As a folkloric visit, President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel was undoubtedly a grand success – largely because of the American president’s inclination to concentrate on warm human gestures of one sort or another, the deeper significance of which is not always clear.
For example, his interaction with the two elderly Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem, which lasted much longer than originally planned, created a very intimate and touching scene, whose impact was extremely powerful.
The handshake with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion Airport when Biden arrived was another such moment. The cameras caught a long and hearty handshake between the two, even though originally it was announced there would be no handshakes in the course of Biden’s Middle East visit. The reasons were because of the corona, and diplomatic concerns connected to Biden’s refusal to shake hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (whom Biden accuses of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi).
It was reported that Biden said to Netanyahu during the handshake: “You know that I love you,” which might seem surprising given the fact that it is no secret that as prime minister, Netanyahu had rubbed the Democratic leadership the wrong way many times, and that it took Biden 10 days to call Netanyahu after the latter had congratulated him upon his victory in the 2020 presidential elections.
However, Biden was quoted in the past as having said that he once sent Netanyahu a photograph with the inscription: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” Supposedly he is also aware of the fact that Netanyahu might well reemerge from the approaching elections in Israel as prime minister, though that is not necessarily the result that he covets.
In real-time, the pro-Netanyahu TV Channel 14 complained that the mainstream Israeli media channels were biased in their reports of the visit in general, and Biden’s warmth toward Netanyahu in particular. Channel 14 commentator Yaakov Bardugo was especially outraged because Channel 12 commentator Dana Weiss had stated that Biden ignored Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion Airport.
In fact, Weiss had missed the footage of Biden and Netanyahu shaking hands, since most of the time it was difficult to see whose hand Biden was shaking, but she was immediately corrected by her colleagues in the TV studio. Bardugo wouldn’t concede that Channel 12 was not trying to deliberately belittle Netanyahu’s status, even though the following day it gave full coverage to the 20-minute meeting between Biden and Netanyahu, and broadcasted Netanyahu’s full statement about the conversation.
In fact, Prime Minister Yair Lapid had been very generous with the leader of the opposition (unlike Netanyahu’s own conduct toward Lapid, when the roles between them were reversed). Netanyahu was also on his best behavior, and didn’t push himself to the forefront.
When he recounted what he had said to Biden in their meeting, which included his criticism of the current government’s positions on Iran, he stated that when he will be prime minister again, if that will happen, he will act differently. Usually, Netanyahu speaks of when he will return to the premiership, leaving out the “if.”
Israel's status in the Middle East
BUT FOLKLORE aside, will the visit leave any long-term effects on US-Israeli relations, or on Israel’s status in the Middle East?
Despite Biden’s frequent comments about being an avid Zionist, his assurances that the US is committed to Israel’s security, his statements that he will not reverse Israel’s status in Jerusalem recognized by former president Donald Trump (though he has not ruled out re-establishing an American consulate in east Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians), his frequent statements that the US will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and his insistence that the relations between the US and Israel just keep improving, are not necessarily borne out by the facts.
It is not clear how far the US is willing to go in concrete terms to fulfill these commitments. In fact, this has always been rather vague. Today, the US is warier than at any time since the end of World War II about committing forces overseas in general, and the Middle East in particular.
Biden also still speaks about his support of the two-state solution – which Lapid also supports, but as a transition prime minister, he is unlikely to lead the government after the elections. Netanyahu totally rejects this solution.
Benny Gantz – another potential future prime minister – has not spoken about it publicly. A year and a half ago, Gantz was actually accused by the UN emissary to the Middle East of obstructing the two-state solution by approving, as defense minister, extensive construction in West Bank Jewish settlements.
True, Biden refused to sign a statement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, to the effect that the Palestinian capital will be east Jerusalem, but he did concede that the Palestinian capital will be in east Jerusalem.
If a change will take place in the foreseeable future in Israel’s Middle East status, it will result from Biden’s meetings in Jeddah with Saudi leaders, and with the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, before he left the Middle East on Saturday.
Already, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will expand overflight in its airspace to all civilian aircraft. Even though Israel is not mentioned explicitly, it is understood that this includes all airlines flying to and from Israel, which will cut flying times between Israel, Central Asia and the Far East significantly.
Israel had hoped that this would herald a new era in Israeli-Saudi relations. But Saudi spokesmen have made it clear that normalization in the relations between the two countries will come only after Israel reaches a permanent solution to its conflict with the Palestinians, based on ending the Israeli occupation and a two-state solution.
Israel is also interested in an integrated air defense cooperation, to confront possible actions by Iran against any state in the region – an issue that was also on the agenda during Biden’s visit to Jeddah. The future of this proposition is still unclear.
In short, in the history of US-Israeli relations, Joe Biden’s 10th visit to Israel is not likely to stand out, not least of all because the current Israeli leadership, in its current make-up, is unlikely to survive the November 1 elections. While President Biden might remain in power until the 2024 US presidential elections, it is unlikely that he will end up running for a second term. Whether the next US President will be another Democrat or a Republican (very possibly Donald Trump) is difficult to predict.
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her book, Israel’s Knesset Members: A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, will be published by Routledge on July 29.