| Washington Wrap |

Biden Hobbled in the Middle East

We spoke with David Schenker, the Taube Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute and director of its Program on Arab Politics

Photo: AP Images


espite the Biden administration’s best efforts to put the Middle East on a back burner, events there inevitably seem to conspire to come to a full boil and demand full attention. We wanted to get a read on the White House’s responses to recent events and developments there, as well as a forecast as to where things might be headed.

To that end, we spoke with David Schenker, the Taube Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute and director of its Program on Arab Politics. Schenker served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from June 2019 through January 2021. In that capacity, he was the principal Middle East advisor to the secretary of state and the senior official overseeing the conduct of US policy and diplomacy in a region stretching from Morocco to Iran to Yemen, with responsibility for 18 countries, the Palestinian Authority, and Western Sahara. He also supervised more than 9,000 staff and administered an annual budget in excess of $7 billion.

Jordan’s King Abdullah was here in Washington last week. Was that more important than other visits, given the regional circumstances?

“Well, it’s a particularly tense time. Not only from the Jordanian perspective, with the new Israeli government. What they are concerned about is the trajectory of developments on the ground going into Passover and Ramadan. And so, yes, I think it’s an important time to be here. But there are always varying degrees of crises for the Jordanians.”

When Biden took office, we saw the administration distance themselves from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They likely concluded that it’s just better to leave it as a low priority. Do you think that the recent events on the ground change this calculation in any way?

“Well, certainly you had the Biden visit [last July], when he was clear that he didn’t think the time was ripe for making progress on a political horizon. But of course, developments on the ground change the plans of Washington. And so you had, within a week-and-a-half period, Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan, and the secretary of state all visit in rapid fire, to demonstrate not only interest in de-escalation on the ground, but also looking at the first few months of the Netanyahu government with Ben Gvir and Smotrich, and the signals that had been sent about ‘maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount’ and annexation. The administration has laid down their expectations, and I think they will check in every now and then to make sure that their expectations are being met.”

What kind of tools do Israelis have at their disposal to defuse tension?

“I think they’re limited. It takes two to tango, of course, and the Palestinian Authority doesn’t particularly have authority in the West Bank — never mind Gaza, which is a whole different story. But certainly, you know, the prime minister is between a rock and a hard place. He wants to maintain good relations with Washington. He may not want to change the status quo on the ground, but has pressures from his coalition partners, and has other priorities, whether those are judicial reform or the issue of his own legal status. And so he’s got to keep his coalition partners happy.

“And he also needs to maintain very close relations with Washington, because it has an enormous bearing on the success of our cooperation on Iran. So there’s a balancing act, I think, for the prime minister right now.”

And for the US, are there any tools at its disposal to mitigate the risk of a full-scale conflict?

“Well, I think there are some — not me — who suggest that the US support for additional normalization, to somehow entice Saudi Arabia to do more, would be a big piece of leverage. I’m skeptical about that —I think this administration has no leverage with Saudi Arabia because of the strained relationship. I don’t think there’s a great deal of leverage here.”

It seems the administration could accomplish more on the Middle Eastern front if it were more focused. What is getting in the way of that?

“I think this administration is focused on Ukraine and the pivot to Asia, the strategic threat posed by China. And I think the past two years have demonstrated that it really does not want to be terribly involved in the Middle East.

“What is [Blinken] going to offer the Palestinians? He can’t offer a political horizon. I think the administration wanted to have good relations with Palestinians. But once again, I think Biden understood very early that now is not a particularly good time to try and make progress on the political front, given Abbas’s low energy, loss of control, loss of popularity, his 17th year of a six-year term, and local challenges. Everybody is jockeying for their position in the succession.”

I wanted to ask you about Iran. When Biden took office, there was a lot of speculation that he would run into any nuclear deal, no matter how bad. But now we’re seeing that not only is that not the case, but the US and Israel just concluded their biggest joint military exercises, a show of force on a united front against Iran. Do you see a change of perception from the Biden administration?

“No, I think the Biden administration is still interested in a deal, but is vastly constrained — not only because Iran has been repressing these [anti-regime] protests very violently, but more so because the Iranians are helping the Russians kill Ukrainians. And this is an enormous ideological constraint that makes it very hard to do [a deal now]. And also the Europeans aren’t there anymore. But the Biden administration wanted to do this and was willing to make enormous concessions to do it. And it was the Iranians who weren’t interested in it, at the end of the day. And now it’s too late. There’s too little time left before the constraints on ballistic missiles are finished and before the IR-6 can spin. And they’re already going to 60% [enrichment].”

You’re saying that given the circumstances, the US and Israel are closer than we might have expected?

“I think the [joint military] exercise was useful. I think there is still enormous reticence from this administration to use force with Iran. And we have seen the goalposts move. The goalposts used to be that Iran could enrich beyond 20%. And now they’re at 60%. And now the goalposts are they can’t have a weapon. Will we allow them to enrich to 90% and not weaponize? What is the red line?

“I think there is a greater appreciation and understanding that Israel needs increased capabilities. But just because we exercise together in a very robust way, which I think is important, doesn’t mean that the United States is prepared to follow through on that. And I think that Iran took notice of the exercise. But whether they will be deterred by that is another question.”

You mentioned Saudi Arabia and the limitations arising from the strained relationship. Does the US have any role to play here that would expand the Abraham Accords?

“There’s a lot the United States can do, whether it’s with Sudan or other countries. And certainly, the United States helped a great deal with Sudan, like the other countries in the Abraham Accords, that wouldn’t have happened without the United States, without the Trump administration at the time.

“But with Saudi Arabia, there are a number of limitations. Mohammed bin Salman is very forward-leaning on this. But he’s doing a lot of social change in the kingdom. And he’s going to have to sequence what he does in terms of changing the traditional orientation of the kingdom. The other factor is, of course, that his father, King Salman, is still king. And he strikes me as a more traditional Arab nationalist type in terms of support for the Arab peace plan, the idea of which is, you make peace with the Palestinians first and then the other Arab states come after. He’s still the king, notwithstanding the enormous role that MBS plays.

“Like every country that has made peace with Israel, there will be a price. The Saudis ask for a lot — basically, being a NATO-like partner with the United States, with security guarantees, weapons sales, and obviously that’s not something I think the Biden administration is prepared to do.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 948)

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