Will a Biden visit to Israel save Bennett's government or sink him?

Netanyahu may use Biden's visit to claim that he made the US embassy move to Jerusalem while Bennett made the US recognize Palestinian claims to the capital.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden greets Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House last year. Would Bennett benefit from a Biden visit to Israel? (photo credit: SARAHBETH MANEY/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden greets Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House last year. Would Bennett benefit from a Biden visit to Israel?

If US President Joe Biden is not careful, an expected upcoming trip to Israel meant to benefit Prime Minister Naftali Bennett might in actuality end up burying him.

How so?

By doing anything that could be interpreted as recognizing Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, such as visiting the Makassed Hospital in east Jerusalem, something apparently under consideration.

Even were Biden to visit the Western Wall during this trip, something that is also a distinct possibility, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would surely use a Biden visit to a Palestinian institution in east Jerusalem to claim that under his term the US administration moved its embassy to Jerusalem, but under Bennett, the US administration is recognizing Palestinian claims to the capital.

Bennett, he will argue, is dividing Jerusalem.

 US President Joe Biden delivers remarks as first lady Jill Biden stands next to him, after paying respects and meeting with victims, family, first responders and law enforcement who were affected by the mass shooting committed by a gunman authorities say was motivated by racism. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS) US President Joe Biden delivers remarks as first lady Jill Biden stands next to him, after paying respects and meeting with victims, family, first responders and law enforcement who were affected by the mass shooting committed by a gunman authorities say was motivated by racism. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)

Sound familiar?

It should. In 1996 the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” was the central theme of Netanyahu’s campaign against incumbent prime minister Shimon Peres. The slogan, and the campaign, worked.

Jerusalem resonates with voters. Or, more specifically, the fear that someone might divide Jerusalem resonates with voters. And in that campaign, Netanyahu – against great odds – eked out a victory.

There is another echo of that campaign heard faintly in the preparation for a Biden visit: the possibility of a regional summit, working off the Negev Summit at Sde Boker organized by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and attended in March by the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.

The idea of Biden holding a summit with Bennett and the leaders of other states in the region at peace with Israel has been raised. Biden is scheduled to come here for a brief visit as part of a trip that will take him to the G7 meeting in Germany on June 26, and the NATO Summit in Spain on June 29.

Such a regional summit would serve a couple of purposes.

This trip will mark Biden’s first trip as president to the region, not only to Israel. After having made clear in the early days of his presidency that the Mideast would not be his top priority, a regional summit would – to a certain degree – serve as a reset.

The Ukraine war and the impact that has had on the world’s energy market has hammered home to the US that even though it may want to concentrate on China and Asia, the Mideast is still important to its interests, and that relations in the region need to be repaired and cultivated. Such a summit would be an important step in that direction.

Another purpose would be to give Bennett a political boost.

It is always good for the electorate to see its prime minister strut on the world stage in the company of the US president and other world leaders, and it is clear the Biden administration would like to see this government last and prefers a Bennett-Lapid coalition over the possibility of a Netanyahu return or an exclusively right-wing government.

A regional summit was tailor-made for Peres in the March 1996 campaign, the “Summit of Peacemakers” in Sharm e-Sheikh, which then-president Bill Clinton admitted years later was designed to help Peres in the elections. Neither that summit nor a Clinton invitation to Peres to the White House just a month before the election had the desired effect. Peres lost to Netanyahu.

Some may argue that drawing parallels between the situation today and 1996 is mistaken, because even though the Bennett-Lapid government may be hanging by a thread, it is still in power, and elections have not been called and are by no means a certainty.

Granted, but the possibility of elections is very much on everyone’s mind.

According to former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, giving a boost to the present government is one of the reasons behind Biden’s timing of this trip.

“I think Biden wants to do for Bennett what Trump did for Netanyahu,” Oren said, referring to steps Trump took, within weeks of the Israeli elections in 2019 and 2020, that were viewed as designed to help Netanyahu at the polls.

This included Trump’s March 2019 announcement, just three weeks before the April election, that the US would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and again in January 2020 when he unveiled the “Deal of the Century” just before the March election of that year.

Oren said that while Biden may want to help out this government by visiting now, he might want to consider postponing simply because the political situation in Israel is currently “so volatile and fluid.”

“Every Tuesday there will be a government crisis,” he said. “You might have a situation where a week or two days before his visit, the government might fall. And don’t think Netanyahu won’t try [to ensure this happens].”

In that not so far-fetched scenario, Biden would be meeting with a lame-duck prime minister, something Oren characterized as a “diplomatic fadiha [embarrassment].”

Asked whether he would advise Biden to postpone, Oren said: “I would tell him to exercise caution and be prudent.”

Biden, if he does go ahead with the trip, would be the seventh US president to visit Israel since Richard Nixon became the first to do so in 1974. All told, there have been 11 presidential visits to the country, including a one-day trip here by Barack Obama to attend the funeral of Peres in 2016. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Trump all visited once, George W. Bush made two trips, as did Obama, and Clinton came here four times.

Not every trip, Oren noted, is monumental or necessarily good for Israel. As ambassador to the US, he was very much involved in Obama’s trip here in 2013, but said “I don’t see what we gained from it. When Obama gave a speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, he called on Israelis to protest against their government. People forget that when talking about Netanyahu’s [2015] speech to Congress.”

Although the optics of American support concretized by a presidential visit were once an important component of such a visit and of great value to Israel, now the situation is a bit different.

“What is important is that the Americans have a strong military presence in the region, Oren said. “But it doesn‘t anymore.”

Oren added that Israel’s situation is not such that a visit itself will necessarily enhance its security. However, he added, the situation could be different were Biden to come up with “concrete ideas about cooperation against Iran.”

BEYOND TRYING to help the Bennett government politically, Iran is another reason for the visit taking place now, he maintained. “It has to do with getting us to calm down [about Iran].”

That Iran has to do with the timing of the visit is also an opinion shared by former Egyptian ambassador and senior UN official Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy. Writing in Asharq al-Awsat this week, Ramzy said, “While the hopes for reviving the JCPOA [Iranian nuclear deal] appear to be receding, there is still a possibility that an arrangement may be found to overcome the remaining problems – which are largely political and not technical – that have so far prevented an agreement. A visit by the US president at this juncture would help assuage the concerns of Israel, and for that matter the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, if a deal ultimately materializes.”

The third reason for a Biden visit now, at a time when there is no movement at all on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic track, has to do with Biden’s own political considerations, and a nod toward Jewish donors to the Democratic Party.

Biden, Oren said, is keen on coming here before the November midterm elections, which are expected to be very difficult for the Democratic Party, perhaps so difficult that the Democrats may lose their control of both the House and the Senate.

Oren offers a word of caution, however, to those in Israel who think the Republicans recapturing Congress in November would signal “party time” for Jerusalem.

If the Democrats lose their majority in Congress, it means that for the remaining two years of Biden’s tenure it would be difficult for him to move forward his domestic agenda. If that happens, the administration will look for victories elsewhere, such as in the realm of foreign policy, something that falls exclusively within the president’s purview. Oren speculated that in this situation the administration would focus much more on the Israeli-Palestinian issue than it has up until now.

“It is never a bad thing to visit Israel,” Oren said of Biden’s political calculations. By going to both the Western Wall and a Palestinian institution in east Jerusalem, he said, the president could appeal to both the pro-Israel camp and progressives at the same time – pro-Israel supporters would be thrilled at the trip to the Wall, and progressives would be happy he winked at Palestinian claims in east Jerusalem.

Jews account for a significant amount of political donations in the US, Oren said. A 2020 report on the eJewish Philanthropy website stated that 50% of all campaign dollars donated to the Democratic Party are from Jewish donors. Reminded, however, that some of those Jews giving funds are either ambivalent toward Israel or anti-Israel, for whom a Biden visit won’t mean much, Oren replied, “75% of American Jews are Democrats, and among those are a lot of pro-Israel people.”

For them, he said, the optics of a Biden trip just five months before a key midterm election are important... even if it might not turn out to be much of a blessing for Bennett.