The US vice president’s visit to Israel has to a large degree clarified the Middle East imperatives of the Barack Obama administration in its second year.
Joe Biden’s cornerstone speech at Tel Aviv University is a major downgrade and retreat from the bold commitments made by President Obama in Turkey and Egypt.
The two-part speech will no doubt be read selectively. Israeli leadership will underline the appeasement, commitment and support in the first two-thirds of the speech, whilst the Palestinian leadership will emphasise the overtures and support for independence made in the last third.
The first part underlines the Obama administration’s and Biden’s own adulation and commitment towards Israel. It checks all the boxes.
Israel is a vibrant democracy, check. With moral standing, check. Acts in self-defence, check. Mutual values, check. No better friend, check. US commitment to Israel’s security unwavering, check. Their views on security identical, check.
He also underlined how the views of US and Israel on Iran are identical. Iranian leadership a major problem, check. Iran has become more dangerous, check. Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, check. Its allies Hezbollah and Hamas are threat to Israel, check.
Palestine in return for Iran
Biden substituted Washington’s extended open hand towards Tehran with a firm fist, while placing the ‘peace process’ squarely at the service of US strategy towards Iran.
And he made clear, in no vague terms that the Obama administration needs to keep the diplomatic process alive in order to mount the solid front against Iran which Israel wants so badly.
The Obama administration must give the sense of momentum that makes it possible for “moderate” Arab regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to join in future sanctions or blockade on Tehran.
That’s why, as a close Zionist friend and ally, Biden urged Israel to cease making announcements of settlement construction that might derail the negotiations, and support the establishment of Palestinian state.
But the way in which the Vice President packaged the question of Palestine doesn’t bode well for a just solution. He made no mention of the illegality of the Israeli settlements, let alone any mention of Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab land.
A Palestinian state, according to Biden, is indispensable first and foremost for Israel as a democracy and a Jewish homeland.
Bid for safety
As the Obama administration took stock of its dwindling popularity on its first year and analyzed aspects of its foreign policy failures, it concluded that it’s safer for the time being to go back to traditional appeasement of Israel and continue putting pressure on Tehran.
Clearly, the Obama administration feels that it has burnt its fingers, at least publicly, by giving the impression of seeking rapprochement with Iran and distancing itself from Israel.
Although this might have been the right strategy or the necessary bold shift to reinvent the Middle East region, the Obama administration hasn’t been ready to pay the political price in terms of the Israeli lobby’s backlash domestically or the geopolitical costs in terms of accommodation with Iran.
It’s in that sense that the speech at Tel Aviv University is the culmination of half a year of rethinking of US Middle East strategy and actual retreat from the ambitious plans at the outset.
Facing several hot and cold fronts at home and in the Greater Middle East region, the Obama administration hopes to improve the atmosphere with Israel, put the heat on Tehran, and enlist the support of so-called moderate Arabs.
To that end, the Obama administration seems to have abandoned comprehensive efforts towards far reaching global solutions to the region’s conflicts, and instead is seeking to maintain the trappings of peaceful negotiations on the Israel-Palestine front in order to raise the heat of sanctions on Iran.