US President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy speech focused on urgent issues, such as the situation in Myanmar and the war in Yemen, alongside several long-term challenges for the US, such as the policy toward China and Russia and the US refugee cap.
But Biden did not mention Iran’s nuclear program, the Abraham Accords, Israel or the Palestinians.
David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute and former senior adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk, noted that Biden spent a significant part of his speech on Thursday speaking about Russia and China.
“There is a little bit of a signal here that the story of Asia is going to be more of a story than the Middle East – which might be more of a second-tier story. It goes beyond Israel.
Makovsky told The Jerusalem Post that “the Middle East as a region is taking a bit of a backseat to Asia, and Asia is going to take a backseat to the pandemic. The combination of the pandemic, climate change, China, and the ‘new energy’ dynamics in the US are all factors resulting in the Middle East [being put] in the back seat. There is no doubt the pandemic is the 800-pound elephant in the room, and that this year, America’s priorities are going to be driven largely around the pandemic and all the economic aftermath of rebuilding the US economy.
“For now, any Israeli-Palestinian initiative is not going to be at the level of a president or of a secretary of state. A lot of administrations come in saying that they will not prioritize the Middle East the way their predecessors have. But there’s something about the Middle East that if you don’t come to the Middle East, the Middle East comes to you.”
One exception for that, Makovsky said, is the administration’s interest in addressing Iran’s nuclear threat.
“I would look at [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken’s hearings in the Senate, where he talked about the crucial importance of consultations with Israel and the Gulf states early on, saying if we don’t consult before the takeoff, we won’t be together at the landing. And I think they think they’re genuine; they’re very sincere in wanting to consult with the Israelis early and with the Gulf Arabs, too, because I think they learned from some of the mistakes of the past.”
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said the Biden team is hard at work planning its Iran strategy through detailed interagency meetings.
“While President Biden need not get ahead of this process by telegraphing his approach in a broad foreign policy speech, he is making a mistake in not yet reaching out personally to Israeli and Arab leaders to reassure them that he has their back,” Dubowitz added. “These are the countries in Iranian missile range with deep anxieties about what the whipsawing of US-Iran policy could mean for the security of their people.”
Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, said the near-total absence of the Middle East from Biden’s speech was notable.
“With the very important exception of Yemen, Biden devoted his first major foreign policy speech as president to other regions and other issues.
“In one sense, this is misleading,” he said. “The question of Iran’s nuclear program and the JCPOA is in fact high on the Biden priority list, but the administration chose, wisely, not to show its cards yet. But in another sense, the absence of any mention of most of the Middle East, including Israel, is telling.”
He went on to say that Biden will likely not be judged as president on foreign policy, but even in foreign policy, other regions and issues – China, the global democratic recession, the transatlantic alliance – top his administration’s agenda.
“For years, we’ve heard of America’s diminishing interest in the region, only to find America still involved and pulled back in,” he noted. “Nonetheless, a pivot away from the Middle East might now actually come to fruition.”