OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Biden in Israel: A layover on the route to Mecca

The president’s primary destination is not Israel but Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaking on his infrastructure plans. Source: Twitter/White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaking on his infrastructure plans. Source: Twitter/White House.
Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
Abraham Ben-Zvi

It has been 48 years since the first time a sitting American president landed in Israel for a state visit. That president was Richard Nixon, who arrived in Israel in June 1974 in a last-ditch effort to throw off the chokehold of Watergate, seeking to highlight his diplomatic success in laying the groundwork for a new regional order in the Middle East after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

However, Nixon’s attempt to influence American public opinion while illustrating the strength of the “special relationship” with Israel failed. Two months after his visit, he was forced to resign in disgrace.

Nixon’s visit set a precedent, however, and paved the way for no fewer than 10 presidential visits to the Holy Land—all different in their historical, diplomatic, strategic and political contexts.

Some visits took place in the Israeli domestic context, such as former President Bill Clinton’s third visit in March 1996. Supposedly, it was intended to help create an international front against terrorism; but in practice, Clinton was trying to boost then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ election campaign.

Other presidential visits focused on the peace process and the aspiration to settle or stabilize various aspects of the Israeli-Arab conflict. One clear example of this was Clinton’s first visit in October 1994, the high point of which was his service as a “groomsman” at the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.

But only a few visits reflected the foundations of the special relationship between Israel and the United States. For example, former President George W. Bush’s second visit in May 2008, which aimed to express solidarity with Israel on its 60th Independence Day, and former President Donald Trump’s visit in May 2017, in which he announced his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his intention to relocate the U.S. embassy to the city.

No matter what the context, however, no American president has ever set foot in the land of the Bible with his thoughts and attention elsewhere, with Israel serving as a layover en route to his true destination. This time, that is what is happening. Everything having to do with Israel, its well-being and its security problems—first and foremost, the threat from Iran—is already being constantly discussed by experts in the administration and theoretically does not require the president to get involved personally, let alone visit Israel.

Plans to expand strategic cooperation between Israel and America, both bilaterally and as part of a broader regional framework, are already well advanced, and when it comes to the Palestinians, Biden’s visit is unlikely to lead to any diplomatic breakthroughs. The same can be said for Israel-Saudi relations, which continue to grow closer behind the scenes, mainly in regard to security, without direct American involvement or presidential influence.

If this is how things are, and without dismissing the president’s desire to calm the Israeli leadership about the ramifications of a potential nuclear deal with Iran, there is only one conclusion that can be reached: Israel is nothing more than a layover allowing Air Force One to refuel en route to Biden’s true destination: Saudi Arabia. And this is the case even though the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), was until recently persona non grata in Washington.

Biden, in other words, is passing through Israel on his way to Riyadh and Jeddah. Above all, his undisguised goal is to persuade MBS to increase Saudi oil production after crude prices topped $100 a barrel, compared to $40 a barrel when Biden took office. Biden is desperate to check the growing inflation caused by the Russia-Ukraine war and sanctions on Russian oil exports. The spiraling inflation, unlike anything America has seen in 41 years, has led directly to Biden’s drop in the polls and the very real possibility that the Republicans could retake both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, a little less than four months from now.

What is clear is that a year-and-a-half after he was sworn in, the president has entirely dropped his hostile policy towards the Saudis—a response to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—and decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca to beg them to open their oil wells. If they do, Biden hopes, his own people can satisfy their energy demands at prices everyone can afford. The question is what Americans will have to pay for that generosity.

Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi is an expert in American-Israeli relations.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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