Biden’s Middle East policy shows echoes of Trump

President Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia next week is expected to show how the administration is putting its stamp on relations with the region, but some experts argue the president has largely continued the policies of former President Trump in the Middle East.  

Biden sought to reverse Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, but absent reviving the agreement, is leaning into closer coordination between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the anti-Iran coalition in the region to deter an Iranian nuclear threat. 

Biden also rejected Iranian calls to lift the Trump-imposed terror designations on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a move that has all but killed efforts to revive the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  

And while Biden has sought to restore ties with the Palestinian Authority that were severed by Trump, his administration has kept the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and stalled on reopening a separate mission to the Palestinians that was shuttered by Trump.  

The administration has also embraced a signature achievement of the Trump administration, the normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the so-called Abraham Accords. 

Biden officials reportedly tried to move away from the term Abraham Accords in the early days of the administration, but quickly changed tack, hosting a summit in Israel’s Negev desert in March celebrating the accords with its signatories. 

Biden’s trip to the Middle East is expected to include further promotion of the Abraham Accords. The president’s direct flight from Tel Aviv to his meetings in Jeddah is meant as a strong signal of Saudi Arabia’s forward movement to opening relations with Israel.  

“The U.S. administration is also invested in that, I would say increasingly so, expanding that circle,” a senior Israeli official told reporters Wednesday, referring to the Abraham Accords. “And if we can get the Saudis to move in that direction, that is an important game changer in the region.” 

Critics have rebuked the administration’s decision to plan a meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after promising to make Saudi leadership a “pariah” on the world stage following the brutal murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

Biden had initially taken a harder approach on Saudi Arabia; his administration last year released a long-awaited declassified intelligence report saying the crown prince, colloquially referred to as MBS, approved Khashoggi’s killing.  

But the White House has recently downplayed the meeting between Biden and MBS, saying it is among a handful of meetings that Biden will have with world leaders during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit he will attend while in Saudi Arabia. 

Some critics have expressed anger and frustration at what they view as largely a continuation of the Trump administration’s handling of relations with the Saudis, despite Biden’s signal early on he would “recalibrate” the relationship.  

“If there is a difference, it’s a difference of rhetoric,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an organization that was founded by Khashoggi.  

Still, Biden’s allies view the meeting as necessary given Saudi Arabia’s influence in the global oil market at a time of high energy prices and the need to contain Iran. 

To be sure, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia will likely be more toned down compared to Trump’s arrival in the Kingdom, which marked his first foreign trip and was resplendent with a red carpet airport arrival, a ceremonial sword dance and a bonding moment with a glowing orb.  

Israel is highly invested in the U.S. easing its tensions with Saudi Arabia.  

“Fixing, or restoring, US-Saudi relations and simultaneously getting Saudi Arabia to advance, if incrementally, towards normalization with Israel is important in the context of…pushing back against Iran,” the senior Israeli official said.  

Biden’s agenda in Israel will be dominated by Iran and the country’s relationship with Palestinians.  

The administration is confronting the reality of Iran’s nuclear power and the failure of any kind of significant movement to revive the nuclear deal.  

The president is expected to meet with Israel’s top three leaders – Prime Minister Yair Lapid, alternate prime minister Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu – who all oppose the JCPOA.  

Biden has diverged from Trump on the issue of Israeli settlements, viewing them as harmful to efforts to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Biden is expected to meet with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and show support for a two-state solution. 

Still, Biden is viewed as putting to the side efforts to advance Israeli and Palestinian peace talks, reflecting more the attitude of the Trump administration compared to the direct engagement carried out by the Obama administration, where he served as vice president.  

“We’ve seen rhetoric that is quite different from the Trump administration. But, by and large, the Biden administration has so far opted for a path of least resistance, on many things in the Middle East, including the Palestinian file,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. 

“Although there are some important differences, it’s not yet a dramatic change from Trump, and we don’t expect a major reversal now.” 

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked in the Obama White House, said that Biden would need to “thread the needle” with respect to the issue on the trip. 

“I think he has to demonstrate strong support for Israel,” Kupchan said. “But at the same time he needs to show more concern about and support for the Palestinians than Trump did, in part because Biden’s own constituency tends to be more mindful of Washington support for a two-state solution.” 

A phone call between Lapid and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly facilitated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, marks an effort by the administration to engage more with the Palestinians.   

But Biden is likely to be squeezed on either side over the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was allegedly shot by Israeli forces carrying out a security raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin. 

The Israelis are frustrated that the State Department presented as equal the separate Israeli and Palestinian investigations into Abu Akleh’s death, criticizing the Palestinian investigation as biased and without the resources to interview Israeli soldiers.  

An Israeli investigation was inconclusive, but noted that if it came from the IDF, it was unintentional.  

“I don’t think, with all due respect to the administration, that there is any symmetry here,” the senior Israeli official said. “And by the way, both sides use the same rifles, American rifles.” 

Abu Akleh’s family penned a scathing letter to Biden on Friday demanding he meet with them while on the trip and accusing his administration of helping to “whitewash” her killing by not ensuring an independent and transparent investigation. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday she hadn’t had a chance to read the letter, but said Biden has been “closely monitoring” the developments around her killing and that Biden administration officials “hear their concerns.”  

“We definitely continue to urge accountability,” Jean-Pierre said. 

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who met with Israeli and Palestinian officials last week in a visit to the region, said both sides were open to a third-party carrying out an investigation. 

“I think, obviously, that was a good development that happened,” he said.