President Joe Biden published an opinion piece in the Washington Post last weekend in which he outlined his goals for his visit to the Middle East. Titled “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia,” the article does not mention Israel until the twelfth paragraph, after Biden references Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia (as well as Russia, Ukraine, ISIS, and the Islamic State). Biden does briefly allude to last year’s war with Gaza, but his list of goals for the Middle East does not include any mention of a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
It’s clear that Biden’s stop in Israel on this trip is merely the undercard: the main event will be his time in Saudi Arabia. By next week, we’ll have a better sense of what the American president was able to accomplish during his time in the region. But because this column was written just before Biden began his travels, it’s seems like a good opportunity to examine the political landscape that exists in Israel at the time of his arrival.
With the exception of Donald Trump, who strongly advocated for Bibi Netanyahu’s reelection as prime minister, American presidents have historically avoided taking sides in Israeli campaigns. But while Biden will not formally endorse interim prime minister Yair Lapid before this fall’s election, the practical effect of his days in Israel will have been an immense boost to Lapid’s election prospects. In the interest of fairness, Biden’s schedule also includes a meeting with Netanyahu. But the White House has barely bothered to disguise its “anyone but Bibi” approach to Israeli politics, and Biden will do everything he can before that country’s voters go to the polls on November 1 to elevate Lapid.
That’s why the Biden Administration has been so careful not to pressure either Lapid or his predecessor Naftali Bennett to take any steps toward reconciliation with the Palestinians that might upset Israeli voters on the eve of that election (although Lapid did hold a phone conversation last week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the first time Israeli and Palestinian leaders have talked directly in several years). But the United States has not reopened the Palestinian mission in Washington or its consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, nor has the U.S. State Department reversed Trump’s position that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law or lifted the classification of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a terrorist group.
Biden has no intention of allowing Lapid to appear either to be weak on security matters or to have done anything to harm the relationship between the two countries.
Any such steps would provide Netanyahu with an opening to attack the Lapid-led coalition as compromising Israel’s security and allow the former prime minister to criticize Lapid for losing influence with the United States. Biden has no intention of allowing Lapid to appear either to be weak on security matters or to have done anything to harm the relationship between the two countries. As a result, Biden’s schedule was designed to specifically highlight the close coordination between the Israeli and American militaries, with an itinerary that included a tour of the Iron Dome missile defense battery, Israel’s laser defense rocket defense system and other security-related sites. Biden also believes that stronger ties between Israel and other countries in the region will provide much greater levels of protection for the Jewish state, and so underscoring those collaborative efforts also strengthen Lapid’s standing.
Biden has provided support to the Palestinians, restoring more than $500 million in aid that had been cut off by Trump and committing to even more financial support on this trip. But the Palestinian leaders are deeply frustrated that Biden appears to be in no hurry to move toward the two-state solution that he has long endorsed. Their dissatisfaction is of even greater political benefit to Lapid.
Next week, we’ll discuss Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his efforts to strengthen the anti-Iran alliance that he believes is the key to broader cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. But barring an unexpected surprise during his time in Israel, it’s safe to assume that Biden will accomplish his most important goal for that visit — by lending his visibility and credibility to Lapid’s re-election campaign.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www/lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 PM.