Analysis |

In Mideast Trip, Biden Uncoupled Israel From the Palestinians

The White House undoubtedly scored a few diplomatic wins on its trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the trip was mainly a victory for the host countries

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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U.S. President Joe Biden joking while posing with U.S. athletes at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem last Thursday.
U.S. President Joe Biden joking while posing with U.S. athletes at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem last Thursday.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – “As my father always said, never crucify yourself on a small cross.” That was a commonly used aphorism employed by then-Vice President Joe Biden, according to the memoir of Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.

During his four-day whirlwind visit to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. president all but declared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a small cross, effectively shelving any efforts at actively pursuing a two-state solution for the duration of his presidency.

While critics have dismissed Biden’s trip as insignificant with unclear objectives, the visit did herald one significant lasting change: The United States has all but uncoupled Israel from the Palestinians, following in President Donald Trump’s footsteps and centering Israeli policy around Arab normalization and regional integration.

Despite Israel’s attempts at spiking the football throughout Biden’s first 48 hours in the region, however, dreams of a new Mideast reality in the immediate future were met with the stark realization that the Palestinians are not going anywhere, and the attempted U.S.-Israeli pivot shows few signs of fundamentally altering the facts on the ground.

Presidential visits to Israel are widely considered the most powerful tool the U.S. government has in its arsenal to effect change, often being used as a curtain-raiser or catalyst for some sort of significant initiative or policy shift. Comparing then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 address to young Israelis in Jerusalem, for instance, with Biden’s remarks during his trip highlights just how far away the prospects of serious efforts to resolve the conflict – let alone actual resolution – have become over the past decade.

Trump’s 2017 visit similarly portended the foundation-altering policies his administration would pursue during his presidency.

The centerpiece of Biden’s stop, meanwhile, was the Jerusalem Declaration: essentially a status-quo summary document framed as a policy. For the commander-in-chief to center a once-in-a-presidency visit around what amounts to a literature review is nothing short of a painfully missed opportunity.

The declaration does, though, shed some interesting light on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Nonresident Scholar Michele Dunne observed that while the Americans committed to 10 points, Israel made zero such commitments (the Americans and Israelis also jointly committed to five points).

The language concerning the Palestinians and a two-state solution, meanwhile, comes toward the bottom of the text and could not be more passive in nature. The message is undeniable: Were it not for the previous president, the Biden administration would be considered the most acquiescent in Israel’s history.

The administration will undoubtedly highlight its $316 million in aid – including $100 million for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, $201 million for the UN Relief and Works Agency and $15 million in food aid – as ways of improving Palestinians’ daily lives while the ground is not yet ripe for proactive conflict-resolution efforts.

The aid embodies the administration’s goals, effectively adopting the “shrinking the conflict” model of economic measures in lieu of expending limited political capital.

Biden further detailed the deliverables in remarks alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, where he notably mentioned a two-state solution based on 1967 borders and mutually agreed land swaps while acknowledging Palestinian pain.

U.S. President Joe Biden shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem last Friday.Credit: Evan Vucci /AP

What he failed to explicitly state, however, was the party responsible for such suffering – again feeding accusations that, given his failure to pursue accountability, his mentions of a two-state solution amount to lip service.

Further, opting for conflict management is essentially operating under the assumption that it may ultimately lead somewhere between the two parties. The gaps, mistrust and suspicion between Israel and the Palestinians – not to mention each side’s lack of domestic room to maneuver, and lack of a mediator willing to expose themselves to humiliation – only serve to illustrate Biden’s decision to highlight regional integration as a goal with further dividends and supposedly less inevitable failure.

Additionally, the U.S. administration has still failed to deliver on promises made to the Palestinian Authority – namely, the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem – fostering an environment where neither side trusts the other and creating a loop of mutual distrust.

U.S. President Joe Biden leaving Israel for Saudi Arabia last Friday.Credit: Abir Sultan/AP

Biden’s visit concluded with the announcement of Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to all flights, including to and from Israel. It was a landmark decision that further bolstered efforts at pivoting to regional integration.

The president was dealt a harsh reality check upon landing in Jeddah, however, when Saudi officials dismissed both the Red Sea islands and airspace deals as having anything to do with Israel, and instead aimed to elevate Saudi Arabia’s own global standing. (The White House announced an agreement Saturday to move international peacekeepers, including U.S. forces, from the Red Sea island of Tiran by the end of the year, potentially paving the way for improved relations between Israel and the Saudis.) The Saudis also stressed that discussion of a regional defense network was not raised once during the GCC+3 summit.

While U.S. officials stress that such efforts are a long-term ambition, so too are Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The Biden administration has simply conducted a realpolitik calculus wherein the United States has more to gain from one ambition than from the other.

Realpolitik extended across both legs of the trip on human-rights concerns. Biden acknowledged the killings of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but he failed to meet with Abu Akleh's family or publicly address the matter alongside Israeli officials – and his fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who reportedly sanctioned the Khashoggi murder, became the dominant story of his visit.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bumping fists with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Red Sea port of Jeddah last Friday.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP

There are some positives from the trip, to be sure: Morocco’s involvement in securing longer opening hours at the Allenby Bridge border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan shows how a party to the Abraham Accords can leverage its role between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. aid package to the Palestinians will undoubtedly help save lives, and Gulf states committing significant funds in their own right will help further. And the Saudi deals are significant markers in the story of the modern Middle East, no matter what message Riyadh tries to push.

Yet despite all the pomp and circumstance of the visits, Biden returns to Washington finding the same reality he left a week ago. He failed to quell a single concern from the Democratic Party’s progressive flank, while Republicans are using the trip as an attack point despite Biden's rapturous reception among Israeli officials. Israelis and Palestinians, meanwhile, are no closer to a resolution of the conflict – whether in the form of a two-state solution or otherwise.

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