Biden’s trip aims to salvage crumbling US order

Joe Biden in sunglasses stands at a speaker's podium before Airforce 1

Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia promises little for Palestinians or Yemenis.

Ilia Yefimovich Picture-Alliance/DPA

A special day for the Abraham Accords, but a bad day for journalism and human rights.

At least that’s one way to look at US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, a visit that will also take in a meeting in the occupied West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader.

It’s not the way Biden sees it.

The trip – coming on the background of much Washington tut-tutting over the reentry into the fold of Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, whom the CIA has blamed for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – is a chance to start a “new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement there,” Biden wrote in a recent Washington Post opinion piece.

One suspects the choice of medium was not accidental.

A more “secure and integrated” Middle East, the president argues, is a US strategic interest. He then goes on to suggest that the region is more stable than when he took over from Donald Trump, his predecessor.

But he is fooling nobody. The US-Saudi rapprochement his trip inevitably signals has been forced on the Biden administration by rising oil prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Unusually, the US is in a weaker negotiating position here, not least because Riyadh has played hardball on oil production and chosen a path of strategic neutrality over the Ukraine conflict.

Free normalization

And Trump’s shadow looms large over a trip that shows just how far human rights concerns are from actual US regional policy and how little import is attached to Palestinian and Yemeni lives.

Preparations are clearly being made for Saudi-Israeli normalization, modeled on the so-called Abraham Accords that Trump administration fans seem to consider a major achievement of his presidency.

Those accords asked no price from Israel, even though the country has ethnically cleansed Palestinians from their lands and denied them their rights – to self-determination, to return, and to freedom and equality – for 74 years while in the 56th year of its bloody military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

And there is no sign that a price will be exacted from any Saudi normalization.

Quite the contrary, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been pursuing his own private-sector normalization project since before leaving office, with a big plan to relieve Riyadh of billions of dollars and invest them in Israel.

Biden has also hit a dead end in negotiations with Iran over terms for the US to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama was meant to enable a US pivot away from the Middle East and toward China – an effort that still persists as a recent joint press appearance by the heads of the FBI and Britain’s MI5 attests to.

But Trump tore up the deal as part of his administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran that started with the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and culminated (with no irony) in the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Israel and the UAE – two countries that now must be mentioned in the same breath since they have aligned to each other on regional policy – both oppose a new deal and, apparently, want a reprise of the maximum pressure strategy.

So much for a more “secure and integrated” Middle East.

Who pays the price

Any rapprochement between the US and Saudi Arabia – which Biden had called a pariah country during his presidential campaign – will likely come at the cost of any pressure on Riyadh to ease up on its devastating assault on Yemen, the region’s poorest country and now, with the intervention in 2015 of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

Already, the US is weighing ending a ban on selling US offensive arms to Saudi Arabia.

Critics have pointed out that this “ban” only existed on paper in the first place, and that Biden has continued to supply the absolute monarchy with offensive capabilities.

It will also come at the cost of any remaining Palestinian hopes that some day a US administration will gather together the necessary guts to confront Israel over its decades-old violations of international law.

Blanket American support for whatever Israel does regardless of international law seems to have taught rights-breaching dictatorships all over the world just one lesson: Get Israel’s support and you have Washington’s.

That, rather than any imminent threat from Iran, is the real reason countries like the UAE – where even signing an online petition asking for some political freedoms can land you in jail – and Saudi Arabia – don’t be a journalist there and don’t be Shia – have sought Tel Aviv’s favor.

Who wouldn’t want some of that magic potion that enables Israel to engage in ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the murder of journalists and not just escape censure but secure billions of dollars annually in US financial and military assistance?

Do something

And Israel doesn’t even have to pretend any more. Sure, it will make some temporary gestures toward a visiting US president – undertaking not to further break international law for the duration and graciously granting extra work permits to Palestinians in Gaza who otherwise suffer a draconian Israeli-imposed closure leaving them on the permanent brink of a full-fledged humanitarian disaster.

But overall, the picture is a disaster for Palestinians. The US has effectively stood aside over the past six years since Trump took office, allowing Israel to further consolidate its occupation of the West Bank while continuing plans for population transfers in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the West Bank.

There is no political horizon for a Palestinian people that is also hampered by a leadership refusing to relinquish what is now a clearly pointless two-state “strategy.”

If ever there was a time for a Palestinian leadership with any gumption to make waves, it is now.

Announce right next to Biden the end of the two-state solution, the Oslo accords, the end of the Palestinian Authority as anything other than a public service provider, an end to security coordination with Israel and a return of political leadership to an expanded PLO that includes Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others.

Announce that, after popular elections to the PLO National Council to select members of the Central Council and the Executive Committee, the leadership will support a struggle for equal rights in a single state.

Watch the result.

Or don’t – and let’s face it, there is neither gumption nor imagination with the current lot of Palestinian leaders who are as dependent on the US and Israel as any other of the region’s client regimes – and watch as nothing changes.

Keep watching instead the daily dirty grind that is Israel’s occupation continue to brutalize Palestinians while stealing their land, their livelihoods, their dignity and their lives.

Because the Biden administration offers nothing.


Omar Karmi

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.