Analysis |

Biden's Boring First Day Was Just What Israel Needed

Look at Joe Biden’s visit and compare it to the previous two presidential landings. Drama? Tension? Politics? All are hard to find, but maybe that is actually good for Israel

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Credit: Artwork: Anastasia Shub, photos: Ariel Schalit/AP, NataliaVo/Shutterstock, AP/ingimage
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

When Joe Biden landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday afternoon, the media in both Israel and the U.S. was trying hard to create a sense of drama around the four-day Middle Eastern trip he was about to kick off. On CNN, a chyron described it as “controversial,” a reference to the Saudi Arabia portion of it, which will only start on Friday. In Israel, expert panels on television debated the gestures he exchanged with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu for hours, as if they contain some hidden truths about his preference in the upcoming Israeli election.

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The attempt to create some excitement around the visit is understandable – but bound to fail. Biden is the third U.S. president to visit Israel since 2013, and his visit is undeniably the most boring of them all. That’s not a criticism of Biden, however. In fact, the opposite is true – it’s a compliment. The uneventful and uncontroversial first day of his visit, which included fist bumps and handshakes at the airport, an exhibition of Israeli defense systems and a trip to Yad Vashem, represents a good kind of boring, which had been missing from the U.S.-Israel relationship under Biden’s two predecessors.

When Donald Trump arrived in Israel in May 2017, the media didn’t have to manufacture a sense of drama. All it had to do was place a camera in front of America’s erratic president on his first overseas trip since taking office and let his unpredictable behavior and immature understanding of the world speak for themselves. Viewers laughed when Trump told Israeli officials, shortly after landing in the Jewish state from Saudi Arabia, that he had “just got back from the Middle East.” But the visit wasn’t just funny; it also showed that the U.S.-Israel relationship was heading in a dangerous direction under Trump and his political soulmate, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu greets Donald Trump as he arrives in Israel in 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Trump’s Israel visit, just like his entire presidency, was great for TV ratings. But it wasn’t great at all for Israel, which during his presidency found itself drawn more and more into Washington’s nasty partisan politics. Trump and Netanyahu highlighted the growing division in the U.S. regarding Israel, and how the old notion of ironclad bipartisan support was becoming less and less relevant. Instead of trying to fight that trend – which had begun during the period of Barack Obama’s presidency – Trump decided to double down on it and try to use it for his own political purposes.

Speaking of Obama, his visit to Israel in 2013 was also great TV drama – a tense meeting between two rivals who had just spent the four years of Obama’s first term fighting each other over endless policy disagreements. The Obama-Netanyahu rift was the main story of that visit, and despite the memorable image of the two men walking with their suit jackets on their shoulders around Ben-Gurion and smiling, the tension between them was impossible to miss. Just as Trump’s visit to Israel was a prelude to his constant politicization of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Obama’s visit was a sign of the coming war with Netanyahu over Iran, which exploded two years later in his famous speech before the U.S. Congress.

Barack Obama meets Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrives in Israel in 2013.Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO

Now, fast-forward to Biden’s visit, and compare it to the previous two presidential landings.

Drama? Hard to find, especially when considering that Biden had already visited Israel nine times before. Dani Dayan, the chair of Yad Vashem, said on Israeli radio that the U.S. president had visited the Holocaust memorial so many times before that he could work there as a guide if he wanted to.

Tensions? There will probably be some leaks about disagreements between Biden and Lapid on Iran and Ukraine, but they will pale in comparison to the Obama-Netanyahu fights of the previous decade. Biden isn’t here to present a new peace plan or prepare Israel for new Iran negotiations. It seems like the main purpose of his visit is to avoid a Middle Eastern trip consisting of a single stop in Saudi Arabia.

Politics? Yes, Biden may try to use the trip to solidify his party’s already strong hold on Jewish voters ahead of the upcoming midterms. But in between inflation, abortion, and other domestic factors, how many voters will really choose their members of Congress this fall based on Biden’s summer trip to Israel, which will be all but forgotten by November? Very few.

This truly is a boring visit, and Israel should be grateful for that. We’ve seen how the Trump drama ends, and no one in Jerusalem misses the tense Obama years. Israel is better off with a president who comes here for 48 hours, sees an Iron Dome battery, pledges to stop Iran from getting nukes, greets the American team at the Maccabiah games, and moves on to his next, more urgent challenges.

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