(Washington) From Israeli-Palestinian violence to China’s breakthrough: American diplomacy is going through a difficult phase in the Middle East, between embarrassment and admission of helplessness.
The United States made a good showing at the March 10 announcement in Beijing of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia under the auspices of China, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that “anything that can help reducing tensions […] is a good thing”.
US officials, however, have tried to downplay China’s role, arguing that Beijing is still far from outplaying Americans in the Middle East, which remains largely under the protection of the US security umbrella.
But this diplomatic breakthrough by China challenges Washington, suspected of gradually giving up its place as a key player in the region to better focus in the short term on the war in Ukraine against Russia and, in the longer term, on the China and Asia-Pacific.
For James Ryan, who directs the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, “The Biden administration has made it very clear that when it comes to the Middle East, it wants to foster security and stability and that, overall, US involvement would be more on the fringe than in the past,” a message the Saudis heard “very clearly.”
This turning point comes as Washington maintains complex relations with Saudi Arabia, and it comes up against several issues ranging from Iranian nuclear power to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite a staggering deal – $37 billion, according to the White House – between the Saudis and the manufacturer Boeing announced this week, relations between Washington and Riyadh remain strained after President Joe Biden announced in October a review of its relationship with this historic ally.
The American president had notably spoken of “consequences” after Riyadh’s decision to lower its oil production.
The Iranian-Saudi rapprochement also risks further distancing the prospect of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which Washington has been ardently defending since the Abraham Accords in 2020.
Negotiated by the United States, they allowed the normalization of relations between Israel and two of its neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that Riyadh was working behind the scenes to secure security guarantees from Washington and assistance on its civilian nuclear program, in return for normalization with Israel.
As for the Iranian nuclear, negotiations on the resurrection of the 2015 agreement, from which the United States withdrew under Donald Trump, are at a standstill.
Washington says a return to the deal is no longer “on the table”, even though the United States continues to believe that this agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring atomic weapons .
The escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents another headache.
Despite repeated calls for appeasement, including during the trip of the head of American diplomacy to Jerusalem and Ramallah at the end of January, the violence has worsened.
Day after day, the spokesperson for American diplomacy plays tightrope walkers during his daily briefing between the United States’ “unwavering” support for its historic ally and calls for “de-escalation” measures, at the risk of finding themselves cantilevered.
The United States tirelessly repeats its support for the two-state solution and denounces Israel’s unilateral actions on the settlements in particular, but refrains from going beyond that for reasons of domestic politics.
Washington’s embarrassment is also palpable over Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, and his controversial reform aimed at limiting the prerogatives of the Supreme Court, the subject of massive protests.
In an AFP interview on Thursday, Blinken hailed Israel’s “vibrant democracy” while stressing that “consensus is the best way forward.”
But pressure is mounting on the Biden administration.
About 100 elected Democrats recently wrote to him expressing their “concerns” about this reform and calling on the United States to assume its role of “leadership” in the region.
As the United States enters an election year next year, “their room to maneuver is going to be very limited in this regard”, notes however James Ryan.
The Israelis “are much more confident, especially since the Abraham Accords … and their ability to act as they see fit. I believe the US hasn’t really responded to that in a noticeable way,” the expert adds.