Biden's visit to the Middle East and the Abraham Accords

Gennaro Migliore
Presidente Comitato permanente sulla politica estera per il Mediterraneo e per l'Africa - Camera dei Deputati

U.S President Joe Biden's recent visit to the Middle East - as part of the United States' leader first Mideast trip, Biden visited Israel and the West Bank from July 13 to July 14, 2022, and then travelled to Saudi Arabia – represents an outstanding event for the so-called enlarged Mediterranean region.

After meeting Israeli caretaker Prime Minister and outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Jerusalem, Biden traveled to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In Saudi Arabia, he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  in Jeddah, as well as other regional leaders, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah II, as well as with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jordan and Iraq.

In this context, it is significant that President Biden flied directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia – which in recent years allowed flights between Israel and Gulf states to cross through its airspace -, as a possibility to improve direct relations also between these two countries, adding to the four Arab states signing the Abraham Accords, while Saudi Arabia announced it would be opening its airspace for the first time to all carriers, including Israeli airlines flying to destinations in the East.

The Abraham Accords are a joint statement between the State of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, reached on August 13, 2020. Subsequently, the term was used to refer collectively to agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Normalization: Washington, 15.9.20), Bahrain (Declaration of Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations, Washington, 15.9.20), Morocco (Joint Declaration between the Kingdom of Morocco, the United States of America and the State of Israel: Rabat, 22.12.20), and Sudan (The Abraham Accords Declaration: Khartum, 20.2.22).

In principle, the Abraham Accords Declaration “recognize the importance of maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence, as well as respect for human dignity and freedom, including religious freedom”, while encouraging “efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity”, a political manifest of the Accords’ authors and signatories’ globalist approach.

In this respect, the aforementioned Abraham Treaty with the UAE recalls “the reception held on January 28, 2020, at which President Trump presented his Vision for Peace, and committing to continuing their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, as well as “the Treaties of Peace between the State of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt and between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and committed to working together to realize a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both peoples, and to advance comprehensive Middle East peace, stability and prosperity”.

The Abraham Treaty with Morocco is more specific, recalling the views King Mohammed VI and President Trump exchanged “on the current situation in the Middle East region in which His Majesty the King reiterated the coherent, constant and unchanged position of the Kingdom of Morocco on the Palestinian question, as well as the position expressed on the importance of preserving the special status of the sacred city of Jerusalem for the three monotheistic religions in His Majesty the King's capacity as Chairman of the Al-Quds Committee”.

The Treaty’s expression “Preserving the special status” of Jerusalem shows how the question of Jerusalem is still an extremely sensitive issue, affecting the development of the relations between Israel and the Arab countries in the Abraham Accords’ context. In this perspective, Jordan has ramped up its efforts to push Israel to respect a "historic" status quo at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque compound and to avoid violent clashes between faithful and security forces that could spill over to a wider conflict. Jordanian authorities complain Israel is restricting access for Muslim worshippers and fails to restrain Israeli far-right nationalists, whose rituals violate the so-called Status quo ante and, from an Islamic point of view, desecrate the holy site.

In the eyes of both international observers and of his own internal constituency, whose vote next November will decide the Midterms US elections, Biden’s visit’s long-term results may determine the success of his whole foreign policy approach, and not just in the Middle East and the enlarged Mediterranean region. In this respect, the strategic agendas for the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region of President Biden and of his democratic predecessor, US President Barack Obama, are quite similar, while they are definitely far, if not opposite, from the deafeated, but not yet surrendered, former republican President Donald Trump.

Biden’s views in foreign policy, particularly in this area of the globe, do not depend only on the fact that his party affiliation is different from Trump, rather on their respective divergent strategic views, as one can notice in particular vis-à-vis Iran, and the way the United States should face this country’s military nuclear potential threat for the whole region. This conclusion takes into consideration that negotiations between world powers and Iran to strike a new agreement to replace the one President Obama signed in 2015, which later the Trump administration abandoned unilaterally, have dragged out for months without a final result yet.

The clivage between the Biden’s administration and Trump’s approach regarding the future of the so-called enlarged Mediterranean region lies in the strategic vision of this area’s future. While not explicitly rejecting the universalist values and glocalist principles inspiring the Abraham Accords, Biden demonstrated a more pragmatic approach in tackling not only the Iranian nuclear controversial agreement, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular, as on the occasion of the recent Gaza crises violently exploded in May 2021.

Rather than a glocalist vision based on general values such as the convergence of “the three monotheistic religions”, Biden’s attitude seems to interpret the solution to this conflict through a territorial Westphalian modus operandi analogous to President Bill Clinton's attitude expressed in his famous Parameters for a permanent status agreement, particularly for Jerusalem: “The general principle is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli”.

In his speech on the first day of his visit to Israel and the West Bank Biden mentioned the word peace only once, while nearly all those present – except for Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog - would rather avoid it. Biden however highlighted the word integration: “We’ll continue to advance Israel’s integration into the region”, and Lapid replied: “During your visit, we will discuss matters of national security. We will discuss building a new security and economy architecture with the nations of the Middle East, following the Abraham Accords and the achievements of the Negev Summit.” The U.S. president mentioned his continued support for a two-state solution, which remains, in his view: “the best way to ensure the future of [an] equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike”, adding however “even though I know it’s not in the near-term”.

In relation specifically to the Abraham Accords, President Biden explicitly emphasized his strong support on July 14, 2022, during a press conference in Israel, “because they deepen Israel’s integration into the broader region and establish lasting ties for business, cooperation and tourism.” A Joint Declaration signed that day by President Biden and Prime Minister Lapid stated the following: “Israel thanks the United States for its ongoing and extensive support for deepening and broadening the historic Abraham Accords. The countries affirm that Israel’s peace and normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco constitute a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, all of which are important to the future of the Middle East region and to the cause of regional security, prosperity, and peace. The United States welcomes these developments and is committed to continue playing an active role, including in the context of President Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, in building a robust regional architecture; to deepen the ties between Israel and all of its regional partners; to advance Israel’s regional integration over time; and to expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.”

In this complex and still volatile context, a balanced positive development was the recent successful visits of the President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen in the region, showing that even in this dramatic geopolitical historic framework following the Russian invasion of Ucraina, the European Union can play a positive and constructive role in contributing to the economic and political stability of the area, while at the same time facilitating the US administration’s efforts for peace and ccooperation.

Proposals and initiatives from all the international actors go in the same direction are definitely welcomed, such as the activities that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) developed in the recent months in the enlarged Mediterranean region to facilitate cooperation and to contrast terrorism, or the Israeli-Palestinian interreligious Seminar behind closed doors CESPI organised in Rome on June 7, 2021, with the personal participation of Amb. Miguel Ángel Moratinos, UNAOC High Representative (with the special mandate from UN Secretary General Gutiérrez to protect religious sites from terror attacks), whom the Presidents of both the Italian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs’ Commitee invited to a special joint hearing on June 28, 2022