Analysis |

Biden in Israel: An Important Unimportant Visit

There was nothing new and dramatic, but when a superpower provides $38 billion in military aid over 10 years and Iran is nearing nuclear-threshold-state status, nothing should be taken for granted

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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U.S. President Joe Biden meeting with Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on Thursday.
U.S. President Joe Biden meeting with Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on Thursday.Credit: Emil Salman
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

It is rare to see an American president sing, but in Israel this week, Joe Biden sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the host country, and Israeli politicians and TV studio creatures have been beaming with joy, proclaiming the U.S. president's visit to be of historic proportions. It wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean it was unimportant.

Biden's visit restored the trust and credibility between the United States and Israel, a vital ingredient missing in Benjamin Netanyahu's days. For that reason only, the trip can be labeled important.

As Biden visits Israel, and election shuffle begins

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Not every visit by a U.S. president is expected to be a major inflection point. Some are merely about expressing friendship, reaffirming U.S. commitments and providing a general maintenance of relations. For a presidential visit to have truly enduring value, it must supply a point of departure.

The June 1974 visit by Richard Nixon, the first visit by a U.S. president to Israel (and two months before he resigned during the Watergate scandal), institutionalized U.S. military aid to Israel following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Later in the decade, a visit by Jimmy Carter skillfully mediated between Israel and Egypt and forged a historic peace agreement.

For Biden’s trip to be of equal magnitude, he would have had to take Prime Minister Yair Lapid with him on Air Force One to Jeddah.

Beyond the reaffirmation of an “unshakab10le alliance,” strategic ties and U.S. security commitments – important issues, granted – the visit delivered nothing new in terms of substance or policy. That the United States will never accept a nuclear Iran and will consider military force as a “last resort” is something Israel likes to hear from American presidents, but it's hardly new or dramatic. Presidents from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden have pledged that America will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

As for the Israeli pundits’ obsession about finding a eureka political angle in both the United States and Israel, get over it. Joey from Cleveland and Yossi from Haifa won't change their votes because Biden visited the Middle East.

An artwork of coins forming the image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah late last month.Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

The idea that Biden traveled all the way to Israel and Saudi Arabia when his possible reelection day (if he runs) comes in November 2024 – and with the midterms four months away – is absurd. The United States is engulfed in political dysfunction, toxic discourse, a deep and wide schism between two distinct Americas, inflation and a Supreme Court that makes “judicial activism” seem like a mellow term. Biden high-fiving Defense Minister Benny Gantz isn't exactly an electoral event in Pennsylvania.

The White House knows that the sensitive leg of the trip is Saudi Arabia. It's there that the visit’s success, failure or insignificance will be determined.

Whoever convinced Biden that meeting Mohammed Bin Salman, aka “the pariah,” is worth it because the president will win an increase in Saudi oil production and a drop in gasoline prices should be summarily fired. The Saudis can't realistically produce more oil to compensate for the loss of Russian oil and gas – and prices are falling anyway and won't dramatically drop. The fallacy of a trip designed to convince the Saudis to ramp up production was later replaced with the concept of ad hoc Israel-Gulf defensive coordination under American auspices.

For Lapid, 36 hours of exposure with an extraordinarily friendly U.S. president is critical to perceptions of his suitability for office. He may not gain votes as a direct result, but anyone unsure about him might feel better today.

The United States is a force multiplier of Israel’s national security. Cumulative U.S. military aid to Israel amounts to $112 billion, amid another $35 billion for specific projects and developing weapons systems.

The U.S. diplomatic umbrella afforded to Israel since the early 1970s is a central component of the country’s political and deterrent power. This support is even more valuable considering that relations from 1948 until the late '60s were cool and in certain circles of the government hostile. The background was the Cold War and the containment of the Soviet Union, while America identified its long-term interests with the Arab world.

So for Biden to come to Israel for no clearly defined reason, reiterate America's commitment to the country’s security and pledge a further 10-year military aid memorandum (the current $38 billion one expires in 2029) is a big deal for Israel and not something to be taken for granted.

Joe Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaking in Bethlehem in the West Bank on Friday.Credit: Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/AFP

The same applies to the Jerusalem Declaration, an eloquently worded joint statement that reinforces the parameters of the U.S.-Israel relationship. It contains nothing new that's dramatic, no substantive upgrading of the relationship, and no major policy coordination on Iran. But the lack of something meta-strategic shouldn't render the visit wasteful.

Biden has arrived in the region with the United States trying to reconcile policy for two contradictory assumptions: a new nuclear deal with Iran in the next six to eight weeks and an admission that no deal is attainable. His idea of the United States fostering greater technological and defense cooperation between the Gulf states and Israel should be viewed in the context of his foreign policy mainstay of alliance management and maintenance.

In that respect, Biden knows that the Iranian clear and present danger is its non-nuclear activity: precision-missile development, drones and the extensive use of terror proxies. Israel may be anxious about a nuclear Iran, and Biden tried to assuage fears about that, but both Washington and Jerusalem know that the imminent danger comes from Hezbollah in Lebanon, slowly provoking Israel at Iran’s behest.

Meanwhile, one conspicuous absence in the joint declaration was the issue everyone pretends can be kicked down the road indefinitely. True, Biden and Lapid spoke of the Palestinians’ right to live in “security, freedom and prosperity,” and both declared the two-state model as the preferred solution. And yes, Biden visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. But as presidential visits go, the Palestinian issue was a non-issue.

Also missing in public statements was China. Part of the justification of a no-real-agenda visit was to stress Washington's concerns about Beijing’s outreach to infrastructure projects in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It remains to be seen if this issue is raised publicly at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Jeddah.

Obviously, visits such as the current one and documents like the Jerusalem Declaration are all about areas of agreement, common denominators and shared interests. Dissecting them for flaws and oversights is a waste of time. Naturally, disagreements, contentious issues and policy differences will never be included.

The U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s deep dependence on the United States are such that – pardon the cliché – every presidential visit is important. This was, therefore, an important unimportant visit.

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