Biden's Israel Visit Signals More Than Just Diplomatic Gain for His Counterpart – Whoever He'll Be

The timing of Biden's arrival reflects the fact that Israel isn’t the main focal point in his visit

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
President Joe Biden addresses the AFL-CIO convention, Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Philadelphia.
President Joe Biden addresses the AFL-CIO convention, Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Philadelphia.Credit: Susan Walsh /AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Over the past few weeks, as talks progressed with the U.S. administration on Joe Biden’s first visit to Israel as president, officials in Jerusalem wondered who would be the prime minister welcoming him.

Would Naftali Bennett, Biden’s counterpart for the last year, manage to preserve his crumbling government until the American president arrived? Would Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have temporarily entered the Prime Minister’s Office by then, which would happen if the government were toppled with the votes of lawmakers from Bennett’s Yamina party?

Or perhaps it would be opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relationship with Biden is considered especially poor? That could happen if he manages to form an alternative government within the current Knesset by the time Biden arrives.

Biden’s visit to Israel right now, on the eve of a possible election, could provide the prime minister who hosts him with political capital and photo ops that are no less significant than the potential diplomatic benefits. Biden will presumably become a data point in the campaigns that will be run here in the coming months.

But the fact that the U.S. president decided to come here now of all times doesn’t attest to his desire to affect the election campaign. Rather, it reflects the fact that Israel isn’t the main focal point in his visit.

The visit’s focus isn’t Jerusalem, but Riyadh. And its main topic isn’t improving relations between Jerusalem and Washington, but forging meaningful regional cooperation to address the global energy and food crises, bolstering the coalition against Russia, and trying to reduce the inflation now raging in the United States.

To make all this happen, Biden is willing to sacrifice his honor, leave the ill feelings caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi behind and repair America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the meeting in Saudi Arabia will also have significant side effects for Israel – a public tightening of the regional alliance against Iran and its satellites, an alliance that includes both Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as the institutionalization of public talks between Riyadh and Jerusalem, which until now have primarily taken place in secret. These talks could now lead to agreements that will enable Israeli planes to fly through Saudi airspace and the Saudis to relocate the international observers stationed on the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for the sake of developing tourism.

The presidential stopover in the Holy Land is important to both America and Israel simply because it is taking place. Biden wants to stick a pin on the map at the friendliest spot in the Middle East and win points in American public opinion. While here, he will express his commitment to Israel’s security against a backdrop of Iron Dome antimissile batteries, make threats against Iran and try to breathe new life, for the umpteenth time, into the administration’s commitment to the two-state solution.

Along the way, he’ll try to appease the Palestinian leadership, which has been disappointed by the cold shoulder from Washington in recent years. Some Israeli officials fear that overly warm gestures by Biden toward the Palestinian Authority during the visit, such as steps that signal support for Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, would hurt Bennett electorally among right wing voters.

Bennett nevertheless rushed to publicize his plans as host on Tuesday – forging understandings that will bring Israeli-American cooperation to “new heights” and unveiling measures to bolster Israel’s integration into the Middle East. But another Israeli official was more cautious in assessing the visit’s likely results on Tuesday.

“Biden is just looking for a successful visit,” this official said. “He wants to come out looking good to everyone.”

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