As Biden weighs human rights and security in Mideast, some see peril for Israel

Pragmatism is ruling the day for now, but US allies in the region are nervous the new president could over-pressure regimes on need for reform, creating a wedge for Iran to exploit

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of on his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
Then-US vice president Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of on his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

US President Joe Biden appeared set late last week to make good on his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia into a “pariah,” sending a series of firm signals that Riyadh would be held accountable for human rights violations.

“The rules are changing,” Biden said in an interview Friday, teasing what he said would be an announcement of “significant changes” to the US approach to Riyadh in the coming days.

By Tuesday, those changes had added up to the release of a declassified intelligence report blaming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and sanctions on 76 individuals. He also pointedly held a conversation with the kingdom’s octogenarian King Salman, and not its powerful crown prince, to discuss ending the war in Yemen and committing the US “to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory… from Iranian-aligned groups.”

“Saudi Arabia is a hugely influential country in the Arab world and beyond,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday, explaining the not-quite-pariah approach. “What happens in Saudi Arabia will and has had profound implications well beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders.”

The new US approach to Saudi Arabia — human rights sanctions on one hand and security cooperation on the other — appears to be an indicator of how it will handle its relationship with other key US allies in the Middle East. In Egypt, the administration approved the sale of nearly $200 million worth of missiles and, days later, stressed its commitment to human rights there.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

“We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe,” pledged Price. “That includes with our close security partners. That includes with Egypt.”

In Israel, some have feared that an attempt to use America’s significant clout to push authoritarian allies to improve their human rights records, while maintaining robust cooperation in facing the region’s complex challenges, could push away longstanding allies, as was seen during the Barack Obama administration. Jerusalem’s Arab security partners have problematic human rights records, and pressure from the Biden administration could hamper regional cooperation against Iran, and open the door for wider Russian influence.

But many experts also believe Biden is so far balancing pragmatism with progressivism, watering down any adverse impact his policies may have on Israel.

“Israel has to understand that there is a new US administration that isn’t Trump,” said Eldad Shavit, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “It has different aims, different priorities, and different policies.”

“It’s also not the same as Obama.”

Stability and security cooperation

Since the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt has been firmly in the pro-US camp. Bipartisan support for aid to Egypt has long been a fixture of US policy. Egypt receives more foreign aid from Washington than any country except Israel, and the bilateral military ties are deep and varied. For the US, Egypt — by far the most populous Arab country — is a source of stability in the Middle East, and it has grown increasingly important to Israel’s national security. It has maintained a peace treaty with Israel for four decades, and cooperates closely with Israel on counterterrorism matters. Cairo has proven itself an effective moderator between Israel and the Palestinians, especially Hamas, and is also a player in the effort to contain Iran.

During the Obama presidency, both sides took a long, critical look at the relationship. In January 2011, Egyptians took the streets to protest Hosni Mubarak, the pro-Western president who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. Obama eventually supported protesters’ demands for Mubarak’s removal. Officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia were stunned, seeing the threat as a betrayal of a loyal US ally.

The US administration ignored regional allies in legitimizing the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi a year later.

For Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood government greatly complicated its ability to contain and deter Hamas. Though it closed some tunnels and prioritized security in the Sinai, it also strengthened Hamas, relaxing border controls and granting the terror group greater regional legitimacy. Morsi was vocal in his criticism of Israel during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

When the military took over in 2013, Obama decided not to call the takeover a coup, and thus be required by US law to suspend aid. However, he did halt deliveries of jet fighters and attack helicopters, as well as $260 million in aid. Washington also canceled the biennial “Bright Star” maneuvers between the two countries.

Uncowed, new Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi led a blistering and deadly crackdown on dissent, even against citizens of Western allies, and began reducing the country’s dependency on the US.

People hold a picture of the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a symbolic funeral ceremony on June 18, 2019 at Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. (AFP)

Sissi visited Russia in February 2014, and initiated a relationship that was not conditioned on Egypt’s domestic policies. Putin’s reciprocal visit in 2015 cemented a new strategic relationship. Russia committed to build a $28.75 billion nuclear plant in Egypt and a $7 billion industrial zone near the Suez Canal.

Cairo purchased billions of dollars worth of Russian arms, including the S-300V4 surface-to-air missile system, MiG-29M multirole fighter jets, combat helicopters, and French amphibious assault ships originally built for Russia. Moscow and Cairo also signed an agreement in November 2017 allowing for the use of each other’s airspace and military bases.

For Israel, Sissi’s takeover was a godsend for Israel, as he cracked down on Hamas, declaring it a terrorist group and destroying its vital tunnel network.

In Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration refrained from making major moves against Riyadh and initiated US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.

With Biden as vice president, the US offered the kingdom’s military not just logistical and intelligence support but also weapons worth over $115 billion, more than any other previous administration, according to 2016 data from the US-based Security Assistance Monitor.

Obama successor Donald Trump ramped up ties. On his first overseas visit as president in 2017 he chose to go to Riyadh, where Saudi rulers lavished him with gifts, a sword dance and a glowing orb. (Obama also visited Riyadh early in his presidency, though the visit was much more low-key.)

Trump called Saudi defense purchases good for US business, and maintained support of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his engineering a veritable palace coup and overseeing a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with dozens of activists, journalists and clerics detained in recent years.

US President Donald Trump holds a sword and dances with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Despite US intelligence holding the crown prince responsible for the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi, the administration largely downplayed the incident and resisted pressure to retaliate.

In the final weeks of the Trump presidency, the US signed a $290 million deal to sell 3,000 precision bombs to the Saudis.

In Egypt as well, Trump’s administration prioritized regional security, though it did suspend military aid and reduce economic assistance in 2017, largely in response to Congressional pressure. Trump jokingly called his Egyptian counterpart “my favorite dictator” at the 2019 G7, but the quip describes accurately the US approach over the last four years as Trump went out of his way to publicly support Sissi.

US President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up to members of the media as he greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the White House on April 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For some, the lessons are clear. Pressuring regimes on human rights rather than prioritizing regional security will only push them away, with little to show for it.

“The minute there is outside pressure on authoritarian regimes of this type, it just opens the door for even more authoritarian figures to grab power,” argued Dan Schueftan, head of the international graduate program in national security at the University of Haifa. “There is no real option for democratic, liberal — or even much more moderate — regimes. If you pressure Egypt on human rights, you get the Muslim Brotherhood.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, right, speaks with the head of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center, Dan Schueftan, at a conference at the university on June 5, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“If you apply significant pressure on pro-American regimes on human rights, the ones who will use this are anti-American actors. For example, if you want democracy in Bahrain, you’ll get Iran.

“Sissi saved the Middle East from the irresponsible behavior of Obama,” Schueftan posited. “The entire Middle East would be different if the Muslim Brotherhood had remained in power.”

Striking a balance

Before he entered office, President-elect Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and slammed what he called Trump’s “dangerous blank check” to the kingdom.

Two weeks into his presidency, Biden announced an end to US support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, which he said has “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”

But Biden made clear the United States was still supporting Saudi Arabia outside of the Yemen war, with State Department spokesman Ned Price characterizing the administration’s stance as a “return to standard procedures” in reviewing every arms deal.

Even with the recent sanctions of Saudi officials, there are limits on how far the Biden administration can press the Saudis. Washington needs to coordinate with Riyadh on the most pressing regional issues, including the Iranian nuclear program and the fight against Islamic State.

Mohammed bin Salman, left, and murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Orwell Productions)

“Nobody expects Biden to travel first to Riyadh and perform a sword dance, but he needs Saudi for any regional buy-in of a new Iran deal, in counterterrorism support, Israel-Palestine, oil market stability,” Saudi author and analyst Ali Shihabii told AFP.

In January, the Biden administration put a temporary hold on several major foreign arms sales initiated by Trump, including a deal to provide 50 F-35 advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates that was fast-tracked by Washington after Abu Dhabi agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

US allies who are nervous about renewed pressure from the Biden administration are already taking actions designed to head off criticism.

In February, Saudi Arabia released Saudi-Americans Salah al-Haider and Bader al-Ibrahim, who had been held on terrorism-related charges since 2019. Women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who spent three years in detention and claimed she was tortured in the presence of one of bin Salman’s top aides, was also freed.

Egypt released Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein after he spent more than four years in prison without being formally charged.

The upcoming Palestinian elections, and Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential decree on freedom of expression in Palestinian-controlled areas, are also understood as gestures aimed at American goodwill.

“That’s part of the dance that’s going on here,” said David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Part of the reason the Biden administration won’t have to take drastic action is that many of those governments have already begun to adjust some of their policies in anticipation of possible issues.”

David Pollock (Washington Institute for Near East Policy )

If Biden decides to really push its Arab allies on human rights, it could damage its relationship with the regional alliance countering Iran, which includes Israel, emboldening Tehran and bringing Russia into the picture.

“It is clear that the Iranians will have motivation for carrying out more provocative actions because they believe they can drive a wedge between Israel and the US,” said Schueftan. At the same time, he argued, “the more the Biden administration pushes pro-American regimes in the Middle East into a corner, the more they will connect to Israel, since Israel is the only thing they can count on.”

In January, the Walla news site cited senior Israeli defense officials saying Jerusalem particularly fears Biden will take action against Saudi Arabia over its war in Yemen. Israel is concerned American actions could strengthen the radical forces in Yemen and increase Iran’s stronghold on the war-stricken country, according to the report.

Houthi fighters chant slogans as they take off to a battlefront following a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, August 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

The Israeli officials reportedly planned to tell Biden that the region has undergone significant changes with Israel’s recent normalization deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, and that the Jewish state hopes Washington will prioritize that process over rights concerns.

The officials were also cited as saying that Israel has in recent weeks encouraged Cairo and Riyadh to take constructive steps on human rights to “improve the atmosphere” and get ready for dialogue with the Biden administration.

“We were very close to losing Egypt a few years ago,” one defense official told Walla. “Which is why our message to the Biden administration will be: ‘Go slowly, there have been dramatic changes, don’t come with preconceived stances and don’t hurt relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.”

But Israel’s ability to shape US policy on human rights is limited. “I don’t think the US listens to Israel on this topic,” Schueftan argued.

Biden has shown a desire to work with Israel, Shavit stressed, despite the delay in calling Netanyahu. “During this month, there were multiple meetings at the working level.”

‘He knows the Middle East’

The question that US allies in the region — both autocratic regimes and Israel — are trying to answer is the extent to which human rights concerns will actually drive US policy under Biden.

Human rights will certainly be one element of policy, said the INSS’s Shavit. “The question is to what extent this element will influence policy.”

“I think that as opposed to the Obama administration, where human rights were a very influential element, Biden is a veteran politician, he knows the Middle East, he has a very realistic, practical approach. He will take into account his understanding of what the reality in the Middle East is,” he said.

At the same time, said Shavit, the Biden administration has not finished putting together its “broad approach, both on goals and priorities in the Middle East.”

Pollock also envisions a careful, balanced approach from Biden. “So far the administration is maintaining much of the relationship with Sissi in Egypt or the Saudis or the Emiratis — or Turkey for that matter — that are not exactly paragons of human rights and democracy.”

“To the extent that they have so far pulled back from such a close relationship, retrenched, it’s mostly rhetorical and symbolic,” he added.

The Biden administration approach is focused more on protecting entrenched democracy, including in the realms of cybersecurity and elections protection, than it is on promoting democracy abroad.

US President Joe Biden speaks at a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“If you read carefully what they’re saying,” Pollock pointed out, “their interest and concern and intent is to protect and defend American and European democracy against threats from other countries, as opposed to promoting democracy and human rights in other non-democratic countries.”

“I think they’re going to focus on practical… human right issues, secondly on service issues to the people, governance, anti-corruption, delivery of essential basic services to the people in a fair and equitable way, and not so much on really touchy questions of having free elections or anything like that.”

Biden appointments at the senior and middle levels also don’t indicate an overwhelming focus on human rights or democracy promotion. Figures who pushed a human rights agenda under Obama, like former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former UN ambassador Samantha Power, have been given domestic affairs or international development roles.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Susan Rice, United States National Security Adviser, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy TLV/Flash90)

Moreover, said Shavit, early Biden administration pressure on Saudi Arabia over the Yemen conflict is more than a human rights issue. The president sees the war as a costly, ill-advised misadventure that is destabilizing for the kingdom and for the broader region.

Even reviewing the weapons deal with the UAE isn’t necessarily a human rights initiative. “It’s a routine checking of the box,” said Pollock. “In any case, it’s not connected to UAE human rights,  it’s connected to regional strategy, arms race, and technological issues.”

What’s more, the Biden administration has indicated that the Middle East is not a focus of its foreign policy agenda, as the US turns to the great power competition against Russia in Europe and China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Said Pollock: “I’m pleasantly surprised by the way in which they seem to have a realistic understanding of where this issue fits into their overall interests and into the world.”

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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