In March 2010, then vice-president Joe Biden, a stalwart supporter of Israel, arrived in Jerusalem with a brief from President Barack Obama to try to revive moribund peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Benjamin Netanyahu, then and now Israel’s prime minister, had reluctantly agreed to a temporary moratorium on Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
Yet Mr Biden had no sooner pledged unyielding US support for Israel than the Netanyahu government unveiled a big expansion of settler housing on Palestinian land annexed to occupied Arab East Jerusalem after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Instead of kick-starting stalled negotiations, Mr Biden got a kick in the teeth he is unlikely to have forgotten.
That is perhaps just as well. There is much rumination about how Mr Biden, who takes office as US president today, can retrieve the nuclear deal with Iran — from which his predecessor Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018. But the incoming president may face bigger problems with America’s traditional allies in the Middle East than its adversaries. In addition to Israel, there is ample scope for acrimony with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose leaders, like Mr Netanyahu, were shielded from the consequences of wilful and ruthless behaviour by Mr Trump. In case Mr Biden did not remember 2010, Mr Netanyahu has probably jogged his memory by approving another big settlement expansion. Israel’s irredentist right, intent on colonising the West Bank and expanding settler numbers, got much of its wishlist under Mr Trump. By contrast, the right sees the Biden team as a reincarnated Obama administration under which Israeli-US relations became poisonous. Mr Biden is not expected to reverse Mr Trump’s signature move of relocating the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem. More probably the new president will reopen the US consulate-general in the city’s Arab eastern half as a sort of embassy to the Palestinians, to whom he will also restore American aid.
Last year, the Trump administration, in its self-styled “deal of the century”, gave US blessing in principle to Israeli annexation of all Jewish settlements. This adds pressure on Mr Netanyahu, facing a fourth election in two years while charged with corruption, to honour his promise to expand Israel’s borders. The veteran Israeli premier, more risk-averse than his rhetoric suggests, has preferred incremental colonisation of the West Bank to an overt land grab that would damage Israel’s international legitimacy. But he is fighting for his political life.
The Biden team opposes unilateral annexation, but this issue is nowhere near top of its crowded agenda. Yet it is tangled and treacherous enough to soak up a lot of diplomatic energy — and even to jeopardise Israel’s recent breakthroughs in relations with Gulf Arab states.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Arab leader, has yet to commit to formal diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel. This would be a tricky decision for the House of Saud, custodians of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Doing so would risk being seen as condoning Israel’s dominion in Jerusalem, holy to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews.
But the main issue for the new US administration, may well be the ruthless and reckless behaviour of Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom. During the campaign, Mr Biden threatened a review of the 75-year old US-Saudi alliance.
Prince Mohammed, who was stunned by Mr Trump’s defeat, is essaying statesmanlike moves in regional and oil politics as Mr Biden moves onstage. Yet a realistic appraisal of US interests in the Gulf — factoring in not just the rise of American shale oil output but re-engagement with climate change goals — could see US ties to Saudi downgraded anyway.
And then there is Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, a wobbly Nato ally that buys Russian missiles and busts US sanctions on Iran, while deploying hard power across the region. This multi-barrelled adventurism is, no doubt, powered in part by Mr Erdogan’s need to expand his neo-Islamist base and win over the ultranationalist right. But the US (and Europe), who find Ankara unpredictable and hostile, need to realise the past pattern, which saw Turkey as a subordinate power, has ended. The desire to see Turkey treated as an autonomous actor with legitimate regional interests has widespread support beyond the Erdogan camp.
For now, the Turkish strongman, like Prince Mohammed and Mr Netanyahu, is presenting his more amiable face to the new US president.
Indeed, when Mr Netanyahu tweeted congratulations to Mr Biden, he reminded him of their “long and warm personal relationship”. Martin Indyk, a Middle East mainstay of both the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations, replied tartly that while it is true that the Israeli premier has known the incoming president for decades, “it’s also true that Joe Biden has known Netanyahu for nearly 40 years”. Well enough to know not to turn his back.