The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump emboldened Israel and Saudi Arabia; now Biden will try to rein them in. A little.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Vice President Joe Biden chat at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 21, 2016. (Michel Euler/AP)
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President-elect Joe Biden knows a great deal about the Middle East, but the Middle East he knew as vice president and as a well-traveled senator is not the one he will inherit as president.

The terms of Washington’s relationships with close ally Israel and regional partner Saudi Arabia changed under President Trump, who emboldened their leaders while muting U.S. criticism.

Biden is likely to try to change the tone and emphasis of U.S. policy toward both nations, which have been the pillars of U.S. engagement in the region for years. But with the exception of some arms sales and U.S. backing for some of the kingdom’s foreign policies, Biden has not signaled that he will try to undo most changes wrought by Trump.

In the case of the international nuclear deal with Iran, the most notable instance in which Biden has said he would reverse Trump, the ground has shifted profoundly. Biden cannot simply rejoin the deal that Trump left and that Iran has now abrogated.

Much of his Middle East policy will revolve around trying to rehabilitate and eventually replace the deal, although there is little indication now that Iran would go along or that Israeli opposition to such diplomacy could be overcome.

Trump’s loathing for the Iran deal signed when Biden was vice president dovetailed with his embrace of Israel and its right-wing leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden's approach to Israel would downgrade the country from its role as Trump's most favored ally but only tinker around the edges of the changed landscape after Trump.

For example, Biden is likely to resume public criticism of some Israeli settlement activity while also resuming public backing for Palestinian statehood, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

But Biden has welcomed diplomatic deals among Israel and three Arab neighbors that Trump helped midwife and that are bitterly opposed by the Palestinian Authority. Biden also has said he will not revisit the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He appears unlikely to revoke U.S. backing for Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, which like the embassy move was a political gift requested by Netanyahu and granted by Trump.

“My impression of the relationship under Trump was that when Bibi said ‘Jump,’ Trump asked, ‘How high?’ ” Indyk said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “That will change,” but the underlying alliance between the countries will not, he said.

Trump’s efforts to draw Arab states into economic and diplomatic arrangements with Israel may give Biden a more stable Middle East and a potential platform for efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. That would be made easier if Saudi Arabia, the biggest prize among the Arab states, made its own rapprochement with Israel. Trump has confidently predicted such a deal under his auspices, but time is running out.

Biden’s policies on foreign relations

Biden is unlikely to offer his own peace plan anytime soon, said people who have advised his campaign or discussed foreign policy priorities with him over the past several months.

One person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations noted that Biden is more interested in pacifying Iran and thinks the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has skewed the U.S. approach to the region.

With the likelihood of another national election in Israel in the coming months, Netanyahu has already set about reestablishing his ties to Biden. He unofficially sought a meeting early in Biden’s term but was told that visits with foreign leaders are not planned until after the coronavirus pandemic eases, people familiar with those discussions said.

Meanwhile, Biden is placing Saudi Arabia at arms length after the close embrace by Trump, who made the kingdom his first foreign visit as president.

Biden called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" during the presidential campaign and vowed to confront the kingdom over its human rights record. He is expected to yank White House backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and may sign on to congressional condemnations of Saudi Arabia over the humanitarian cost of the war.

Biden was critical of Trump’s handling of the Saudi-directed killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi more than two years ago. Trump never definitely pinned blame on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and sought to put the matter to rest.

U.S. interests in Saudi oil production, weapons purchases and support for administration policies in the Middle East were more important than holding Riyadh to account, Trump said in a statement weeks after the killing.

Antony Blinken, a longtime Biden aide who is now his choice to become secretary of state, has called the Trump approach appalling.

In an interview in January 2019, Blinken laid out how he said the United States should have handled the incident.

Biden's policies on other topics

The discussion during an episode of the “Intelligence Matters” podcast hosted by former acting CIA director Michael Morell amounts to a summation of the approach Biden is likely to take.

The United States should have made clear that it has doubts about the "impulsive and sometimes reckless" behavior of the crown prince, Blinken said.

“We’re not telling you who should lead your country. But we are telling you he needs to be reined in in some fashion. You choose how,” he said then.

Meanwhile, some of Biden’s advisers want him to pay less attention to the Middle East overall and more attention to Asia. The Obama administration tried something similar, only to see its “pivot to Asia” largely fizzle out.