President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East, now in the rearview mirror, might easily have been summarized in advance: It pleased no one, angered some, achieved little, and underscored both the president and his nation’s weakness. Osama bin Laden understood correctly that, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” And sadly, Joe Biden is no strong horse.
While the administration offered a cover story for the American leader’s pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, the real reason behind the trip was known to all: more oil. Biden, despite denouncing Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” during his campaign, and despite declassifying the investigation into the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the earliest days of his presidency, went to Jeddah to beg Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (whom the U.S. intelligence community had fingered for Khashoggi’s murder) to pump more oil. From the outset, then, the trip was a humiliation. Sure, there was window dressing obscuring Biden’s purpose—a trip to Israel, a hat tip to the Palestinians—but all knew why he was there.
A more capable administration or a more sentient leader might have made a success of the trip. After all, there was a chance to stick a finger in the eye of Israel’s former and likely future prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has few friends among Democrats in D.C. The Israeli government had just fallen, with new elections scheduled for fall. Biden’s one-time boss, President Barack Obama, did not hesitate when given his chance to meddle in Israeli elections. He once sent over his own political consultants to tilt the Israeli electorate against its right wing. But Biden could not achieve that, though his own antipathy toward Bibi is well known.
Still, all the proper pilgrimages were made. The president suitably remembered the Holocaust with a visit to Yad Vashem (though he managed even there to refer mistakenly to the “honor” rather than the horror of the murder of 6 million Jews). But never mind, the requisite agreements were signed. Biden and Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid released a joint statement, titled the “Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration,” which commits both to halting Iran’s advance toward a nuclear weapon, as if somehow this were a new idea. Evidently both team Biden—desperate to renew the Obama-era Iran deal—and Lapid—who hoped for a pledge to use military action in the event of an Iranian nuclear breakout—saw this as a convenient way to paper over their fundamental disagreement over what to do about Iran.
Most importantly, at least for the White House, Israelis admire Biden, remembering his consistent commitment to the country. He is, after all, easier to like than Donald Trump, notwithstanding the significant Israel-Arab breakthroughs of the Trump administration. Even vocal critics of the trip like the New York Times noted that Biden “bask[ed] in unvarnished praise in Israel.”
That was less the case as he traveled to the West Bank to pay his respects to Mahmoud Abbas, the president-for-life of the Palestinian Authority. (Abbas was elected for a four-year term in 2005, and continues to serve that term 13 years after it ended.) While both sides portrayed the visit as a success, there was little tangible progress toward the goal of renewed dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, or much else. Rather, Abbas reiterated favored “apartheid” tropes, demanded a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a newly constituted Palestine, and gave little, though at least he did not threaten, as he has before, to walk away from past agreements with Israel.
Needing to come to the Palestinians with something in hand—anything, given the moribund state of the so-called peace process—Biden pledged hundreds of millions in new aid for the West Bank and Gaza. That this assistance would not move the needle after the world has plowed hundreds of billions into the cause and the people of Palestine remained unsaid. Still, even that anodyne gesture was enough to raise hackles. Critics noted that a pledge of $200 million to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNWRA) in the face of recent revelations of widespread antisemitism on the part of UNWRA employees seemed inapropos, particularly in the wake of Biden’s denunciation of Jew-hatred.
The next and final leg of Biden’s trip was its most important. With inflation over 9 percent in the United States and prices at the pump hovering near historic highs, Biden’s job one in the run-up to the critical midterm elections was to secure additional oil output from a key producer, notwithstanding all that unfortunate rhetoric about turning Saudi Arabia into a pariah state and the kingdom’s fundamental opposition to Biden’s determination to roll back Iran policy to that of the Obama administration. The president’s arrival in Saudi Arabia was propitious, with the kingdom opening its airspace to flights from Israel for the first time. Indeed, Israeli papers waxed eloquent on the likely expansion of the Abraham Accords and possible Saudi softening on Israel. That didn’t happen. Nor, apparently, did much else.
Much was made of the optics of Biden’s first encounter with Mohammed bin Salman (better known by his acronym MBS), especially by Biden’s erstwhile supporters on the political left. Would he shake his hand? Would he bring up the Khashoggi killing? In the end, both the hand shake and the promised Khashoggi confrontation ended up a muddle. Biden chose to fist bump MBS, the same greeting he gave to Israeli leaders. Instead of appearing as a handshake-minus, the bump seemed a combination of COVID fear and lack of conviction. Worse still, Biden’s claim to have raised the issue of the slain dissident with the Saudi prince was directly contradicted by others in the room, leading to what can only be described as a degrading analysis of Biden’s exaggerations about his foreign policy encounters by no less than the New York Times.
And then the president came home. He inked an agreement for economic cooperation between India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates. He invited the Emirati leader to visit Washington. But the overall impression was that of a fading president and fading American power. A recent promise not to “walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” felt hollow after the ignominious U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, hesitation over Ukraine, and inability to reseal the Iran nuclear deal or persuade Saudi Arabia to ramp up oil production, not to speak of the Biden’s faltering leadership at home.