President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel was a homecoming of sorts. It was his first as president, but his 10th since he first arrived as a young senator from Delaware in 1973, meeting with Israel’s prime minister at the time, Golda Meir. He has met with every Israeli prime minister since, and on this visit spent considerable time with Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who took office this month.
Biden was effusively welcomed on the tarmac of Ben Gurion airport, greeted by Israel’s entire top leadership as a longtime friend of the country. I think it’s obvious that Biden has a visceral love for Israel. That came through at almost every stop.
More than once during the visit, Biden spoke about his father’s preoccupation with the fact that the United States had not acted to save Jews during the Holocaust. The president said he resolved to himself at the time never to stand by in the face of threats to the Jewish people. I think he really meant it.
“It is a great honor to be back – back to my emotional home. We must never, ever forget,” he wrote in the guestbook at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
“Biden is one of the greatest lovers of Israel who have occupied the White House, if not the greatest,” political commentator Tal Shalev wrote on Israel’s Walla news website. “And with all due respect to his hosts … he himself was the star of the visit.” Biden “captured the hearts of Israelis with soft words and moving human gestures,” Shalev said.
The Israel trip was a stop over on the way to an Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, a country the Biden administration has rightly shunned since American intelligence officials concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of the dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
But the optics of Biden’s arrival in Saudi Arabia were all wrong as he fist-bumped with the crown prince. The White House said he forcefully raised the Khashoggi case with the prince, but Saudi officials cast it as a friendlier conversation.
In a gesture to Biden, Saudi Arabia agreed to allow Israeli airlines to regularly overfly Saudi Arabia on their way to destinations in East Asia such as Thailand. That will save flying time and lower ticket prices. And Israeli Muslims will be able to fly from Israel directly to Mecca.
Perhaps even more important was the signing of the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration by Biden and Lapid, affirming the close ties between their two countries and America’s commitment “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
The irony of the president’s visit to Israel is that the political standing of both Biden and Lapid may be undermined by elections in November. In the United States, the midterm elections could result in Republican control of at least one house of Congress. Israel’s Nov. 1 election could hand Lapid another four-and-a-half years in office, or he could be replaced by a leader of one of the other parties in his government, such as defense minister Benny Gantz or former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition.
Such a political turn would be unfortunate from my perspective. Biden and Lapid are two leaders who could work together in the future, at least if their voters give them a clear mandate to do so. They both have Israel’s interests at heart.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East from Ra’anana, Israel. He is an editor at the English edition of Haaretz.