Don’t expect much from United States President Joe Biden’s Middle East visit. I’m speaking to Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis and, in fact, to the entire Middle East. I’m especially speaking to the citizens of the US.
What can be expected are those special Biden moments. His humor is accompanied by faux pas. And we will almost certainly be treated to at least a few malaprops or spoonerisms.
If you are looking for progress, policy changes or profundity into the dynamics of the region, lower your expectations now to avoid disappointment later.
This is Biden’s tenth trip to Israel, his first as president. And there seems to be a subtle purpose lurking behind this trip. Of course, The president will visit the obvious places all leaders do, including Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum.
He will be escorted to military bases. He will inspect the Iron Dome and the new laser beam anti-missile defense system, called the Iron Beam Laser Rocket Project. The two projects were designed together.
Biden will reacquaint himself with Israel’s caretaker, Prime Minister Yair Lapid. They met only once before, in 2013. The objective here will be to solidify the relationship and keep the US-Israel bonds strong. It will be a polite, albeit perfunctory, meeting.
Given that Israeli elections are scheduled for November 1, the caretaker prime minister does not have the ability to change Israeli policy. Biden will also meet with former prime minister Naftali Bennett. They met twice during the past year, but that will have no bearing on what happens from here on.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, is on the list and this promises to be a very interesting meeting. The president needs to meet with the head of the opposition so as not to appear to be taking sides in the upcoming elections. They’ve known one another for decades and their relationship has weathered some really rough patches.
Recently, Netanyahu even posted a video of Biden snoozing during a meeting with Bennett at the White House. That video has been disproven as fake. But Bibi sent it out for everyone to see and snicker. Their relationship hit its lowest point in 2010 when Biden, then vice president, was on a visit to Israel and Netanyahu announced a new community built over the Green Line in northeast Jerusalem. Biden was apoplectic.
THERE IS a very unique first in Biden’s visit. Something that may have a significant impact on future Israel-US-Palestinian interaction – especially vis-à-vis Jerusalem. It is the subtle purpose propelling this visit.
On Friday morning, Biden is scheduled to visit Augusta Victoria Hospital on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Augusta Victoria is firmly ensconced in what is commonly called Arab east Jerusalem. This visit is a historic first for any sitting president to a significant part of Jerusalem outside of the Old City.
The hospital is one of six in east Jerusalem. These hospitals care for residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank and even Gaza. Operating under a loose relationship with Israel’s Health Ministry, most of the funding comes from the Lutheran World Federation and from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNWRA. This UN agency has shown a decided bent away from Israel.
Biden is scheduled to announce a US initiative to assist the hospital system. The president is hoping that at least some Gulf States will concomitantly announce their support for the east Jerusalem hospital project.
Meeting with Abbas
In the first meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a US president since the PA stepped away from US-sponsored diplomacy, following former president Donald Trump’s moving of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Biden will meet with Abbas.
They will meet in Bethlehem where Biden will, most probably, promise that he will convince Israel to make concessions. Abbas is not in good health, and he and his team are not holding their breath for US promises to come to fruition.
After his meeting with Abbas, Biden goes directly to Saudi Arabia. This will be a unique flight. Very seldom do planes fly directly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden will attend the GCC+3 Summit with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. Saudis are not awaiting Biden’s arrival with open arms.
They have been insulted by the president. During his campaign, he called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state.” Washington continues to call out Saudi Arabia for human rights offenses. And Biden had a serious critique of Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of American/Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For these reasons, the Saudis might not be amenable to US requests to pump more oil and dump it onto the world markets to drive down the price.
As an aside, during the 1930s, members of the Nazi Party of Jerusalem held their meetings under the leadership of Ludwig Buchhalterat Augusta Victoria Hospital. A mere coincidence? I believe so.
The writer is a columnist, and a social and political commentator.