U.S. President Joe Biden will likely visit Israel next month as planned, Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides said Monday, following the announcement of an impending vote on dissolving the Knesset next week.
“We have a strategic relationship with Israel that goes beyond any one government. The president looks forward to the visit next month,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson said.
Biden is scheduled to visit Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia between July 13 and 16 in what will be his first visit to Israel as president. An American diplomatic source said that the dissolution of the Knesset, leaving Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as Israel’s prime minister until probable elections in the fall, should not affect the American president’s visit.
With respect to the Israeli election, a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Israel said, “Israel is a strategic partner and fellow democracy. We respect its democratic processes. Beyond that, we’d refer you to Israel for further comment.”
From the standpoint of the U.S. administration, Israel is just a stop on a Middle East trip that is designed to further reconciliation between the United States and Saudi Arabia following the killing in 2018 of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Lapid will be sworn in as prime minister next week, close to a decade after entering politics, replacing outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to lead the caretaker government while the country prepares for elections. Practically speaking, he will be prime minister for at least four to six months, until a new government is sworn in.
The Yesh Atid party leader will also be the first face Biden sees when he steps off Air Force One during his scheduled visit to Israel.
Biden is said to understand that anything that he does in Israel could be interpreted as intervention in the upcoming Israeli election, but apparently Biden’s overarching goal – addressing the global energy and food crises and burgeoning inflation in the United States – are seen as justifying a change of attitude toward Saudi Arabia and a state visit to that country despite the Khashoggi case.
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In the process, Israel is assisting Biden in casting a different aspect of his Middle East tour – promoting cooperation among countries in the region against Iranian aggression. It will also enable the U.S. president to deliver Israel’s consent to a Saudi request to change the arrangements regarding the deployment of observers in the Red Sea on one hand and show Saudi receptiveness to Israel’s request to allow flights to and from Israel to overfly Saudi territory on the other.
The visit to Israel is directed at the Israeli public and not Israel’s leadership, U.S. officials told Haaretz, but beyond that, Biden’s Israel visit might also help Biden drum up support for Democratic candidates in the midterm Congressional elections this fall and shore up Biden’s image when it comes to U.S. opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.
The American president had initially been scheduled to visit Israel in June, but last week, the White House deferred it to July, raising concerns that the trip to Israel would be scrapped entirely due to the political crisis in the country. Officials with knowledge of the contacts between the two countries said that one of the reasons for postponing the trip until July was U.S. concern that the Israeli government would fall prior to the trip – thereby undermining Bennett’s standing domestically in Israel and on the diplomatic front.
At the same time, last week Barbara Leaf, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, who is preparing for the Biden visit, asked that Israel’s leadership refrain from steps prior to the visit that might increase tensions with the Palestinians. According to Israeli officials, Leaf asked that Israel not take steps such as the demolition of the homes of Palestinians who carry out attacks or Israeli troop movements into Area A, the portion of the West Bank under the full security and civilian control of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel did not make such a commitment, however, and made clear it would not take steps that would harm Israel’s security. At the same time, Israeli officials said that they expected that Israeli forces would reduce operations in the West Bank, irrespective of the U.S. request, to lower tensions around the visit, as had been done with regard to other sensitive periods such as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.