Much has changed in the Middle East since Biden's last visit - analysis

One major change in the region is the shift from the global war on terror the US was waging to the new power of states.

 US Vice President Joe Biden speaks as he delivers a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS/DEBBIE HILL/POOL)
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks as he delivers a joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem March 9, 2016.

US President Joe Biden is expected to visit Israel this year and he may visit other areas in the region. In March of 2016, Biden visited Israel when he was vice president. Much has changed in the intervening years. It is worth looking at how Biden is coming to a changing region and the challenges and opportunities he has here.  

For Israel-US relations and the region in general, one of the biggest shifts is the Abraham Accords. When Biden last came, Israel was more isolated. At the time, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in charge, Israel had cold relations with Jordan, at least in public, and relations with Egypt were amicable but did not involve public visits. Later Netanyahu would travel to Oman and there would be an opening with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

This major change means that Biden enters a region where Israel has new ties and is working today on new joint naval drills with the US and Gulf friends, as well as growing ties with Greece, Cyprus and others in the Mediterranean.

The new opening of Israel-Gulf ties and the strengthening of bilateral and multilateral relations in the region mean that Biden comes to an Israel that is less sensitive about the contrasts of also being diplomatically isolated at times in the region. In the past, US administrations had used this apparent isolation to prod Israel to make concessions, and it also meant that they often came to Israel carrying messages from other countries.  

Israel also relied on the US to block hostile UN resolutions and to be its lifeline for things like military equipment and the important MOU that is signed every ten years funding Israel’s acquisition of billion-dollar equipment like F-35s.

 The Negev Summit. (credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/REUTERS) The Negev Summit. (credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/REUTERS)

Today, some of this has changed. While the Jewish state still faces an uphill struggle at the UN, the world is more focused on Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean there are no controversies. Israel’s government may fall and new elections would result. Jerusalem faces problems with Hamas in Gaza and a wave of terror attacks, many of them focused on the lawlessness in Jenin that led to the death of a journalist on May 11.  

ANOTHER MAJOR change in the region is the shift from the global war on terror the US was waging to the new power of states. Regional powers such as Turkey and Iran dominate the region today. The Syrian regime has largely defeated the Syrian rebels. Powerful leaders in the Gulf and Egypt are commonplace, rather than terrorist groups like ISIS spreading chaos.

This means that Israel and the US can have practical discussions about Israel-Turkey ties as well as the threat that Iran poses from Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran has been increasing its drone and missile threats, which means that Israel must confront the threat of new technology being used against the Jewish state. At the same time, Israel is a tech powerhouse as well, reshaping warfare with new cyber and AI technologies. This dual reality – the rising use of tech to threaten Israel and the US in the region, and the tech collaboration between the two long-term allies – have major ramifications.

The American decision to shift focus from the Middle East to confronting near-peer rivals such as Russia and China means that countries in the region are seeking a new path to go it alone without the constant presence of the US. This deal is not entirely closed though. With groups like Central Command, Washington still has a lot of forces in the region – and Israel's relations with CENTCOM and its naval component NAVCENT are of growing importance. As the US draws down some forces, it can rely more on Israel, the UAE and other friends and allies.

This is important for Biden because he may come to the region with problems at home, including inflation and supply chain issues. The US can’t rely on Israel to fulfill supply chains, but it can rely on Israeli tech and innovations in food security and other fields. Israel and the UAE have some projects in this arena and the US can benefit from trade deals, shipping and air transport that link the Emirates to the West, and link Israel, the UAE and Bahrain today.

WHEN IT comes to the Israel-Palestinian issue, the US president comes with a depth of knowledge. But such knowledge sometimes means that American leaders are set in their ways in terms of their perception of the conflict, so it is unclear if Biden will have any new ideas regarding peace.

The last US administration put out a peace plan that largely did not see any progress. The Obama administration also worked on peace and didn’t get anywhere. The Biden administration appears less enthusiastic about reinventing the peace wheel. This can mean that Biden may not try to jump into this issue and get burned like previous administrations.

On the other hand, the low hopes for peace or a peace agreement mean that anything he can do may turn out well. Low-level, simmering tensions with the Palestinians and the continued terror attacks, as well as concerns about a flare-up with Hamas mean that the president could find himself entering a crisis or see the terrorist group use his trip to increase tensions.  

Regarding the wider region, the Biden administration has options in terms of trying to shore up Jordan-Israel ties, working towards a maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon, and also working on shoring up parts of Iraq and Syria, particularly the Kurdish areas where the US has influence.

This is not an easy task. Lebanon is hijacked by Hezbollah and Iraq is hijacked by the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. Washington will have an uphill struggle there, but this matters to Israel because Iran threatens it from Iraq. The US must also pay attention to what is happening at its Tanf garrison in Syria near the Jordanian border.

These issues may not seem pressing, but the Biden administration will be considering what to do with the US position in eastern Syria. These are key issues that are different from 2016 because back then, America was only beginning to get involved in eastern Syria and at Tanf.