With Joe Biden’s recent victory in the US presidential election, many have begun offering the former Vice President advice on how to reverse Trump’s damaging Middle Eastern legacy. A key area of debate is what the ex-Senator (Biden served for 36 years in the US Senate before becoming VP) from Delaware’s stance should be on Arab-Israeli normalization and the Palestine-Israel debate.
This has become particularly pressing since, in the dying days of his administration, Trump has managed to forward his policy goals once again. On December 10, the White House revealed that Morocco had agreed to resume partial diplomatic relations with Israel, in exchange for US recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara, a territory Rabat has occupied since 1975. But, amid all the policy proposals out there, just how likely is Biden to bring significant change?
On November 23, it was reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia for the first time the day prior. While Riyadh denied this meeting had occurred, sources claimed it was a failed US-Israeli effort to “win assurances that a [Saudi-Israeli] normalization deal . . . was in reach” prior to Trump leaving office.
However, the royal’s rebuke reputedly did not come out of ideological opposition. Instead, it is said to reflect a desire to avoid domestic backlash while also using a rapprochement between the kingdom and Tel-Aviv to curry favor with the incoming administration. For Biden is also supportive of further normalization and integration.
Hence, at least as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, Trump’s dethronement signifies but a short delay. If the Saudis can temper or reconcile themselves to the public outcry, we will see normalized relations within months.
Assuming that a deal with Riyadh does go ahead in the near future, one might look expectantly at Kuwait, for example. This is since, as an unnamed senior Kuwaiti royal told The Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—which was the first Arab nation to join Trump’s scheme—are expected to pressure their smaller neighbor and its new emir to normalize relations with Israel.
That said, it is widely recognized that negative public and political opinion, plus Kuwait’s need to maintain calm with Iran, mean that a Kuwait-Israel accord is unlikely. What firmly closes the door to it, however, are the divergent positionalities of the outgoing and incoming presidents. Both desire further normalization, but Biden is constrained in his ability to deliver it, whereas Trump has been motivated to make it a paramount objective.
Indeed, the Jewish state more broadly has been a veritable centerpiece of Trump’s electoral strategy and legacy-building aspirations. Evangelical Christians, one of his most prominent blocs of supporters, demanded it. As the former “Apprentice” host himself explained, he moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem “for the Evangelicals.” Furthermore, as part of his plan to undo seemingly anything his predecessor, Barack Obama, ever touched, Trump pursued maximum hostility against Iran. Clearly, this all suits an Israel normalization-centric agenda.
Biden’s overriding goal is to reduce tensions with Iran. This does, however, disrupt his chances of realizing greater Arab-Israeli normalization.
Conversely, Biden is not beholden to religious conservatives and seeks a return to the type of politics practiced by the man he served as second-in-command to. This means a revival of the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of Trump’s sanctions on Tehran. In essence, Biden’s overriding goal is to reduce tensions with Iran. This does, however, disrupt his chances of realizing greater Arab-Israeli normalization, irrespective of his desires.
Contrary to what others have implied, it is not that Biden won’t encourage Kuwait along that path, especially after the glowing press reviews he will undoubtedly receive should a Saudi-Israel deal be concluded. Instead, it provides a limit to how forceful and overt he can be.
Since the US is the foremost guarantor of Kuwait’s security, the looming threat of possible retaliation after Trump briefed that Kuwait would “fairly quickly” follow in the UAE and Bahrain’s footsteps must have given officials there pause. As Biden prepares to take office and is tied down by conflicting priorities and his moderate proclivities, the option to be so vehement in pushing for a Kuwait-Israel deal is off the table.
Nevertheless, there are Arab states which now seem more likely to forge bilateral ties with Tel-Aviv in the coming months. It has recently been reported that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their allies will imminently resolve their feud with Qatar. However, while an end to the Qatar blockade marks a drastic decline in the friction between Doha and the other Gulf nations, it does not mean that Qatar has joined the Saudi-led bloc or become their friend.
Qatar will not normalize relations with Israel although, admittedly, Palestinian leaders must be uneasy at the news, especially after senior politicians accused Qatar of “join[ing] the path of normalization [with Israel]” earlier this year. This allegation came after Doha released a joint statement with Washington which appeared to endorse Trump’s widely criticized Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The détente makes sense in the context of a Biden presidency, even as the Saudis and those aligned with them fear an expansion of Iranian power given the President-elect’s softer tone and aim to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal). This fear reflects a keenness to prevent any deepening of relations between the Islamic Republic and their neighbors, whether they like them or not.
Only three weeks prior to this news, on November 16, Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirates’ Ambassador to the United States, related that a resolution to the Gulf diplomatic crisis, which began in 2017, would not come “anytime soon” and is “not on anyone’s priority list.” This sudden shift reveals Riyadh and its allies’ desperate evaluation of their present circumstances.
We can foresee that the expected Saudi-UAE pressure for normalization will not be limited to Kuwait.
Consequently, we can foresee that the expected Saudi-UAE pressure for normalization will not be limited to Kuwait. Especially if the Saudis commence their overt bilateral relations with Israel sometime next year, they will launch a drive to expand their anti-Iranian axis by exerting their influence on those dependent on them. Starting with Yemen, given the unparalleled reliance the Yemeni government has on Saudi Arabia, it wouldn’t be hard to force them into recognizing Israel, despite such a policy’s deep unpopularity with their people.
If the Saudis made a deal with the UAE, for it to simultaneously force its proxy—the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a domestic rival of Yemen’s government—to do likewise, the public relations hit would end in a stalemate. Indeed, the STC’s Vice President, Hani bin Buraik, has previously made comments which have been interpreted as being pro-Israel. The calculation is then how potent of a statement this strategy would make across the region, balanced against the advantage it would give the Iran-aligned Houthis among Yemen’s population.
Other Arab countries, seeing the anti-Tehran bloc’s determination, would then be forced to weigh their options, during a period in which the poorest among them are buckling under the weight of the Covid-19 economic downturn. This means that, as those allied with Israel redouble their efforts to deepen their ranks, the threat of economic punishment and the reward of foreign aid become more persuasive to other Arab countries.
This at least partially explains Riyadh’s current reengagement with Baghdad. Iraq has taken an enormous financial hit from the pandemic and resultant collapse in oil prices, and millions are projected to fall into poverty. Should the vaccine rollout be slow, or the economy otherwise fail to recover, there would be little choice. A deal predicated on the recognition of Israel then seems inevitable, notwithstanding the government’s previous declaration that normalization would violate its laws.
And, although money won’t talk in Lebanon—given Hezbollah’s unnegotiable stance—it may in Oman. Despite the kingdom’s reputation for careful neutrality, it too is suffering a profound economic crisis. The Financial Times has already suggested this may force Muscat to prioritize its coffers over its independence. While it would be difficult, this could extend to its Israel policy.
With a Biden White House imminent, there exists much uncertainty over the future of Arab-Israeli relations. That said, the trend towards more formalized regional ties with the Jewish state is almost certainly here to stay. Even so, for many, the move is only an unveiling of long-standing secretive relations.