US president Joe Biden is using telephone diplomacy to reset relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel and shifting from the personal and transactional approach of his predecessor.
Biden is expected to speak to Saudi King Salman in the coming days as one head of state to another, bypassing his wayward son, Crown Prince Mohammed, who is de facto ruler of the kingdom.
This approach marks a dramatic change from Donald Trump’s embrace of the prince, to whom he gave a free hand on the domestic and regional fronts.
In exchange, Trump won multibillion-dollar arms deals with the kingdom and the prince’s backing for the administration’s controversial regional policies.
During the month that Biden has been in office he has ended US involvement in the prince's stalemated war in Yemen, urged Riyadh to make peace, and frozen arms sales to the kingdom.
The US Central Intelligence Agency will soon release a classified report – which was suppressed by the Trump administration – that is expected to confirm its belief that the prince ordered the 2018 murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.
Since this is unlikely to compel King Salman to reorder the succession in Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration also plans to put pressure on Riyadh to release hundreds of Saudi royals, clerics, journalists, rights activists and businessmen imprisoned by the prince in his brutal crackdown on critics and opponents.
Riyadh opposes the 2015 agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, but the Saudis have been told they cannot interfere in US efforts to rejoin the deal.
These efforts were tentatively launched on Thursday during discussions with the deal's European signatories – France, Britain and Germany.
Shift with Israel
Biden has also reset relations with Israel by waiting for 27 days to make a courtesy call to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Since a US president traditionally phones an Israeli leader soon after taking office, the delay has created angst in Israel.
The White House has several reasons for taking a new line. Regardless of longstanding personal ties to the Israeli leader, Biden sought to avoid the appearance of endorsing him a month before Knesset elections.
On the political plane, the former Democratic senator and vice-president in the Obama administration has warned against Israeli intervention in US affairs. Netanyahu has long supported the Republican party and openly backed Trump before the US election.
Biden seeks to relaunch negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis on the two-state solution involving the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, although Netanyahu torpedoed the Obama-era drive to achieve this goal.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Israel also opposes US efforts to rejoin. In 2015, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US houses of Congress with the aim of undermining talks on the deal at a critical juncture and in 2018 he celebrated Trump's withdrawal and the ramping up of sanctions.
Biden’s recalibration of these Middle East relationships is intended to serve his regional agenda while maintaining strong US support for the security of both Saudi Arabia and Israel.