In the next four years, the Middle East will be a different place from what it was under Trump. Gone are the days of impunity in exchange for total acquiescence, notably in connection with how the previous American administration pushed hard to sell the Arabs its “peace plan” to settle the Palestinian conflict with Israel.
Last Thursday, the newly elected Joe Biden visited the State Department, signalling his commitment to diplomacy as Washington’s foremost foreign policy tool – a dramatic and very welcome change considering how American diplomacy was from 2017 to 2020, when it was difficult to discern the true objectives of Trump’s foreign policy. In fact, one could hardly recognise the United States during his one-term presidency, and the lack of American leadership turned the Middle East into a free-for-all at the expense of regional security and stability and lack of progress in solving decade-old crises and conflicts. Except for serving Israeli national security interests, incoherence and inconsistency were the hallmarks of American foreign policy.
President Biden has charted a new course for the United States in the Middle East, reformulating the American system of alliances in the region and setting out clear directions for American diplomacy. He just may manage to achieve greater coherence and consistency between means and ends.
Take two examples. First, the war in Yemen and American relations with Saudi Arabia. In his first foreign policy speech as president, on 4 February, Biden said that this “war has to end. And to underscore our commitment,” he went on, “we are ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”. Given Washington’s position on this under Trump, this new policy is nothing short of a revolution. In the meantime, President Biden appointed a veteran diplomat, Timothy Lenderking, as his special envoy to Yemen, pointing out that Ambassador Lenderking will be working with the United Nations and “all parties to the conflict to push for a diplomatic solution”. This position by the Biden administration is a far cry from the position of either Obama or Trump.
To avoid any of the diplomats he was addressing misunderstanding his position, however, Biden did clarify that the United States would continue defending Saudi Arabia against attacks. He said that this Gulf country “faces missile attacks … and other threats from Iranian supplied forces”, and that the United States is going “to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity and its people”.
On the other hand, the American president added, the United States Agency for International Development (AID) “would also work to ensure humanitarian aid reached Yemeni people suffering unendurable devastation”. Moreover, the American administration is reviewing the designation by the Trump administration of the Houthis as a “terrorist organization”, a designation that was announced at the very end Trump’s term in office. It is more than likely that the Biden administration will reverse its course in this regard. In the meantime, the Treasury Department approved a licence to allow all transactions with the Houthis disregarding , indirectly , the designation .
Considering all these new elements, the odds are that all the parties to the Yemeni armed conflict will reconsider their positions and recommit to the implementation of related United Nations resolutions. The war in Yemen has reached stalemated that is counterproductive in relation to the national interests of all parties concerned.
On Friday 5 February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Saudi counterpart, Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud, to “discuss regional security, counterterrorism and cooperation to deter and defend against attacks on Saudi Arabia, according to a readout by the State Department on 6 February. In that readout, Secretary Blinken outlined some “key priorities” for the Biden administration, namely “elevating” human rights questions and ending the war in Yemen. I believe the Saudis will look seriously into readjusting their policies now.
The second example of new directions in American foreign policy in the Middle East is the Palestinian question, which has been prey to the combined and well-orchestrated scheming by both Trump and Netanyahu to nip the two-state solution in the bud. In the course of 2020, the Trump administration did its best to kill this solution for good. In January 2020 it announced its “peace plan” to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but that turned out to be little more than a blueprint for annexing more Palestinian and Arab land with America’s blessing. In September that year, the White House hosted the signing of what has become to be known as the Abraham Accords, paving the way to circumventing the Palestinian conflict altogether with a string of normalisation agreements between some Arab countries and Israel.
The Biden approach is to build on these accords and enlarge them, indeed, but not as a substitute to settling the Palestinian question diplomatically. On 2 February – his first press briefing – Ned Price, the new spokesperson of the State Department, said that any normalisation deals in the future “do not substitute Israeli-Palestinian peace”. He expressed the hope that Israel and other countries in the region would “join together in a common effort to build bridges and… contribute to tangible progress towards the goal of advancing a negotiated peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Such an approach should encourage all parties concerned, Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis, to seize the opportunity and in good faith negotiate a solution to a conflict that has lasted for decades and brought undue suffering to both Palestinians and Israelis.
In this respect, it is interesting to note that the Biden administration has decided to resume American assistance to the Palestinians, which had been suspended by the Trump White House, to steamroll the Palestinian Authority into total submission to the Trump peace plan. According to Price, the “suspension of aid to the Palestinians has neither produced political progress nor secured concessions from the Palestinian leadership… it has only harmed innocent Palestinians”.
Middle Eastern countries and the Palestinians should engage the Biden administration and push for solutions to old problems and issues that have so far remained unsolved to the detriment of all. Then we can look forward to a positive Arab and Palestinian response to the new American positions.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly