Regardless of who is PM, Biden will want to talk Saudi Arabia - analysis

Diplomatic Affairs: Regardless of who is the prime minister, the focus of US-Israel talks will be Saudi Arabia

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden will be meeting with an Israeli prime minister next month. Who will it be? (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden will be meeting with an Israeli prime minister next month. Who will it be?
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

When US President Joe Biden lands at Ben-Gurion Airport next month, will Prime Minister Naftali Bennett be there to welcome him? Or will his coalition fall at the hands of a right-wing MK, making Yair Lapid prime minister until the next government is formed?

Lapid refused to entertain the question at a briefing in the Foreign Ministry this week, and certainly not the third possibility: that, through some political acrobatics, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu will return to the helm.

Regardless of who will be in charge on July 13, Lapid said, “the president will be here no matter what.

“The president’s relationship with Israel is way more important, significant and long-lasting than any political event,” Lapid said. “The US is our greatest ally and the most important partnership and friendship we have.”

Meanwhile, Bennett’s staff – what’s left of it after a wave of resignations – is assiduously planning a trip that has been a year in the making and someone else may scoop up.

 Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a weekly cabinet meeting, June 12, 2022 (credit: Yoav Dudkevitch/Pool) Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a weekly cabinet meeting, June 12, 2022 (credit: Yoav Dudkevitch/Pool)

The trip is a year in the making because one of this government’s top foreign policy goals upon entering office was to improve the relations with the US. Whether or not one thinks that Netanyahu severely damaged bipartisan support for Israel, or that the reason for that dip is a leftward trend in the Democrat Party, Lapid and Bennett clearly bought into the first thesis.

Lapid said he thought the Foreign Ministry had done a good job on that front in the past year, citing the 420-9 vote in the US House of Representatives to fund the replenishment of Israel’s Iron Dome batteries, meetings with senior members of Congress from both parties, increased cooperation with USAID and more.

“We based the dialogue on values of liberal democracies without giving up on Israel’s interests,” he said.

“I’m not sure the enemy of my enemy is always my friend, but the enemy of my enemy is someone I can consider working with/”

Yair Lapid

In the Prime Minister’s Office, with a right-wing Bennett in office whose approach to the Palestinians and Iran was very different from the Biden administration’s, the focus was on finding ways to disagree constructively and stay on good terms.

With regard to the Palestinians, settlements – which Bennett has long championed – and a two-state solution, which Bennett strongly opposes, the prime minister tried not to rock the boat too much, not only because of Biden, but because of the diverse views on those matters in his coalition. He tried to make economic gestures toward the Palestinian Authority, increasing work permits, and reduced the number of authorizations for Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria.

The Biden administration, in the meantime, still saw things very differently from Bennett, but took a less angry and hectoring tone than the Obama administration, in which Biden and much of his cabinet and staff served. They haven’t demanded a settlement freeze, while expressing disapproval of all settlements, and they haven’t pressured Bennett into giving a speech supporting a Palestinian quasi-state like Netanyahu did, while continually saying their eventual goal is a Palestinian state.

Similarly, Bennett did not start a big public campaign against the Iran deal. The prime minister didn’t hide that he thought reviving the 2015 deal was a bad idea, but Biden, Bennett and their national security advisers and top diplomats mostly discussed it behind the scenes.

That built up enough credit for Bennett, Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to be taken seriously in Washington when they were vocal in opposing Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. Biden decided not to de-list the IRGC, and that seems to have derailed talks to return to the Iran deal.

Both of those issues will be a big part of Biden’s visit. Biden still plans to make the controversial move of visiting the Palestinian-run Makassed Hospital in east Jerusalem, for one. And Israel is trying to convince its allies that, with Iran talks seemingly at a dead end, the Islamic Republic should be brought before the UN Security Council and face sanctions.

Saudi Arabia

BUT THE big focus has been on something on which the consensus is so broad in Israel, it almost doesn’t matter whether the prime minister is Bennett, Lapid or even Netanyahu, and that is Saudi Arabia.

Articles analyzing Biden’s 180-degree turn on Saudi Arabia – turning from saying it should be a pariah state to courting Riyadh – have abounded in the US media in recent weeks, but they have proliferated in Israel as well.

The answer seems to have a lot more to do with rising oil prices than with Israel, but Biden himself said he has “a program [that] has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy price,” and “has to do with national security... for Israelis.”

The Biden administration has played a role in mediating an agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem that the president is expected to announce on his trip. It’s far from a normalization treaty. Instead, Israel will agree to change the security arrangements in the Strait of Tiran that it had agreed to in its peace treaty with Egypt, so that Saudi Arabia can take over two islands in the strait without an international military presence on them. In exchange, Israeli airlines will be able to fly over Saudi Arabia – they currently do so only en route to the UAE or Bahrain. This has not yet been publicly confirmed by Israel, but Lapid said they are “not without some basis,” while saying Biden will be the one to make any announcements.

And then there are Israel and Saudi Arabia’s shared interest in combating the Iranian threat. Lapid, while not wanting to get into details, said that Biden’s trip has to do with a “regional architecture,” which is a euphemism Jerusalem has used in recent months to refer to Israel-Arab cooperation on defense.

“I’m not sure the enemy of my enemy is always my friend, but the enemy of my enemy is someone I can consider working with,” Lapid quipped.

Lapid and Bennett are clearly of one mind on that, and Netanyahu’s record, including a secret meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom, shows that he feels the same, even if he would likely handle the other issues mentioned very differently.

Though the political situation makes it uncertain whether Bennett, Lapid or even Netanyahu will be waiting for him on the tarmac, at least Biden can rely on whoever is there to push forward with the big focus of the visit.