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Biden’s Middle East visit: a failed lobbying trip for Israel, not the United States

July 21, 2022 at 8:00 am

U.S. President Joe Biden (C), Israel’s President Isaac Herzog (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid (L) greet the crowd at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2022 [Israeli Gov’t Press Office (GPO) – Anadolu Agency]

Even before landing in Israel, the first leg of his Middle East tour, President Joe Biden was already preoccupied with three issues: integrating Israel into the wider region, rallying as many countries as possible against Iran and persuading the Saudis to pump more oil into the market to ease the high prices at the pump for the American consumers. Anything else is a bonus. However, the visit failed, at least, to achieve its main objectives, both economically and politically.

By the time his visit ended on 16 July, the President did everything to help Israel, with limited success and very little else. He was, indeed, on a presidential PR trip but not for his re-election, nor for Washington’s tarnished image in the region, but for Israel. The same Israel that is being repeatedly described by the United Nations Human Rights office, Amnesty international and others as an apartheid state, imposing suffocating and discriminatory draconian laws on Palestinians under its brutal occupation. Instead of questioning the Israeli policies and practices in the occupied West Bank, Mr. Biden sought to reassure his Israeli friends that he is on their side, no matter what.

At the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, President Biden was rebuffed, albeit indirectly, as all Arab leaders present appeared to dismiss any idea of peace unless Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian land. The Summit, despite all its shortcomings, proved to him that Arabs have not yet dumped the Palestinians.

On Iran, all leaders at the Summit spoke of the need to settle Tehran’s nuclear issue peacefully, while nobody supported the idea of a military alliance that might include Israel against Iran—some form of Middle East NATO structure. Whatever Biden said in this regard remains as his administration’s position and not that of its regional allies—including Israel, which does not support the US idea of reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

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No breakthrough on the issue of integrating Israel into the region, either, despite the recent wave of normalisation between different Arab countries. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Farhan bin Faisal, denied that normalisation between Israel and his country was even discussed. He also said that there is no connection between Riyadh opening its airspace to all civilian air carriers, including Israel’s, and normalisation between his country and Israel. This is another failure in Biden’s PR campaign to help Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia has been the virtual signatory to the Abraham Accords from day one but, at least for now, Riyadh does not see any reason to take any other steps in that direction.

Just before he departed Israel for Saudi Arabia, Biden and Yair Lapid signed what they called the “Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Declaration”, renewing the US’s never-ending commitment to keeping Israel as a regional superpower. Overall, the Declaration is nothing but a repetition of the same commitments successive American administrations have been making to Israel since its creation. For example, the Declaration reads that the US commitment to Israeli superiority and security is “bipartisan and sacrosanct”, enjoying the support of both Republican and Democratic parties in the US. This has been a standard US policy, regardless of who is in the White House.

On the Palestinian issue, where the US is supposed to be the honest broker, the Declaration said that Mr. Biden, not the Israeli Prime Minster, still “supports” “a two-state solution”. But this support is meaningless if the US does not take any steps to, for example, curb the Israeli land grab policy. President Biden would have been taken more seriously if he announced how the “two-state” solution could be reached. It could also indicate how serious he is if he announced that steps taken by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, will be reviewed and, perhaps, reversed. Former President, Trump, recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, contravening international law.

Notably the Strategic Declaration singles the US’s support to “combat” what it called “unfairly singling [Israel] in any international forum, including the International Criminal Court [ICC]”. Why, now, did the US choose to make its support for Israel against the ICC a strategic issue?

The answer is simple: for the first time in its history, Israel is being cornered by legal cases focusing on its criminal conduct against the Palestinians, who are bringing a dozen cases before the ICC. The most recent is that of the slain Al Jazeera reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot last May. The Palestinian Authority has asked the ICC to investigate Shireen’s murder, who happened to be an American citizen of Palestinian descent.

The US intelligence community, the United Nations, rights groups and many media outlets believe an Israeli soldier fired the fatal shot that killed her. A case like this involving such a high profile reporter, if investigated by the ICC, has the potential to become a serious legal challenge for Israel. It could also turn into an international embarrassment should Washington follow through on its pledge to support Tel Aviv against the ICC. It will also test the US rhetoric about freedom of the press, free speech and accountability. Its potential fallout could push Washington to head off any action in this regard before it becomes an issue before the International Court.

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It must have been an embarrassment already for President Biden, as his motorcade passed under a huge poster of Shireen on his way to Ramallah. During his news conference, with President Mahmoud Abbas, Shireen’s picture was sitting in the front row of the packed room as a reminder to him that Palestinians will not forget her and he should not forget that she is an American citizen, just like him. Mr. Biden referred to her as a “proud Palestinian” but said nothing about accountability for her death. He has already resisted 24 Democratic senators’ calls asking him for an investigation of her murder under US auspices.

The last top goal of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was increased oil production by Saudis Arabia to bring down oil prices for US consumers. Here, he also failed as the Saudis reminded him that they wish to honour their commitment made to other producers within the OPEC Plus group, of which Russia is a member. Furthermore, the Saudi Foreign Minister, on 19 July in Tokyo, said “Russia is an integral part of OPEC Plus” and the group has to cooperate, otherwise “it would be impossible to properly ensure adequate supplies of oil to the international markets.” Mr. Biden hoped the Saudis would move away from Russia because of the war in Ukraine but he, again, failed to score anything against Moscow.

Other than advocating for Israel, with minimum success, the US President failed and he might be regretting the visit altogether.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.