It was a whirlwind tour and how much was spin is yet to be seen. US President Joe Biden last week came, saw and conquered as many hearts as he could during his quick trip to Israel and the region. There was a lot of pomp in keeping with the circumstances. It was clear that while he was in the Middle East, the president was still keeping voters at home in mind and keeping a close eye on events elsewhere, particularly the Russian war in Ukraine.
The US president displayed genuine warmth and his claims of lifelong affinity with Israel, particularly based on his strong Catholic faith, rang out loud and clear. Yet there were some missteps that also sounded warning bells.
The heart of the matter, at least for Israel, is Jerusalem. Biden stressed bipartisan support for the Jewish state and spoke of Jerusalem as the capital. Indeed, the White House issued a statement specifically stating, “President Biden reiterated the US position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” But it didn’t stop there. The statement carried on: “and that it continues to be the policy of the United States that the specific boundaries of Jerusalem must be resolved through final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
I read between the lines because something was missing in the text. Just one word but its absence was glaring. There was no “undivided” to describe the Israeli capital. More than that, there was a red flag – or a missing Israeli flag – which caught a great deal of attention. When the presidential armored limousine drove up to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem, it noticeably boasted two American flags, instead of the Blue and White flag that had decorated “the Beast” along with the Stars and Stripes for the visits elsewhere in Jerusalem. Along with the fact that the US delegation refused to be accompanied by Israeli officials for the trip to east Jerusalem, the missing flag was more than symbolic.
Yet anyone caught in the traffic jams caused by last week’s visit can testify that the city is one. Jews this week began the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha Be’av, the Ninth of Av, the day commemorating the loss of both the First and Second Temples on the Temple Mount in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. With all due respect to the presidential visit, let’s maintain perspective when applying the word “historic” to what happens in Jerusalem.
Applying "historic" to Jerusalem
Biden, under pressure from the progressive members of the Democratic Party, has been intent on repealing many of the positive measures concerning Israel taken by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Although Biden hasn’t shown signs of wanting to send the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv, he is still interested on making good on an election promise to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians. (The absurdity of having a consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinian Authority, which has its own parliament in Ramallah, must have got lost in translation.)
Biden met with PA head Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, chosen perhaps to give the meeting a Christian-friendly nod. For all his promises of undying support for Israel, he reinstated US aid to UNRWA, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians. This is the unique body that gives Palestinians perpetual refugee status, whose school textbooks include anti-Israel incitement and whose facilities in Gaza have been used to store and fire rockets on Israel. Beyond the financial cost to the American taxpayer, the sum of some $300 million in aid was mentioned, there is a price that cannot be calculated since it did not come with a demand to end terrorism and anti-normalization and the “pay-for-slay” incentive that compensates the families of imprisoned or dead terrorists.
BIDEN’S ITINERARY included the welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport – where every fist bump and handshake was examined by the Israeli media going through yet another election cycle – and a short tour of Israeli defense systems including the Iron Dome and the cutting edge Iron Beam laser-based interception system, which is under development.
The president’s visit to Yad Vashem was touching. After laying a wreath, Biden dispensed with ceremony and crouched down to speak with Holocaust survivors Rena Quint, 85, and Gita Cycowicz, 93 – holding their hands and kissing them on their cheeks. I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen in the very near future when there are no more survivors left to tell firsthand the stories of the unimaginable horrors and when the generation that lived through World War II is gone.
Biden received the Presidential Medal of Honor from Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem and also attended the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, meeting American competitors.
One undoubted highlight of the visit was the signing of the Jerusalem Declaration – or the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, to give it its full name. The declaration was largely that: declarative. Although the document co-signed by Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid “ensures the Israeli security establishment’s qualitative edge” it lacked something Israel considers essential: the need to present Iran with a credible military threat to force it into abandoning its nuclear military plans should diplomacy fail.
While waiting to see who blinks first, something else caught my eye: a wink to liberal voters. The Jerusalem Declaration includes the statement: “[The] US-Israel partnership is based on a bedrock of shared values... unwavering commitment to democracy, the rule of law and the calling of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairing the world.”
If Iran gets its way, the world might be beyond repair. It should be noted that Iranian proxy Hamas in Gaza waited for Biden to leave before sending a message in its usual manner: rocket attacks on Ashkelon in southern Israel and machine gun fire on a moshav next to the border, while Iranian-backed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah continued to threaten Israel and its gas fields.
The Iranian threat to the world was a major factor behind the Abraham Accords drawn up by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government – that, and Israel’s economic strength and hi-tech capabilities. The same factors also led to last week’s cutely named I2U2 summit, a virtual meeting between the heads of India and Israel, the UAE and the US. Biden, Lapid, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan participated in the initial meeting of this strategic new global grouping.
In another positive development, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi spent a few days this week in Morocco, a partner in the Abraham Accords.
At the same time, however, this week saw a more threatening summit: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Tehran to meet Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. I guarantee the words “tikkun olam” weren’t mentioned.
Much was made last week of the way that Biden flew directly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah for the GCC+3 summit in Saudi Arabia. His flight wasn’t the first direct one as it turned out. A plane carrying journalists took off before it.
The media became part of the message in the Saudi stage of Biden’s tour. I was appalled by the conduct of Israel’s Channel 13 journalist Gil Tamary, who proudly broadcast that he had managed to persuade a local taxi driver to take him to Mecca, which is strictly off-limits to non-Muslims. This wasn’t chutzpah. And it wasn’t good journalism. It was disrespectful behavior that gives all Israelis and journalists a bad name.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had other things on his mind. MBS, widely believed to be behind the murder and dismembering of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, reportedly criticized Biden for not taking enough action on the fatal shooting of Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh (a US citizen), which the Palestinians pin on Israeli forces despite the lack of clear forensic evidence. Irony, at least, is not dead.