Opinion |

Don't Let the Smiles and Fist Bumps Fool You. Bibi and MBS Are Looking Beyond Biden

Israel's opposition leader and the Saudi crown prince had friendly encounters with the U.S. president during his Mideast visit, but both are hoping for a Trump comeback

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller
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Netanyahu and Biden interact at Ben Gurion Airport on July 13.
Netanyahu and Biden interact at Ben Gurion Airport on July 13.Credit: Hadas Parush
Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

During his brief warm airport encounter with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, President Biden was overheard to have said “Bibi, you know I love you.” And it wasn’t the first time Biden had expressed this semi-friendly throwaway line.

One can be forgiven for assuming that during their customary meeting the next day, both leaders were thinking quite different things. Over the smiles and friendly banter, their thought bubbles would have gone something like this:

Biden: "I really hope this guy doesn’t come back as prime minister.”

Netanyahu: “I really hope Republicans – not Democrats – take back the White House in 2024.”

And Netanyahu wouldn't be the only Middle East leader thinking those thoughts. Like Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be wishing on his lucky star that Donald Trump or his avatar returns in 2024. A Trump presidency created nothing short of sugar highs for both leaders and asked very little in return.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, in Jeddah, on July 15.Credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD/ REUTERS

One of the reasons Biden travelled to the Middle East is to counter the perception – and reality – that America was stepping back from the region because of domestic preoccupations and a foreign policy focused on Russia and China. Troubled by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Israeli and Arab leaders may have been impressed by Biden’s adept response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they worry nonetheless. Yes, America may be back but for how long? Biden turns 80 in November; his poll numbers are in the basement; he faces serious losses in the midterms; and he’s presiding over an unstable and dysfunctional political system that might undermine any commitments the president makes in the region.

For both Netanyahu and MBS, however, Biden’s political woes have created opportunities for a change in U.S. leadership that just might bring back better days. Both leaders have history with the president. And regardless of the smiles, fist bumps, embraces and handshakes, that history isn’t going away. Biden might tell Netanyahu he loves him. But the president is under no illusions about who Netanyahu is. And he doesn’t want him back. Biden remembers well the humiliation and embarrassment he experienced while visiting Israel as vice president in 2010, when the government announced a major expansion of housing units in east Jerusalem. For the past year and a half, Biden has been doing everything he can to prevent the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government primarily to prevent Netanyahu’s return.

Netanyahu also knows that Biden’s instincts on Iran and the Palestinians run in the direction of diplomacy, not maximum pressure. Indeed, Israeli politicians tied to Netanyahu blasted Biden’s decision to visit east Jerusalem without accompanying Israeli officials. And Biden’s public call for negotiations based on 1967 lines must have reminded the former prime minister of his contentious days with former President Barack Obama. Netanyahu doesn't just prefer Republicans; during the past decade he openly collaborated with them to oppose Obama’s Iran policy, end-running the White House to address Congress at the invitation of then House Speaker John Boehner.

Netanyahu greets Trump upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in May 2017.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Biden’s history with MBS may be worse. Outraged by MBS’ role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Biden said the crown prince's leadership had “little socially redeeming value,” blasted Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” nation, and imposed a "Khashoggi ban" on Saudis accused of suppressing dissidents on their government's behalf. Biden’s chummy fist bump won’t convince MBS that the president is a fast friend or that he’s got a permanent ally in the White House, certainly compared with his predecessor and the Trump family. Indeed, the crown prince recently invested two billion in the hedge fund of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. It doesn’t require much imagination to envision what Kushner had to say to MBS about the Biden administration.

Politics are unpredictable to say the least. And who knows if Trump will run and win. But there’s little doubt that both MBS and Netanyahu are looking beyond a soon-to-be-80-year-old president and hoping for a return to the good old days. MBS could rule Saudi Arabia for half a century once his father King Salman passes from the scene. Netanyahu and MBS both know Trump is unpredictable as well. Indeed, in September 2019, when Saudi oil installations were attacked by Iranian drones, Trump failed to respond aggressively. And Netanyahu at times has been the object of Trump’s ire. Nonetheless, Trump made life easier for both Netanyahu and MBS by acquiescing in Israeli and Saudi policies; ignoring human rights violations, ramping up pressure on Iran and showering both leaders with unprecedented attention and benefits without asking too many questions. Indeed, under Trump what happened in Israel and Saudi Arabia stayed in Israel and Saudi Arabia. And as leaders who don’t like their authority questioned, that’s just the way MBS and Netanyahu like it.

Aaron David Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. His latest book is "End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President" (St. Martin's Press). Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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