biden administration’s indirect interlocutor in the maritime border talks, demanded along with the Lebanese government that Lebanon be granted a prospective gas field that extends beyond Lebanon’s claimed maritime line—and that Israel halt operations at the Karish rig until Lebanon could be allowed to begin exploring its own as-yet-unproven reserves. The threats and their implementation served as an assist to Hochstein’s push for the Israelis to sign a deal by September. The administration also reportedly pressed Israel not to make any escalatory responses to Hezbollah’s drone operation and instead push ahead with concluding the deal, thus further legitimizing the terror group’s control of official Lebanese policy.
Sure enough, Israeli officials, including the caretaker prime minister and defense minister, amplified the administration’s messaging about the critical importance of “stabilizing” Lebanon by facilitating its imagined emergence as “an exporter of gas.” Hezbollah was supposedly acting against the Lebanese government and “undermining” the efforts to reach a deal on the maritime border, which would allow Lebanon to benefit from offshore gas production. The IDF reportedly advised the caretaker government to stop the talks in light of Hezbollah’s attack. The government refused. Why? Because, as Israel’s Channel 12 reported, “there ‘may’ be some additional progress during U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the region.”
There are serious ramifications to the U.S.-Lebanese gas initiative, and how the Israeli government has responded to it, that go beyond the maritime border issue. It’s not just that the Biden administration specifically leveraged Hezbollah threats and operations to pressure Israel to sign a deal designed to benefit the terror group, which controls the Lebanese pseudostate, militarily and politically. It’s also that the Israeli government adopted Washington’s fictitious distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon, which American officials use as a fig leaf to promote investment in a country run by an Iranian terrorist army. As Hochstein put it, “I see Lebanon as a country. I don’t think of Lebanon as—Hizballah as Lebanon … This U.S. administration fully supports Lebanon.”
See, we’re not investing in Hezbollah—which dominates Lebanon and which, by virtue of its position in government and parliament, legally is a beneficiary of its official budget. We’re investing in Lebanon, which is this other thing, totally separate from and unrelated to Hezbollah. As a matter of fact, not only does our investment in Lebanon not benefit Hezbollah, it also helps weaken it!
Uh, right. That the hapless Israeli government agrees with this Mad Hatter gibberish is implicit in its contention that Hezbollah—which has been directing the maritime border negotiations since day one—is attempting to “undermine” the talks. Hence, by seeing these talks through to the finish line, we’re scoring a serious blow against Hezbollah, which will no doubt be devastated once investments pour into “southern Lebanon,” and once it gets its cut of future gas revenues.
Having Iran and Hezbollah become players in eastern Mediterranean energy is clearly not an Israeli interest. Nor is succumbing to Hezbollah blackmail, leveraged against Israel by the United States, a positive precedent. The same could be said about the possible repercussions this mess might have on Israel’s ability to conduct operations in Lebanon, which, lest we forget in the midst of all the excitement about investments, in no way resembles even a seminormal country. Lebanon is an Iranian forward missile base, where Hezbollah and the IRGC are upgrading the precision of their projectiles aimed at Israel. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration brokering these talks with Hezbollah-led Lebanon is the same one looking to enter a deal with Iran that licenses its nuclear program and enriches it with hundreds of billions of dollars.
It’s tricky to refuse the United States if you’re an ally or a client. And yes, Israel is caught between a rock and hard place. But Israel shouldn’t be tripping itself up. On key matters like Jerusalem, its independent alliance with the Gulf States, and its security environment in Lebanon, Israel’s inability to say no to America is a strategic disaster of the country’s own making. Look at the Saudis, for example. Team Biden has been pressuring them for almost two years to underwrite the “institutions” of Hezbollah-land and to pump cash into Lebanon. So far, the Saudis have admirably brushed them off.
One of the reasons for the success of the Abraham Accords was Israel’s refusal to kowtow to the United States on Iran—even as the nuclear deal was explicitly billed as the crown jewel of Obama’s personal legacy. If Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress earned him enemies in the Democratic Party in Washington, it earned Israel friends in the Gulf. Israel is now sending the region the opposite message.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.