The US is “recalibrating” its relationship with Saudi Arabia (read: withdrawing support in its struggle with Iran and its proxies). It has removed several Patriot antimissile batteries from the area, ended the permanent stationing of an aircraft carrier in the region, and eliminated surveillance systems that were operating there. It stopped providing arms for “offensive” Saudi operations in Yemen (the Saudis say they are defensive), and canceled the designation of the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization. The Iran-supported and controlled Houthis, in turn, have recently stepped up their attacks on Saudi Arabia, using Iranian drones and missiles. Last month, the Biden Administration also released a report about the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that accuses Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman of ordering the grisly affair.
Part of the arrangements for the Abraham Accords, the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab countries, was that the Trump Administration agreed to sell advanced F-35 stealth aircraft to the United Arab Emirates. Israel, surprisingly to some, did not object. But within a week of his taking office, Biden’s administration froze the deal, and is not expected to reinstitute it. Apparently this has not damaged the relationship between Israel and the UAE, but one wonders about the motivation. The only obvious beneficiary here is Iran.
Biden has also begun to recalibrate the relationship with Israel. Although his administration makes the usual noises about concern for Israel’s security, it has returned to the idea of a two-state solution “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps and agreements on security and refugees.” It has restarted aid to UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency which, instead of solving the problem of stateless descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948, perpetuates it as a weapon against Israel. It is in the process of finding a way to restore direct aid to the Palestinian Authority without violating US law (the Taylor Force Act) which requires the PA to first stop paying convicted terrorists and their families. It has expressed its intention to reopen the PLO office in Washington and the US consulate in eastern Jerusalem, the unofficial “US Embassy to Palestine.”
Recently, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi that “Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy ‘equal measures’ of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy.” On the surface, this is puzzling. The Palestinians are ruled by the PA, which is just the murderous PLO dressed in fancy clothes by the Oslo Accords, and Hamas, a vicious terrorist gang without even the patina of legitimacy possessed by the PLO. Neither of these regimes are sovereign states, and both live on funds provided by foreign donors; in the case of Hamas, the support is provided explicitly to encourage its warfare against Israel. Both are misogynistic, homophobic, dictatorial, corrupt, and of course antisemitic regimes. If Blinken thinks that these things should change, why did he not address his remarks to the PA and Hamas leadership? Why tell it to Israel’s Foreign Minister?
I suggest that what Blinken actually meant was that in his mind Israel and “Palestine” are equally legitimate. This in turn implies that “Palestine” should have an equal measure of sovereignty with Israel. This goes significantly farther than either the traditional position of Israel – which, since Rabin, has never gone past envisioning a Palestinian entity with significant limitations on its sovereignty – and that of the Trump Administration, whose two-state plan required the Palestinians to meet certain “governance criteria” before receiving statehood.
While the US administration would claim that the change in policy helps the Palestinian people without hurting Israel, it’s unfortunate that the nature of Hamas and the PA/PLO make the conflict a zero-sum game. As their repeated refusals to accept statehood or to abjure terrorism make clear, the primary objective of the Palestinian leadership has never deviated from the expulsion or killing of all the Jewish inhabitants of the land between the river and the sea.
Recently the Wall St. Journal published leaked information about Israel’s sabotage of Iranian tankers carrying oil to Syria in violation of international sanctions on Syria and Iran. Apparently this has been going on for the past 2-1/2 years and has cost Iran billions of dollars, money which could be used to supply weapons to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies. The leak has been attributed to the Biden Administration, which wanted to “[neutralize] background noise which the Americans think might soon hamper the renewal of negotiations with Iran about the United States’ return to the nuclear agreement.” But the result may be an escalation of hostile actions between Iran and Israel. In essence, Biden’s people chose to harm Israel in order to improve its relations with Iran.
At the same time, Biden’s people have backed down on the demand that Iran first stop enriching uranium to 20% before talks on returning to the JCPOA could begin. It seems that, like the first time many of the same people negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, they are hungry for an agreement, so much so that they have already started down the slippery slope of concessions. As all Middle Easterners, even Israelis, know, this is not how to make a deal in the shuk. They may think “this time it will be different,” but they are fooling themselves. I don’t know precisely why they are so hungry, but I am absolutely certain that displaying their hunger at the outset is a recipe for taking a beating at the end of the day.
In Plato’s Republic, Polemarchus argues that true justice consists of helping one’s friends and hurting one’s enemies, in particular by making oneself an ally in war with one’s friends against your common enemies. Whether or not this is justice in any sense (Plato thinks not), it is a fundamental principle of international relations, where “friends” and “enemies” are defined in terms of national interests. It seems that Biden (or whoever is making decisions in his administration) has decided that American interests lie in taking the side of Iran over that of the developing alliance between Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others who are threatened by Iran. Friends become foes, and former foes, friends.
Judging by the actions of the Iranian regime until now, it is hard to believe that an international agreement led by the US – which is removing the military assets that would buttress compliance! – will prevent the regime from achieving its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Indeed, as we saw with the previous agreement, the deal may act as a shield for nuclear and missile development, as well as a deterrent to Iran’s enemies to act against it, without significantly slowing Iran’s nuclear progress. The ending of sanctions makes a huge amount of money available to the regime, which – again, as was manifest after the 2015 deal – may be used to export terrorism and build up Iranian proxies for warfare against Israel or other states.
The worst-case scenario is that Iran will obtain and use nuclear weapons directly against its enemies or as a shield for conventional aggression. Another possibility is that Israel and her anti-Iranian alliance will find themselves compelled to use force to prevent Iran from going nuclear, precipitating a very destructive regional war. It could also happen that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and possibly other states would feel obligated to acquire nuclear weapons themselves as a deterrent.
If the new administration had chosen to continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, along with supporting the regional alliance against Iran, Israel’s special operations, and the strong domestic Iranian opposition, it might have been possible to bring down the regime. But that is not the path they chose.