Lapid and Biden are playing domestic politics with PM’s call to Abbas - analysis

Not only was the Lapid-Abbas phone call good for Lapid politically, but it also was good for the US president politically to help explain why the US was needed in the Mideast.

Israeli and US flags are rolled up before being set up, as part of preparations for US President Joe Biden's visit later this week, in Jerusalem, July 10, 2022. (photo credit:  REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Israeli and US flags are rolled up before being set up, as part of preparations for US President Joe Biden's visit later this week, in Jerusalem, July 10, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s phone call on Friday to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was not like Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993.

It did not launch a new peace process, nor in any way dramatically change the region’s everyday reality. It was a phone call made on the occasion of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha by a new prime minister before a visit by the president of the United States. That it was the first phone call between an Israeli prime minister and Abbas in five years gives it significance, but its importance need not be overstated.

Still, before deciding to place the call, Lapid certainty weighed it from various angles, one of the most important being how it would play politically. Political considerations come into play when prime ministers make almost every decision, even more so during campaign seasons.

However, this phone call had domestic importance not only for Lapid, but also for US President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday as part of a three-day Mideast visit that will also take him to Saudi Arabia.

What is the domestic import of the phone call to Abbas for Lapid?

He is vying now with Blue and White’s Benny Gantz for Center-Left votes in the anti-Netanyahu camp. His chances of luring voters from Likud or the Religious Zionist Party are almost nil, and he certainly knew that this phone call would raise the ire on the Right, some of whom would claim – as they predictably did – that he was trying to resuscitate the Oslo process.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One last month. Next week, he’ll be greeted in Jerusalem by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and a number of hot issues on the Israel-US agenda.  (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS) US PRESIDENT Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One last month. Next week, he’ll be greeted in Jerusalem by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and a number of hot issues on the Israel-US agenda. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

But the Center-Left, unlike the Likud and Religious Zionist Party, has not given up on the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, and does not believe that it is verboten. They want to see contact with the PA. It is no coincidence that just hours before that phone call, Gantz met in Ramallah with Abbas to discuss security coordination before Biden’s visit.

Both men signaled the country’s Center-Left voters – whom they are courting – that unlike former prime minister Naftali Bennett, who refused to talk or meet with Abbas, they are not opposed. And the pool of voters they are trying to draw from sees it as something positive.

As does Biden.

What does all this do for Biden?

Biden’s trip is not something that the American public is overly excited about or even supports. Just as the Lapid-Abbas call was not the Rabin-Arafat handshake, Biden’s upcoming Mideast voyage is not exactly Richard Nixon breaking historic ground by going to China in 1972. Americans are not waiting with bated breath for Biden’s trip, and will unlikely be following it with much real interest or excitement.

With the US economy struggling mightily, a Russian war in Ukraine, competition with China, Roe v. Wade overturned and mass shootings taking place seemingly every week, many Americans can’t figure out why Biden is going now to the Mideast. Throw Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record into the mix, along with Biden’s pre-election pledge that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah, and his trip there becomes even more of a mystery to many Americans.

What do the Americans think?

A University of Maryland poll conducted June 28-22 that asked about the visit showed that only 24% of the public said they “approve” of Biden’s Mideast trip, while 25% said they disapprove. The rest “neither approve nor disapprove” (40%) or don’t know.

So Biden has found himself in the unusual position of having to justify the visit. He started to do so last month in Madrid when he said that one of the main purposes of his Mideast trip was to “deepen” Israel’s integration in the region.

He continued his marketing efforts over the weekend with an op-ed he wrote appearing in The Washington Post in its online edition under the headline, “Joe Biden: Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia.” That he has to explain the trip (he did, for instance, not have to explain why he went to Japan and South Korea in May, since that was self-evident) is in itself telling.

“A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways,” Biden wrote. “Its waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine. And a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation – rather than coming apart through conflict – is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on US military forces and their families.”

After years of presidents explaining to the American public why America needs to withdraw from the Mideast, Biden wrote why it needs to remain engaged, and why that is in America’s interests.

Biden argued that the Mideast today is a better place than the one he inherited in 2020 and ticked off several reasons why: There are far fewer Iranian-sponsored attacks than two years ago, the US killed ISIS leader Haji Abdullah in Syria, a US-brokered truce is holding in place in Yemen, and Iran – not the US – is isolated in the world until it returns to the nuclear deal.

Regarding Israel, Biden touted that the US helped end last year’s war in Gaza “in just 11 days,” and has worked with other regional actors to “maintain the peace” and not allow the terrorists to rearm.

“And this week,” he wrote, “an Israeli prime minister spoke with the president of the Palestinian Authority for the first time in five years.”

There it was. Not only was the Lapid-Abbas phone call good for Lapid politically, but it also was good for the US president politically to help explain why the US was needed in the Mideast, and why he had to fly there.

Moreover, Biden said he will fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, “a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.”

Again, using something good for Israel as a reason for the trip.

But obviously, not all Americans – especially not all young Democrats – are enamored of Israel, and Biden has to keep them in mind as well. He also has to have his eyes on the progressives in his party, some of whom have been critical of his visit not only to Saudi Arabia, but also to Israel. 

“I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”

“I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia. My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank”

US President Joe Biden in his Washington Post op-ed

While some pro-Israel supporters will shudder at a seeming comparison he made between the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and that in Israel and the West Bank, Biden’s raising this is a product of politics within his party. Biden is flying abroad, but his eye will be peeled on his party, and certain messages he sends from Israel – just as certain lines he wrote in The Washington Post op-ed – will be tailored toward very specific domestic audiences.