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PoliticsMiddle East

US President Joe Biden embarks on tricky visit to Mideast

Tania Krämer Jerusalem and Bethlehem
July 13, 2022

On Wednesday, Air Force One will touch down at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. In US President Joe Biden's four-day visit to the region, he may have to tiptoe around certain topics and feel out shifting alliances.

Joe Biden sits while wearing a suit and tie
Biden may need to tread carefully on certain parts of his tripImage: Susan Walsh/AP Photo/picture alliance

In the days ahead of US President Joe Biden's visit to the region, US and Israeli flags adorned the streets in West Jerusalem.

Security will be extremely tight everywhere in the city, with more than 15,000 Israeli police officers and volunteers deployed. "Every time an American president comes to Jerusalem, it's a great honor — but as a Jerusalemite, it's also a great hassle because the city will be closed and we won't be able to leave home," said Avi Avisana, a passerby.

"I think it's very courageous of him to come a few days after the prime minister has changed, it shows how special the relationship is."

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 19, 2022
Yair Lapid, right, was Israel's foreign minister and took over from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, in a caretaker capacityImage: Abir Sultan/Pool European Pressphoto Agency/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Shifting US alliances

The US president, who frequently mentions his longstanding friendship with Israel, will be greeted by Yair Lapid, the prime minister of the current caretaker government. It's been only two weeks since Naftali Bennett, who had invited Biden to Israel, stepped aside as prime minister after his coalition government collapsed.

Biden will kick off the tour in Israel, stop briefly in the West Bank and then fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

His last visit to Israel as vice president took place in 2016. Since then, the region has seen at least one dramatic change: Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab League nations signed normalization agreements — the Abraham Accords — under the Trump administration.

While Israel and the US consider themselves to be close allies, some observers see the US shifting its strategic interests to other areas.

"The US cannot allow itself to withdraw from the region," said Ksenia Svetlova, a political analyst and former member of the Knesset. "We are reaching some turning point with Iran." American allies in the region, she added, need "a strong and confident America” that "will not let create a vacuum here to be filled with other powers."

Concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions has established common ground between Israel and several Gulf countries over the past years.

Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, "This visit will deal with both challenges and opportunities. The discussion of the challenges will focus first and foremost on the issue of Iran."

A worker walks inside of an uranium conversion facility March 30, 2005, just outside the city of Isfahan, about 254 miles (410 kilometers), south of capital Tehran, Iran
Concerns of Iran's nuclear weapons capacity are growing in the regionImage: Getty Images

Saudi Arabia via Israel

Much focus in Israel is on Biden's planned trip to Saudi Arabia, with some hoping that it will lead to rapprochement between Israel and the Arab kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has always maintained that it would not normalize ties with Israel until a sovereign Palestinian state is established. But with no solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict in sight, this stance appears to have softened.

On Saturday, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Biden entitled, "Why I am going to Saudi Arabia." He pointed out that he would be the first US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia: "As a small symbol of the budding relations and steps towards normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand."

Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia will also mark a controversial policy shift for the US president. During his presidential campaign, he said that the country should be treated as a "pariah" over its human rights record including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018.

But the US President is expected to temper this controversy by meeting regional leaders convening at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Jeddah, and developing common goals regarding energy, food security and the war in Ukraine. 

Commemoration ceremony held in front of the US Congress on the 3rd anniversary of the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in Washington on October 2, 2021
Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, but never walked back outImage: Yasin Ozturk/AA/picture alliance

'Golden era' for Israel and Arab countries

Yet the prospect of a public normalization process between Saudi Arabia and Israel appears premature. "The good news is that, unlike the past, Saudi Arabia — which is a very important key state in the Middle East — is not leading hostile policy against Israel anymore," said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilead, executive director at the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya.

He added that many informal contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia already exist. "Altogether we are living in the best period. I call it the golden era between us and the Arab countries."

Moreover, security cooperation has further grown since the Pentagon realigned Israel from the US European Central Command to the Central Command (CENTCOM) in 2021. This shift put Israel's military in cooperation — whether directly or indirectly — with other Arab countries, despite some having yet to officially recognize Israel. 

In the run-up to the visit by Biden, numerous Israeli media reports suggested the establishment of an "early warning system" or "regional defense alliance" that would further integrate Israel into the region.

"One of the goals [of the visit] is to enhance and cement an undeclared, unofficial alliance against main threats, on top of them is Iran," explained Gilead.

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, left, welcomed by Bahraini foreign minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani at the airport in Manama, Bahrain, on Feb. 14, 2022
Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, visited Bahrain in February this yearImage: Ilan Ben Zion/AP Photo/picture alliance

Meeting the Palestinian president in Bethlehem

Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, the US president is expected to briefly visit a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem, as well as to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on Friday morning.

In the Palestinian town, revered as the birthplace of Jesus and whose Church of the Nativity is a popular destination, people have mixed feelings about the visit. Prospects for their own independent state, along with an end to Israeli occupation and Palestinian internal division, are dwindling. 

Wall in Bethlehem
An Israeli-built barrier runs through BethlehemImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

"The Palestinian people really need this, because we are deteriorating and are going backward," said Simon Rishmawi, a 20-year-old Palestinian student. "The world is not paying attention to us, no one is looking toward us."

A similar sentiment was echoed by fellow student Miral Assaf, who hopes that President Biden sees "the realities" on the ground. "There is a lot of distortion in the media what is going on here."

Palestinians and US officials alike are looking to reset relations, which disintegrated under the Trump administration. The former US president moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and closed the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem — breaking with decades of US foreign policy.

Palestinian officials have pointed out that reopening the consulate, promised by the Biden administration and refused by Israel, remains a major issue. 

In the past, Biden has called on Israel to halt settlement expansion and for a need to work toward a two-state solution. However, while some gestures toward the Palestinian Authority might be announced, a major push for further healing the rift does not seem to be in the cards. 

In his piece in The Washington Post, Biden stated that "working with Congress, my administration restored approximately $500 million in support for Palestinians, while also passing the largest support package for Israel — over $4 billion — in history." 

Killing of US-Palestinian journalist

Beyond this, his visit with the Palestinians is expected to be overshadowed by dissatisfaction with the way the US has so far avoided taking a firm stance on investigations into the killing of US-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank.

Shireen Abu Akleh's family has published an open letter to Joe Biden expressing its disappointment and calling on him to help establish accountability and justice for the reporter, as well as to meet with its members during his visit to the region.

Person holding poster with photo of Shireen Abu Akleh and flowers
Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead while working in the West BankImage: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/picture alliance Ilia Yefimovich/dpa

Edited by: Sonya Diehn