Whenever there is a presidential visit to the Holy Land, it naturally has its serious moments, but also its lighter ones.
A few were on display at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday, after Joe Biden touched down in Israel for the first time as president. It was his 10th visit, and without doubt the most consequential.
When Donald Trump came to Israel in 2017, there was the infamous selfie with Oren Hazan, a Likud MK at the time who somehow got invited to the ceremony.
On Wednesday, the moments were less embarrassing but no less amusing. One was when Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Biden walked side-by-side down the red carpet. At one point, Lapid reminded the president how when they had met eight years before – when Lapid was finance minister and Biden vice president – Biden had told the younger Israeli politician that if had his head of hair, he could get elected president. In response, Lapid told Biden that if he had the American’s height, he could become Israel’s prime minister.
Another moment was when Israeli government ministers took their seats ahead of the ceremony, under the scorching sun in a humid climate. Defense Minister Benny Gantz picked up a bottle of water and proceeded – over a few seconds - to try and open it with his teeth. You can find the video online.
Why did he use his teeth? Who knows.
Then there was Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who took a seat next to Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. It was the closest Netanyahu has been seen next to this government since it was sworn in last June. At one point, Michaeli tried to find a tissue to give Netanyahu so he could wipe away the sweat from his forehead, but she couldn’t find one. Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, a row behind, leaned over and handed a tissue to Netanyahu, for whom he had served as a spokesman in 2012. “I promise it is not used,” he told his former boss.
The visit also had its emotional moments: there was Biden’s comment upon landing that you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist; the story of his religious upbringing and what his father taught him about the Holocaust; and the most touching and memorable moment, when he kneeled down next to two survivors at Yad Vashem. It was hard not to be moved. Politics aside, there is no questioning this man’s love and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.
And that is really what this trip was about. Biden admitted as much when he said that while he supported a two-state solution, he understood that it was not going to happen in the “near term.” Yes, there is Iran and its continued pursuit of a nuclear capability, but no big breakthrough is expected there in the near term either. Biden is still committed to a diplomatic resolution and a return to the JCPOA, while Israel wants to try to get him to agree to a “Plan B” if that doesn’t happen. He does not seem so pressed to move that along.
Lapid knows this. He also knows that Israel is the sideshow to the real purpose of Biden’s visit to the Middle East: his flight on Friday to Saudi Arabia. And that is why he is here. He did not want to be seen as only traveling to the Saudis, so the Americans added the Israel stop. That way, it looks like a tour of the Middle East and not just a capitulation to the murderous MBS, as many members of the president’s own party refer to the Saudi crown prince.
But even if Israel is the sideshow and the president’s trip is more about inflation in the US, which hit a 40-year record on Wednesday, the value of American engagement in the region cannot be exaggerated from Israel’s perspective.
This was best illustrated by two announcements earlier this week: one that Iran will supply Russia with advanced drones to help its war in Ukraine, the other that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Iran next week.
There is a battle going on for control in the region. One side is led by Iran, which wants to undermine stability in the Middle East, spread its hegemony throughout the region, and weaken moderate Sunni regimes while trying to advance toward a nuclear capability. Its allies in this are Lebanon, Syria and Russia.
On the other side is Israel, which is part of a bloc of nations that includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and others wanting to see Iran restrained and look to the US for leadership. Part of Biden’s trip is an attempt to provide those countries with a sense of confidence and security that America is not leaving this region in a vacuum. Time will tell if he succeeds.
Beyond the substance of the trip, there is another point that needs to be mentioned.
The first is the location of the arrival ceremony: Ben-Gurion Airport. When the president of the United States receives a foreign leader, he does not go to meet them at Joint Base Andrews. When the president of France greets someone, it does not take place at Charles de Gaulle Airport. In Washington it is at the White House, and in Paris at the Élysée Palace.
So why was it at the airport? Because Israel, after 74 years, still does not have a proper residence/office for its prime minister. There is the President’s Residence, but that is for the president; and there is the Knesset, but that is for the parliament. The government, whose leader is the prime minister, works out of an ugly office building in Jerusalem, and the prime minister lives, for now, in an apartment, since the official residence is still under renovation. Even if the Balfour Street residence was open, it would still not be big enough for a national reception.
And then there is the airplane. Biden arrived on Air Force One, probably the most protected and luxurious aircraft that flies any head of state or government. It is quite the sight. When Lapid flew to Paris last week, he chartered an El Al plane and sat like a regular business-class traveler. The same happened when President Isaac Herzog flew earlier this week to Prague.
The thing is, there is a plane that Israel has built for its heads of state and government. Called “Wing of Zion,” it sits on a tarmac not far from where Air Force One was parked during Biden’s stay. Lapid and Herzog refuse to use it. It has been bought, refurbished, designed and outfitted with the most sophisticated technology, but they won’t step foot inside because the plane is associated with Netanyahu, and they want nothing to do with it.
This situation is ridiculous
A country that presents a visiting president with the Iron Beam – an unprecedented laser system that can intercept rockets – and is being chased after by Europe to supply it with gas does not have to live like it is still a shtetl in eastern Europe.
Israel is strong, wealthy and sophisticated. It can afford to build an office/residence that would respect its occupants as well as visiting dignitaries. Its political leaders should not be ashamed to use a plane (that has already been built!) allowing them to fly to meetings and summits respectably, as they deserve.
Biden’s visit underscores how it is time for this to change.