On 14 June, White House Press Secretary Karen Jean-Pierre announced in a statement that US President Joe Biden would travel to the Middle East from 13 to 16 July on his first tour of the region since he came to power in January 2021.
According to the White House statement, Biden will begin his tour with a visit to Israel, then travel to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian leaders, and finally wind up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will attend a summit meeting, scheduled for 16 July, with the leaders of the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the invitation of Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz.
They will be joined by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq in a format called the 6+3 group.
In Israel, Biden will hold talks with Israeli leaders “to reinforce the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security, prosperity, and its increasing integration into the greater region.”
In Ramallah, Biden will reiterate his “strong support” for a two-state solution with equal measures of “security, freedom, and opportunity” for the Palestinians.
In Saudi Arabia, the only Arab country on the tour, the objectives of the summit meeting will be centred on reinvigorating the eight-decade “strategic partnership” between the US and Saudi Arabia, discussing means for “expanding regional economic and security cooperation,” including “new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives,” advancing human rights, and “ensuring global energy and food security.”
In the meantime, the summit will also be an occasion to reaffirm support for the UN-sponsored truce in Yemen. Another equally important question to be discussed at the summit, from a US and Israeli standpoint, will be ways of deterring “Iranian threats.”
The broad strategic agenda of the Jeddah summit raises questions on the Arab side. It goes without saying that reiterating the strong support of Biden and his administration for the two-state solution is welcome. Including Ramallah on the tour will also signal much-needed support for the failing leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), under pressure for a combination of reasons that vary from internal Palestinian divisions, the tense security situation in Gaza, and Israeli intransigence as far as resuming the peace talks with the PA is concerned, talks that have been frozen since April 2014.
If Biden’s talks in Ramallah are accompanied by announcing the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem and of the representative office of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington that would also be a great step forward. The PLO signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993 at the White House during the Clinton administration.
It may be recalled that the US Consulate in Jerusalem and the office of the PLO in Washington were closed down by the former Trump administration. Rescinding the two decisions would send a strong message of support to the PA and its President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to some press reports, Biden might also visit a site of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in Israel, which is provided by the US. The same reports have talked about replenishing the Iron Dome system with US missiles worth $1 billion. If true, these reports would signal clear and unambiguous US support for the “security” of Israel, when the latter is engaged in sabre-rattling against Iran and talking about going after the “head of the octopus” instead of its “tentacles” – a reference to pro-Iranian Arab political forces across the region from Lebanon to Palestine to Yemen and including Iraq.
But providing Israel with arms and unlimited US political support, while limiting support to the Palestinians to mere words, however well-intentioned, will serve neither Palestinian nor Arab interests at the Jeddah summit and beyond.
Expanding regional security cooperation and deterring Iranian threats, the two main strategic objectives behind the US president’s regional tour, as well as pushing the Saudis to increase their oil production to help rein in gas prices at the pump in the US before the country’s mid-term elections, could be enough to make the summit a success for US and Israeli security and political and economic interests.
But I am not sure that these things could be equated with a successful summit from an Arab point of view.
There is no rationale nor strategic justification for the Arab countries attending the Jeddah summit and then limiting its possible outcomes to making possible more regional integration – meaning more Arab normalisation with Israel – if there is not tangible and significant progress to implementing the two-state solution on the ground.
If the Jeddah summit is limited in this way, it will not be much different from the Riyadh summit with then US president Donald Trump hosted by the Saudi government in April 2017.
There is no reason whatsoever for the Arabs to participate in the Jeddah summit if this means being seen by the international community as siding with the US or with the US-led NATO alliance in its confrontation with Russia, or for that matter with China.
Instead, the summit should be another occasion for Arab countries to reiterate their principled position vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine, calling for a negotiated political and diplomatic solution that would guarantee the long-term security interests of both Russia and Ukraine and rejecting the military escalation in Ukraine that serves no Arab interests.
On the contrary, this escalation and the Western-imposed sanctions on Russia have adversely affected the food security of some Arab countries, including Egypt.
The Jeddah summit should be an occasion for the Arab countries to be transparent and to speak the truth to Biden. Unlimited US support for Israeli security is becoming highly destabilising, and it ill serves Egyptian and Arab interests in the medium and long term. If the Israelis want to strike Iran, the Arabs without exception should not be a party, directly or indirectly, to such a military attack.
Under no circumstances should we provide cover for the Israelis.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.