It’s not every day that the president of the United States visits Israel.
There have been 14 presidents since Israel gained independence in 1948, and – with US President Joe Biden’s current visit – only half of them have made the trip, though Biden is the fifth president in a row to make the journey.
But it is not a given.
And that explains the wall-to-wall Israeli media coverage of the visit, including live coverage of Air Force One landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, as though it were Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Those with jaundiced eyes may look at the coverage, at the attention Israel is paying to the visit, and say that the country should grow up, that it is not that big a deal anymore.
But it is a big deal when the president of the most powerful country in the world comes here, even if it is only on the way toward a more important visit for him in Saudi Arabia. It is a big deal when he speaks publicly of his and America’s unstinting support for Israel. And it is a big deal when he signs a “Jerusalem Declaration” putting that support in writing.
Granted, that proclamation has no legal standing, but it sends a message to Israelis, to Americans, and to Palestinians about the rock-solid nature of the relationship.
Compare this with a secret memorandum signed between the US and Israel in 1965 that stated that the “government of the United States has reaffirmed its concern for the maintenance of Israel’s security and has renewed its assurance that the United States firmly opposes aggression in the Near East and remains committed to the independence and integrity of Israel.” The last paragraph of that seven-paragraph memo stated that “full secrecy shall be maintained on all matters referred to herein.”
In other words, the US didn’t want anyone to see its early embrace of the Jewish state.
Contrast that with the joint declaration issued on Thursday.
“The United States and Israel reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two countries and the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Our countries further reaffirm that the strategic US-Israel partnership is based on a bedrock of shared values, shared interests and true friendship,” the document read.
“Consistent with the long-standing security relationship between the United States and Israel and the unshakable US commitment to Israel’s security, and especially to the maintenance of its qualitative military edge, the United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat or combination of threats.”
In 1965 the US didn’t want anyone to see its tentative embrace of Israel; in 2022 it has no problems issuing what is tantamount to a public display of affection. This document is not just a fist bump, like the ones the COVID-concerned Biden distributed at the airport when he landed, but rather a public smooch on the lips.
Israelis are an understandably insecure people, always fretting and checking and worrying about the state of relations with its greatest ally, and whether one disagreement or another is going to upend that relationship. The warmth Biden displayed should put those fears to rest.
“This visit is about affirming those ties that stretch back just 11 minutes after Israel declared statehood when the US became the first country in the world to recognize Israel,” Biden said at a press conference Thursday. “And I assure you it will be the last country in the world to walk away from Israel.”
Those words should put Israel’s insecurities about its relationship with this administration to rest, but they won’t. The country will still fret over the meaning of Biden’s visit to an east Jerusalem hospital or a possible spat over settlement construction, looking for indications of a weakening of ties.
Israel has a deep-seated need to be not only liked by America, but loved by America; to be seen as special by America. And it needs those sentiments to be displayed publicly, so others can see them.
Former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served, had difficulty showing that affection, quite possibly because he didn’t feel it. Biden is a different story altogether. He feels it, and – the touchy-feely guy he seems to be – he also expresses it.
His first words upon landing reflected his mindset. “It’s an honor to once again stand with friends and visit the independent, Jewish State of Israel,” he said immediately after landing.
“The independent, Jewish State of Israel” is an interesting choice of words, and reflects the mindset of someone who remembers when that wasn’t a given, the mindset of someone who remembers tales his father told him of what happened before that independent, Jewish state existed. For Biden an “independent Jewish state” is still a big deal.
THE SECOND audience for whom this visit, and those warm words, are important is the domestic American audience.
In an interview conducted by Channel 12’s Yonit Levy that was aired Wednesday night, on the first night of Biden’s visit, he was asked about those inside his party who call Israel an “apartheid state,” and who no longer want to make military aid to Israel unconditional.
“There are few of them. I think they are wrong; I think they are making a mistake,” he said. “Israel is a democracy, Israel is an ally, Israel is a friend, and I make no apologies.”
With support for Israel among the younger generation of Democrats slipping below their support for the Palestinians, that is an important message to be sent. It is important that the president unapologetically express full-throated support for Israel. At a time when there are those in the Democratic Party who want to delegitimize the country, it is not insignificant for the president to say that they are simply “wrong.”
This is also an important message for Israelis to hear. Why? Because despite all the press garnered by anti-Israel voices such as Rashida Tlaib and Omar Ilhan, there are still, as Biden said, only a “few of them.”
“There is no possibility, I think, of the Democratic Party, or a significant part of the Republican Party, walking away from Israel,” he said. For insecure Israelis, hyper-focused on those critical voices on the American political scene, that is a comforting message, one that may help to put those other voices into their proper proportion.
THE OTHER audience watching America’s attitude toward Israel is the region, especially the Palestinians. The Palestinians looked on gleefully during the Obama years at the very public disputes between Israel and the US over everything from the settlements to Iran. Those public disagreements, the public scoldings of Israel that came from the White House and John Kerry’s State Department, created a sense that the US would “deliver” Israel; that if the Palestinians just waited long enough, American and European pressure on Israel would force it to give them what they wanted.
So far, the Biden visit has given no opening for that hope. Unlike Obama, Biden put no daylight between Israel and the US, even with the president’s scheduled visit on Friday to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem. During his public comments with Israeli leaders, Biden did not directly mention settlements – a continual source of conflict with the Obama administration – even once.
In contrast to other presidential visits, Biden’s visit to Israel was not about the Palestinian issue, and the time he devoted to talking about the issue in public reflected this. It also reflects that there is so much more to the Israeli-US relationship than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an address of some 1,500 words at the airport, Biden dedicated a scant 125 to the Palestinian cause and expressed laconic support for a two-state solution. In the “Jerusalem Declaration,” only 62 words, out of nearly 800, dealt with the Palestinians. By contrast, when Obama was here in 2013 and gave his centerpiece address to the Israeli public at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, about one-third of a 5,500-word speech had to do with the Palestinian issue.
In this vein, there was one line in Biden’s interview with Channel 12 that should be underlined. After years of America believing that the Palestinian issue was key to unlocking stability in the Mideast and the key to paving the way for normalizing Israel’s relations with the Arab world, Biden acknowledged that the opposite is the truth, that integration of Israel into the Arab world can lead to movement on the Palestinian track.
“The more Israel is integrated into the region, as an equal and accepted, the more likely there is going to be a means by which they can eventually come to an accommodation with the Palestinians down the road.”US President Joe Biden
Kerry famously said this would never happen, but it is materializing now before everyone’s eyes.
“The more Israel is integrated into the region, as an equal and accepted, the more likely there is going to be a means by which they can eventually come to an accommodation with the Palestinians down the road,” Biden said.
That was the US president speaking, not former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been making that argument for years. And it represents a highly significant change of tone for a Democratic administration.•