Around the halls: Brookings experts on Biden’s performance in the Middle East

Smoke rises in the sky following clashes in Tripoli, Libya, August  27, 2022. REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed


Two years into the Biden administration’s term, Middle East-focused scholars in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings offer thoughts on some of the policy areas the Biden administration has dealt with thus far.

The Middle East has fit awkwardly within Biden’s global priorities. Biden has sought to focus U.S. attention to other parts of the world, with more success than his immediate predecessors. Yet while competition with China and, later, the war in Ukraine have occupied much of the administration’s focus, the broader Middle East has still commanded considerable time and effort. In its first year, the administration prioritized the withdrawal from Afghanistan, an attempt to unwind U.S. involvement in the civil war in Yemen, and the effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA alongside Iran. It struggled to balance a very critical initial approach to Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, with a subsequent desire to normalize relations with the Gulf, stem the rise in energy prices, and move forward on Israeli-Arab normalization.

Amid all this, the administration faced crises in Lebanon, the Horn of Africa, Iraq, and Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. It successfully worked to broker a maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon and to help maintain ceasefires in Libya and Ethiopia. It has dealt with crises big and small, proving yet again how hard it is for U.S. administrations to divert their attention from the region. Indeed, the administration, has faced the perennial American difficulties arising from the tensions in its own policy priorities: promoting stability and maintaining uneasy relationships with difficult partners while supporting democracy and human rights; and the desire to move on from the region balanced against the necessity to address its myriad challenges and occasional opportunities.

Below, our scholars touch on several of these themes, among others. As always, scholars at Brookings take their own individual perspectives, celebrating differences of opinion among them.

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Suzanne Maloney on stalled diplomacy and mass protest in Iran.

Halfway into his term, President Biden faces a conundrum on Iran. He entered office determined to reverse his predecessor’s decision to exit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tehran’s retaliatory non-compliance with the agreement has brought the world once again to the brink of nuclear crisis, as Iran’s breakout time – the time needed to produce a single bomb’s worth of fuel – stands at one week or less, down from approximately a year when the deal was intact.

Despite Iran’s refusal to engage directly with U.S. diplomats, tireless diplomacy by Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley and his European counterparts managed to produce consensus months ago on a final text of a revised deal, only to run into repeated Iranian roadblocks. Since then, the nuclear negotiations have been hit by twin tsunamis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine torpedoed Moscow’s interest in helping clinch a new nuclear deal and deepened the Iranian-Russian defense partnership through Tehran’s export of drones and training to help Moscow’s brutal war. Then in September, anti-regime protests erupted in Iran, setting off the longest-running wave of unrest in decades and intensifying skepticism about the viability and utility of any new nuclear agreement.

Biden himself recently remarked that the deal is “dead,” although some U.S. officials have sought to avoid a formal breach. Washington had hoped to shift the Middle East to the back burner to focus on more urgent challenges from Russia and China, but as is often the case, Iran rocketed back onto the White House agenda.

Samantha Gross on how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaped the Biden administration’s approach to Gulf energy exporters.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has severely impacted the global oil market. Russian oil is still largely flowing today, but the western world’s rejection and sanctioning of Russian oil supply has rearranged oil deliveries and added uncertainty to an already volatile market.

In this environment, President Biden has turned to OPEC and the Gulf oil producers to increase production and stabilize the market, with disappointing results. OPEC’s October 2022 decision to reduce production quotas was seen as a personal insult from the Saudis against Biden, but there were other reasons for the decision. OPEC didn’t have much capacity to increase production and producers were concerned about the prospect for a global recession and declining demand.

Biden needs to pay more attention to the Gulf oil producers at a time when, politically, he’d like to be paying less. This would be true irrespective of the Ukraine war. International oil companies are facing pressure from banks and shareholders to reduce spending on exploration and production. Gulf producers aren’t dealing with this pressure and are likely to weather the energy transition longer than their peers since they have the lowest production costs in the world. Nonetheless, the Ukraine war has increased their importance at an inconvenient time for Biden, who wants to focus on climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels.

Constanze Stelzenmüller on Israel’s reluctance to more forcefully support Ukraine.

Given the Biden administration’s staunch support of Ukraine against Russian aggression, its ally Israel’s elaborately tepid posture is a conundrum. People I speak to suspect Israel shares intelligence with Kyiv and advises it on how to counter Iranian-made equipment now supplied to Russia and deployed in the war. Israel has given humanitarian assistance and protective equipment to Ukraine, and it has joined in a UN resolution condemning Russia. But Israel won’t send military aid or officially join in Western sanctions. The recent surge in Russian aerial attacks on cities and critical infrastructure (with missiles and Iranian drones) has Kyiv asking for Israel’s famed Iron Dome short-range anti-rocket air defense systems. Israel has refused thus far.

Ukraine is a democracy; Russia is an autocracy with neo-imperial ambitions. Kyiv is defending itself against an invasion; the Kremlin’s forces are bombing, burning, raping, torturing, and pillaging. For “The West,” at least, the lines couldn’t be clearer. What part of this isn’t clear to Israel?

The answer, of course, is that it’s complicated. Israel says it needs its air defenses at home, but above all, it considers Russia to be its “neighbor to the north,” due to Russia’s presence in Syria. There Israel relies on Russian acquiescence (the “deconfliction mechanism”) to Israeli attacks on Iranian advances in Syria— where Russia’s arial defenses are present and could transform Israel’s freedom of operation. But Israeli politicians would do well not to mistake the criticism of Biden’s aid for Kyiv in the new GOP-run House, for American equivocation on the effort. A Russia left unchecked in Ukraine would make the entire world less secure. Including Israel.

Jeffrey Feltman on an opportunity to cooperate with the United Arab Emirates for diplomacy in Ethiopia.

The Horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia, has potential for cooperation between the United States and the United Arab Emirates. Washington pursued a decades-long strategic relationship with Ethiopia, while Abu Dhabi embraced Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, helping to broker the Eritrean-Ethiopian rapprochement behind Abiy’s 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet during the two-year catastrophic civil war in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, the U.S. and the UAE pursued different strategies.

Both agreed on the imperative of Ethiopian stability. Washington, horrified by atrocities, prioritized negotiations as the key to stability. By contrast, the UAE provided weapons, hoping Abiy would win. The frontlines see-sawed, punctuated by U.S.-brokered ceasefires, with the government gaining the upper hand in autumn 2022. To the credit of Abiy and the Tigrayan insurgents, both sides accepted the African Union’s invitation for negotiations in Pretoria rather than continue the bloodshed. The ceasefire is holding, and constructive talks on next steps continue.

Washington and Abu Dhabi can each claim that its approach helped create conditions for negotiations. Now, the two countries can overcome war-time divergences and unite behind the Pretoria agreement, in two ways: First, by providing Ethiopia with support to address the humanitarian crises caused by war and drought, establish credible accountability mechanisms, and provide for reconstruction and development. Second, by working together to constrain Eritrea from becoming a spoiler, given Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s history of destabilizing his neighbors. In a crowded and complex bilateral relationship, Ethiopia can be a positive example of U.S.-UAE cooperation. Abiy’s decision to end the war has created domestic enemies within his ruling party, and U.S.-UAE solidarity can reinforce the process toward peace.

Bruce Riedel on Jordan’s uncertain path forward as upheaval looms in the West Bank.

Early in his presidency, Joe Biden acted quickly and effectively to help counter an unprecedented conspiracy to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  He may encounter more turbulence in the kingdom in the next two years.

In March 2021, the Jordanian security service uncovered an extensive conspiracy, headed by the former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, which intended to create instability in the country to force the removal of King Abdallah. The charismatic Hamzah, eldest son of King Hussein and Queen Nur, appealed to widespread frustration with the economy and corruption. The plot, funded by Saudi Arabia, was poorly organized and not well thought out.

On April 3rd, the coup leaders were arrested and Hamzah placed under house arrest. The Jordanians briefed the CIA on the plot and CIA Director William Burns briefed Biden. The president then called Abdallah to assure him of full American support and the White House put out a statement reviewing the call and Biden’s appreciation for the King’s leadership.

Jordan today is increasingly apprehensive about a third intifada in Israel and the West Bank following the election of the most right-wing government in Israeli history. Amman worries the extreme members of the government will try to change the status quo in Jerusalem, where Jordan views itself as the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites, and where Israel recognizes the Jordanian role in the Al-Aqsa mosque. Violence has been increasing for months, especially in and around Nablus.

The peace treaty with Israel is very unpopular in Jordan, and another intifada will agitate the majority Palestinian population in the country. The King has said he will respond vigorously if Israel violates his red lines. The situation is explosive.

Stephanie T. Williams on Lebanon’s diplomacy and deep domestic challenges.

Lebanon’s multi-year meltdown may have slipped from the world’s headlines and slid down the list of American priorities, but this indifference cannot mask the severity of this tragic “new normal” for ordinary Lebanese. Unsurprisingly, the crisis has not prompted Lebanon’s venal ruling class to muster the patriotic consensus necessary to pave the way for the selection of a president or the finalization of an agreement with the IMF that would release $3 billion in desperately needed funds. A glimmer of hope emerged when a small bloc of independents won seats in the Lebanese parliament last May. But the Lebanese state barely functions now, unable to deliver services or come up with funds to pay the hundreds of thousands of civil servants and security personnel, including retirees, on its books. Shockingly, nearly eighty percent of Lebanese now live at or below the poverty line.

To help Lebanon restore a semblance of stability, the U.S. should work with like-minded allies to push for the rapid selection of a credible president, the formation of a fully empowered government in place of the current caretaker executive, and the establishment of a minimal level of accountability via a functioning judiciary. Washington should also continue to help those Lebanese in most need through emergency humanitarian assistance and maintain its support for the Lebanese army. The sustainability of the maritime boundary agreement between Israel and Lebanon, shepherded by Washington, will also require careful tending given Lebanon’s political vacuum and the new hardline government in Israel.

Reva Dhingra on the ongoing urgency of humanitarian aid to Syria.

The Syrian civil war and the accompanying refugee and humanitarian crisis marked its 10th anniversary during Biden’s first two years in office. Nearly 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees are located across the Middle East, with another 6.9 million displaced inside Syria.

The United States remains the single largest donor to humanitarian aid of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons inside Syria. Yet overall aid is increasingly scarce, with the 2022 U.N.-led regional refugee response plan only 29.6 percent funded. MENA countries are also pursuing normalization with Assad despite the Biden administration’s opposition—signaling the possibility of forced refugee return. The consequences of forced return will likely be violence against returnees, increased refugee attempts to cross to Europe and North Africa, and deep economic deprivation in areas such as northwest Syria, where many refugees may be sent. The ultimate consequence will be instability that will only compound in future years.

This grim outlook for Syrians necessitates U.S. diplomacy and assistance. First, the U.S. should continue to put forward a strong stance against forcible returns and exert diplomatic and economic leverage on this issue, specifically with Turkey and Lebanon. Second, the U.S. should work with allies in the Gulf and Europe to ensure that others are sustaining and meeting their financial commitments to refugees. The decline in funding has been driven largely by non-U.S. aid. Finally, the administration should ensure it uses the entire allocated resettlement cap of 35,000 for refugees from the Near East/South Asia – a drop in the bucket, but necessary as a signal of shared responsibility on global displacement.

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş on a need for a steady approach to Turkey while heading off a new incursion into Syria.

Turkey was once a key partner in U.S. policies towards the MENA region. It hosts one of the largest U.S. bases in the region and was viewed by successive U.S. administrations as a reliable NATO ally, able to seamlessly cooperate on all aspects of MENA policy, including counterterrorism and regional reform.

However, there has been a steady decline in relations between Ankara and Washington over the past decade on a range of issues, including human rights, U.S. support for Syrian Kurds, and Turkey’s purchase of Russian defense systems. Turkey is taking a strategically autonomous course across the region, working with the Biden administration when it suits its interests, and acting solo when their interests collide—as evidenced by Turkish muscle-flexing in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Syria has undoubtedly been the top irritant in the Turkish-American alliance and continues to present challenges for the Biden administration. Turkey has opposed the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces and views the Kurdish group as a security threat. While the U.S. retains a small military presence in Syria, its ability to shield its Kurdish allies from regional powers seems to be increasingly tenuous. President Erdogan has declared an intention to push back against Kurdish forces to extend a 30-km security belt inside Syria. This issue will remain a point of contention between Washington and Ankara—especially in an election year for the latter.

For the Biden administration, keeping relations at a relatively even keel with Turkey while managing the differences about Syria will be the key.

Marsin Alshamary on the value of a continued light touch by the U.S. in Iraq.

President Biden’s first term in office will overlap with the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, which makes the current administration’s light touch approach a pragmatic and respectful choice. This stands in stark contrast with the increasingly interventionist policies of Iran, Turkey, and Gulf states.

Iraq has recently emerged from the longest government formation process in its post-2003 history, lasting just over a year. Frustration over the stalemate reached its pinnacle in late August, when violent clashes between different armed wings of political parties vying to form the government engulfed Baghdad’s Green Zone. Fortunately, the violence did not escalate into a civil war, as this would have been the last thing the Biden administration needed after the debacle in Afghanistan.

Throughout government formation, the Biden administration avoided the spotlight, even while Iranian General Esmail Qaani made headlines, meeting politicians from Erbil to Najaf. The decreased American involvement is partially attributable to the transition of U.S. ambassadors in 2022, but it served to protect the American reputation in Iraq, as the public placed greater blame on the Iranians for intervention. This is a welcome development, as public perception was that the U.S. was too involved in the 2018 election.

Now, public perception is that the U.S. is working with different Iraqi governments, whether it is Mustafa al-Kadhimi or Mohammed al-Sudani as prime minister. While elections and government formation in Iraq will not always bring the friendliest faces for the U.S., this should not stop bilateral relations, as long as Iraq continues to hold elections.

Vanda Felbab-Brown on the role of pro-Iran militias in Iraqi politics.

For years, the U.S. government has sought to reduce the power of pro-Iran militias in Iraqi politics. The militias enjoy large street, criminal, economic, political, and formal powers. U.S. efforts to limit their influence have included designating some as terrorist groups; enticing others to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate; and building up Iraqi institutions and government actors to prosecute them for offenses. The Trump administration killed their powerful leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a drone strike in January 2020, hoping to splinter and weaken the groups.

The Biden administration reduced the intensity of U.S. engagement in managing Iraqi politics. It also ended the U.S. anti-ISIS combat mission in Iraq and relabeled U.S. forces in Iraq as training forces to deflate the militias’ nationalist appeal.

But the Biden administration intensely encouraged Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to take on the militias. When Muqtada al-Sadr’s political party won Iraqi parliamentary elections in October 2021, the United States was prepared to swallow the difficult past with Sadr. For some years, Sadr had repeatedly called for the militia dismantling and undertook a pseudo-dismantling of his own militia. But visibly, the United States stayed out of the violent turmoil between Sadr and other Shia political actors in summer 2022, which ultimately drove a defeated Sadr—likely temporarily—to distance himself from Iraqi politics.

The outcome: The pro-Iran militias remain very powerful and their political leaders dominate Iraqi politics and institutions. Worse, the misgovernance-delivering political class in Iraq, underpinned by the militia power, has consolidated as a debilitating crust over the Iraqi political system with little opportunity for change to better address the many needs of Iraqi people.

Daniel L. Byman on the de-prioritization of counterterrorism in U.S. policymaking.

Counterterrorism, which dominated U.S. policy for years after 9/11 and the subsequent confrontation with ISIS, plays a less important role in the Biden administration’s overall foreign policy and actions in the Middle East. With al-Qaida gravely weakened and ISIS a shadow of its former self, the threat organized jihadi groups pose to the United States has diminished. Indeed, lone actors, who often have few if any ties to groups overseas, have emerged as the primary terrorism threat.

With this in mind, the Biden administration has felt freer than its predecessors to prioritize other regions, a shift that Russia’s bellicosity and China’s aggressiveness have accelerated. With the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan behind it and a political non-issue, the administration is committed to stand-off attacks, such as the one that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and working with allies to fight terrorism, minimizing the direct role of U.S. troops.

Other potential sources of terrorism seem more potent. Iran, as always, remains a concern given its ties to a range of militant groups and hostility to the United States, Israel, and other countries. Russia, though weakened by a greater focus on its intelligence operations, remains a potential sponsor of terrorism and has more incentive to do so as the United States and its European allies block Moscow’s ambitions in Ukraine. With its January 6th investigation, new National Security strategy, and other measures, the Biden administration has also prioritized fighting anti-government and other right-wing groups in the United States.

Madiha Afzal on navigating humanitarian support to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan since August 2021 has exposed the fallacy that the United States and the international community could have any meaningful leverage over the group after the U.S. withdrawal. The tools at their disposal have proven too limited, given the Taliban’s ideological commitments: withholding diplomatic recognition, sanctioning, suspending aid, and freezing financial reserves held abroad. In the last 17 months, impervious to economic pressure, the Taliban regime has steadily done away with rights for women and girls, culminating in bans last month on women attending universities (girls’ secondary schools remain shut) or working for NGOs. The ban on women working in NGOs will badly impede the provision of humanitarian assistance to a population dependent on it. That consequence doesn’t move the hardline Taliban leadership in Kandahar, whose edicts come seemingly out of an ideological black box. The Biden administration is out of options when it comes to dealing with the group.

This is a disaster foretold by the Trump administration’s Doha deal of 2020 and the Biden administration’s unconditional withdrawal in 2021. Still, the administration deserves credit for being the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan — totaling more than $1.1 billion since August 2021—and working hard to ensure workarounds on sanctions so that aid reaches Afghanistan’s citizens without benefiting the Taliban. This international humanitarian assistance has sustained large swaths of the Afghan population and held off the worst fears of famine. This is a low bar for Afghans deprived of rights and a productive economy, and a situation that — given growing international outrage at the Taliban—may not be sustainable. But as the U.S. contemplates its future policy toward an increasingly intransigent Taliban, it should take pains to ensure that humanitarian aid for Afghans remains intact. That must be the first principle: do no harm.

Michael E. O’Hanlon on the consequences of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

President Joe Biden’s decision to pull U.S. and consequently, NATO forces out of Afghanistan was a major mistake and an unforced error. Fortunately, it has not cost the United States greatly in strategic terms to date.

Withdrawing on four months’ notice left the Afghan government with inadequate time to develop a military triage plan or figure out how to keep its U.S.-provided planes flying without American contractor support. The impressive achievement of getting more than 100,000 Americans and U.S. friends out of Afghanistan by the end of August 2021 was severely tainted by the fact that we left many behind, and 13 Americans died in a tragic attack in Kabul on August 26. Although the rapid Taliban takeover of the country spared the country a massive bloodbath, the ineptitude and extremism of the Taliban government have led to a situation in which the World Food Program estimates that roughly half Afghanistan’s population is at risk of famine, with almost 20% at extreme risk. Pakistan must now contend with greater risks that Afghan territory will be used as sanctuary by its own Taliban movement as well.

The killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a U.S. drone after American intelligence located him in a Kabul “safe house” in July 2022 suggested that “over the horizon” counterterrorism is not completely impossible against a known target.

Alas, Zawahiri’s very presence in a house belonging to the Haqqani network suggests that there may be future collaboration between the Taliban and al Qaeda. All of this to end a U.S. military presence that had already been downsized more than 95% from peak by the time Biden took office, and to honor a 2020 agreement with the Taliban that the latter had already violated multiple times over.

To date, however, U.S. and allied security have not suffered significantly as a result of the American departure, and there is reason to hope they will not in the future, either.

Steven Heydemann on prioritizing support for democracy in the region.

President Biden took office two years ago promising to restore America’s role as an advocate of democratic change around the world, including in the Middle East. Two years in, his commitments have led to no meaningful change in U.S. policy. Biden’s “fist-bump” visit to Saudi Arabia in July was a diplomatic fiasco that undermined his efforts to restore a democracy agenda. Improvement will require more than a change of tone.

Biden’s democracy agenda is at odds with the core tenets of his Middle East policy. In the wake of failed U.S. interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and the instability and turmoil that followed the Arab uprisings, Biden has embraced a “less-is-more” approach to the Middle East, rejecting the hubris of grand schemes and refusing to overcommit and under-deliver. His policy-lite approach emphasizes stability over managed change. It has narrowed the focus of U.S. engagement in Iraq and Syria to modest counterterrorism initiatives with far less emphasis on the causes of terrorism. For the region’s autocrats, deft interpreters of Biden’s wink-and-a-nod references to democracy who embrace counterterrorism to justify repressive rule, this approach is a welcome assurance that they have a free hand to govern as they please. For this to change does not require a return to failed schemes to remake the Middle East. But it will require that Biden act more forcefully to hold autocrats accountable for their conduct.

Sharan Grewal on democratic backsliding Tunisia.

During his first two years in office, President Biden has faced a major test case for his democracy agenda: Tunisia’s rapid democratic backsliding. In July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied shut down the parliament in a self-coup, and then enshrined his hyper-presidential powers in a new constitution in 2022.

The Biden administration squandered its opportunity during these months to apply the full weight of U.S. pressure, opting instead for muddled statements, continued U.S. aid, and a cozy photo op with Biden. Today, with a new parliament soon to be in place, the administration might find it tempting to try to return to ‘business as usual’ and prioritize its strategic interests in Tunisia.

Yet the Biden administration must recognize that there will be no business as usual with Saied, whose vision—indicated in both his public statements and the preamble of the new constitution—is to break from Tunisia’s historic alliance with the West and pursue instead a non-aligned stance. Biden should leverage the IMF’s loan to Tunisia and U.S. aid as carrots to incentivize Saied to respond to Tunisian civil society’s calls for an inclusive national dialogue and the restoration of democracy. Whether or not U.S. pressure succeeds in changing Saied’s trajectory, it sends a message to the region and beyond that might help deter such challenges to democracy moving forward.

Jeannie Sowers on a need to support human rights in Egypt.

When President Biden met with President Al-Sisi on the sidelines of 27th Conference of the Parties for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in November, Egypt’s most well-known political prisoner was on a full hunger strike. President Biden left Egypt three hours later for Asia, and British-Egyptian citizen ‘Alaa Abd el-Fattah saw no end to his unjust imprisonment, which has lasted for over a decade and was recently extended. Alaa is only one of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners that Al-Sisi’s regime has rounded up since the 2014 military coup which brought him to power, formalized in a rigged presidential election.

The Biden Administration came into office heralding human rights as a key element of foreign policy. This objective has collided head on with competing foreign policy agendas and domestic imperatives that sustain U.S. arms sales to other countries. Some Democratic lawmakers have tried to condition small amounts of military assistance on human rights. The White House has continued providing modest military assistance and approving large arms sales by U.S. private firms to Al-Sisi’s regime, announcing $5.9 billion in commercial arms sales in the first six months of 2022 alone. Meanwhile, Egyptians are facing persistent youth unemployment, rising inflation, fraying social safety nets, and weak rule of law. Almost a third are officially classified by the government as below the poverty line.

Biden’s stopover at COP27 necessarily underscored a renewed U.S. commitment to the multilateral climate agenda after the Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords. However, if the U.S. does not tie commercial arms sales to improved rule of law and the release of political prisoners, its human rights rhetoric rings hollow.

Shadi Hamid on a Faustian bargain with the region’s autocrats.

The Biden administration, in contrast to its predecessors, has de-prioritized the Middle East, avoiding any significant U.S.-led initiative in the region. This lack of strategy is by design. Not unreasonably, senior Biden administration officials see great power competition with China and Russia as the overarching priority of the moment. This has translated into a policy aimed at reducing the Middle East’s ability to be a drag on the administration’s attention. This non-strategy of, in effect, telling Middle Eastern interlocutors to “keep calm and carry on” is anything but neutral, however. It is, after all, Arab autocrats who must keep the calm, and this means turning a blind eye to unyielding repression in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

It would be hard to argue that this approach has brought much success. Case in point is the spectacle of Joe Biden’s reconciliation visit to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia last summer. Over months, the visit’s details were painstakingly arranged and negotiated by Brett McGurk, the most powerful American official on all things Middle East-related. Instead of responding in kind to Biden’s gesture, Bin Salman returned the favor by engineering a cut in oil production before the U.S. midterm elections. Moreover, the Saudi leadership — despite being the beneficiary of an American security umbrella and buyer of tens of billions of dollars of advanced American weaponry — worked over the course of 2022 to expand economic and security cooperation with America’s primary adversaries, China and Russia.

The attempt at U.S.-Saudi rapprochement was a classic example of a long-standing Faustian bargain: The United States disregards its own pro-democracy rhetoric and ideals in the Middle East in exchange for more pliant regimes that can deliver on key American interests and priorities. It’s not so much that the bargain is Faustian, although it’s still certainly that. It’s not even a bargain.

Shibley Telhami on a need for a more critical approach to Israel’s new government.

The Biden administration has done things right on many foreign policy issues, but Israel/Palestine is not one of them. Sure, Biden’s policy improved on the low standards of the Trump administration, especially regarding humanitarian aid and relations with Palestinians. But  Biden has failed on big-ticket items like ending decades of Israeli military rule over Palestinians and achieving his administration’s stated goal of “equal measures of freedom, justice, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Even with the recent elevation of Israel’s far right into positions of power, and with the likes of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warning of “signs of fascism,” Biden seems intent on business as usual, with mild warnings about policies that endanger “mutual values.” While developments in Israel are not principally driven by Washington, the absence of accountability from Israel’s indispensable backer matters.

Biden has been averse to criticizing Israel even in the face of violations of international norms that had garnered criticism from many Democrats in Congress. His policy seems predicated on providing only carrots, even beyond critical military assistance. He said his controversial Saudi trip last summer had been undertaken for Israel, presumably in the hope of keeping Netanyahu out of power. Instead, Netanyahu is back, this time in a coalition with far-right extremists. Now Biden seems to hope that the man he hoped to keep out will rein in people who are even more extreme — while Washington maintains business as usual with Israel. That’s doomed to fail.

Amos Harel on the Biden administration and the crisis of Israeli democracy.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not be the Biden Administration’s top priority, but Washington may be Israel’s last hope as the Jewish state welcomes its most extreme government in history. Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal troubles have driven him to form a coalition with two extreme right-wing parties, along with two ultra-Orthodox parties. In the hope of halting his trial, Netanyahu has been willing to make unprecedented concessions to his partners. The results could trigger a flareup with Palestinians regarding the Temple Mount (Haram a-Sharif) in Jerusalem and continued tensions regarding the legalization of Israeli outposts in the West Bank.

Netanyahu desperately needs U.S. support for what he sees as potentially his two most important foreign policy achievements: a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia and an aggressive stance on Iran’s nuclear project. If the administration insists on a quid pro quo — American assistance in return for Netanyahu restraining his political partners’ actions in the territories — he may be forced to agree.

Caught in the crosshairs could be the Israeli army’s new Chief of Staff, Lt. General Herzi Halevi, who assumed his role on January 16. Netanyahu, under growing pressure from his extreme-right partner Bezalel Smotrich, has agreed to move the office of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories to Smotrich’s direct responsibility, ignoring the military’s complaints.

In the past, U.S. administrations have found ways to communicate with Israeli generals in order to maintain restraint, most notably when Netanyahu was considering a unilateral strike against Iran between 2009 and 2012. It should do so again.

Itamar Rabinovich on the state of diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian file.

The Biden Administration assumed office determined to assign a relatively low priority to the Middle East. In the administration’s larger agenda, domestic issues loomed more urgent. Once Russia invaded Ukraine, that crisis took precedence. The administration conducted itself carefully, as Israelis voted in the fourth national election in two years. President Biden, who was scarred by Benjamin Netanyahu as Barack Obama’s vice president, had a score to settle with him, but he was careful not to be caught or seen as meddling in Israeli politics.

The administration crafted a policy meant to preserve the Israeli-Palestinian status quo. This did not change substantially with the formation of the Bennett-Lapid government last year. The administration was delighted by the formation of more inclusive and moderate Israeli government but realized that it could not be expected to engage in a new quest for a settlement of the conflict. Washington’s policy put subtle pressure on its Israeli counterpart to preserve quality of life and the status quo in the West Bank and reversed some of the anti-Palestinian measures adopted by the Trump administration.

This phase ended with the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government, and the victory of a right-wing coalition headed by Netanyahu. The administration’s discomfort was exacerbated by the prominent role given by Netanyahu to radical politicians who openly advocate anti-Arab policies. Washington put some discrete red lines to Netanyahu but chose to display a welcoming attitude toward the new government. The administration views Netanyahu as “the responsible adult” who will restrain his radical partners. We will find out in the coming months whether this policy is tenable.