US President Joe Biden is not quite as committed to the Abraham Accords as the Trump administration was, former National Security Council chief Meir Ben Shabbat said on Thursday night.
“Biden says the right things, but does not seem as committed as the Trump administration was,” Ben Shabbat said at a virtual INSS conference, but that “I think eventually the Biden administration will get more involved in the issue, even if it is moving slower than” the Trump administration did.
While the former NSC chief said these were his observations and did not explain the basis for his opinion, former Mossad Iran desk chief and current INSS fellow Sima Shine provided some of her own.
Discussing recent visits by top US officials to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Shine said these visits came after a period of neglect and even tension between the Biden administration and these countries.
At the beginning of his term, Biden butted heads with the Saudis and Egypt over a variety of human rights issues.
However, once the Biden administration noted in May that it needed Egypt to assist with stability between Israel and Hamas and needed Saudi assistance on other issues, Shine suggested that the US has initiated stronger ties with those countries.
She noted the Biden administration has slow-walked the deal to sell F-35 aircraft to the UAE, which was part of the broader package that led to normalization. Reports have said that the Biden administration is concerned about UAE ties with China, and that the F-35 technology could be leaked to Beijing.
In contrast, Trump was known (and sometimes criticized in the US) for ignoring human rights violations by these countries, and pursuing normalization deals with a dogged single-mindedness.
Former IDF chief Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot, an INSS fellow, spoke to the conference on the impact of the Abraham Accords on the Iranian issue.
Given that the Islamic Republic is rushing toward presenting an advanced nuclear threat, he said, “we need... standing against the Iranian threat and global [terror]organizations like ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood” to be the central guiding principle.
“We need to strengthen the moderate Sunni camp… in the giant struggle to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon or regional hegemony,” he said. “It will be a completely different region if Iran” achieves either of these goals.
Eisenkot discussed the importance of more people-to-people contact with Egypt and Jordan, so that their populations will buy into the peace deals that their governments have signed.
Shine said that Israel and its new Sunni allies have much in common in fearing Iran, but that they still view the threat from the Islamic Republic through a different lens from Israel.
“Both face a threat, but we feel we are strong and we can deal with it,” she said. “Also, our biggest threat is the nuclear one. All the other threats pose challenges, but we know how to deal with them, such as using the war between wars [preemptively attacking Iranians encroaching on Israeli border security.] However, these [Arab Gulf countries] have Iran itself right on their border.”
The former Mossad official noted several devastating attacks Tehran has launched on the Saudi oil industry inside Saudi territory over the years.
She said that the Sunni countries “feel Iran also threatens them internally. They have large Shi’ite communities. Bahrain has a Shia majority. Also in the East where Saudi oil is, there are lots of Shi’ites, so Iran can threaten [Sunni Gulf countries] both from the outside and inside.
“For us, the nuclear issue is the central problem. Whenever we have a dialogue with them, they say, ‘OK, the nuclear issue, the nuclear issue, but we also want to discuss regional security issues.’
“Israel always says: let’s separate these issues,” concerned that there will not be progress toward a unified view on the nuclear issue.
Shine thought that the Gulf countries are “very disappointed by Biden,” though she also noted that they were disappointed with Trump for not keeping all of the promises he had made to them.
Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman and former deputy Mossad chief Ram Ben Barak told the conference that recent signs of dialogue between Iran and the Saudis would not go far.
Ben Barak said that this was mainly a move by the Saudis to have a backup plan in case the US fully abandons the Middle East, the way it completely withdrew from Afghanistan.
However, the former Mossad deputy chief said that since the US will not abandon the Middle East as completely as it did Afghanistan, and because the Saudis have a deep distrust of the Islamic Republic, the dialogue will eventually dwindle.
In one sign that the Saudis still may try not to alienate Tehran too much, Shine said she thought that Riyadh would nix any potential future request by Israel to use its airspace for launching any airstrike on Iran.
Regarding missed opportunities, Ben Shabbat said that he wished that more progress had been made with Sudan, which to date still has not finalized its normalization with Israel.
However, he said that while it was crucial in pursuing normalization to seize opportunities, it was also important not to be too pushy and alienate a potential partner, for want of greater patience.
Ben Shabbat also said that a variety of moves toward normalization and perhaps with other potential countries too were significantly hampered by the corona pandemic.