The fact that Joe Biden dragged his feet before phoning Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel did great harm, an early ritual gesture for all U.S. presidents as they reaffirmed their national ties. The Israeli prime minister has been lenient on the part of Donald Trump, whose Middle East policy has almost ticked the wish list of the Israeli right.
Even under Barack Obama, Biden’s former boss, Netanyahu was so confident in his position in Washington that he felt able to call on the US Congress to repudiate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the signing the Obama administration diplomatic mission. Congress resisted but Trump did in 2018 – and now Biden is trying to get the deal back.
Netanyahu faces re-election again, this time fighting corruption charges in court. Last year, his campaign featured giant banners of him alongside Trump – a abandoned image from his Twitter account just last month. While Biden’s pro-Israel credentials are impeccable, he appears to be send a message. Israeli voters have been sensitive in the past to their leaders taking the wrong side of the United States – a factor in Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999, after the first of his record five terms.
The call will inevitably come, but Biden’s White House appears to be using silence as part of its reassessment of relations with the Middle East, particularly targeting unruly and autocratic allies. Not to speak is an unorthodox diplomacy tool, but it can have some uses.
At the time of writing, Biden had yet to name Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally for 75 years. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, a NATO ally, had not received a phone either. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a country long at the center of US policy in the region.
Trump’s unscripted and transactional conversations with these leaders could have alarming and unpredictable results. The partial withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria in October 2019 and Turkey’s incursion into the region follows an off-track phone call with Erdogan. After Trump’s conversations with their leaders at a summit in Riyadh in May 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt blocked Qatar, a move initially supported by Trump, even though the emirate did not -Conformist Gulf is home to the largest US air base in the region.
It could be argued that Biden’s silent treatment, in addition to concrete steps such as the suspension of arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is a welcome incentive for more cautious behavior.
Qatar’s blockade was finally lifted last month, in what appeared to be a carefully crafted offer to the Biden team. The Saudis have also cut oil production, which has served US shale oil companies. Last week they released the activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who had been jailed and abused for her campaign for women’s right to drive.
Erdogan, in anticipation of change in Washington, and after a frenzy of regional adventurism, also showed his more pragmatic side. Turkey last month organized its first direct interviews with Greece in five years, to try to counter the growing confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean over maritime borders and gas resources. Ankara, one of the main actors in the civil war in Libya, has cautiously supported the surprise emergence of a UN-sponsored interim government to reunite the country.
One of the many problems Ankara has with Washington and its other NATO allies is its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems. Even on this touchstone issue, Turkey reports a willingness to compromise.
This surge in reasonableness could be nothing more than atmospheres of precaution. The Biden team said there would be no more blank checks for autocrats – including a reference to Trump’s “favorite dictator,” Sisi. Biden has promised a review of relations with Saudi Arabia, given a free pass by Trump even after the CIA implicated Prince Mohammed in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. be deleted.
Yet doubts abound across the Middle East as to the extent to which this US administration would actually risk its traditional alliances in the region. From the disastrous fallout of the war and occupation in Iraq under George W. Bush, to the halting confusion over intervention in Syria under Obama – all of this preceding Trump’s erratic and willful policies – American influence has receded.
The United States has gradually created a regional vacuum that has been partially so chaotic filled by Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. With that in mind, it will be difficult for Biden to turn this early exchange of signals into a substantial reset.
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