Experts say visit produced both pluses and minuses
By Israel Kasnett
(JNS) U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and the Middle East accomplished most of the administration’s goals, but from Israel’s point of view the results were a mixed bag, experts told JNS.
While Biden did state in a Channel 12 interview that the military option was on the table as a last resort to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, in reality the United States is not prepared to use force at this time, according to Professor Eytan Gilboa.
“I don’t think the United States has the stomach to go on another military operation,” said Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “But then the question is, what kind of coordination exists between Israel and the United States on what to do next?” he added.
On Sunday, Fox News played two short clips, one of Biden and the other of Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, each speaking about how to stop Iran. Biden said diplomacy could work. “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome,” he said.
Lapid pushed back and emphasized that “words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them.” Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told Fox News in an interview, “It’s amazing how naïve Biden is acting,” adding that America is being “too nice” in dealing with the “thugs and tyrants” in Iran.
Still, there were two achievements reached during the trip important both for Israel and the United States, said Gilboa. The first and most obvious of these, he said, was the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration.
The second achievement, which Gilboa said “did not get enough attention,” was the I2U2 agreement. The I2U2 group comprises Israel, India, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
“It brought in India, which is important because India is part of other alliances in Asia, and it will soon overtake China as having the largest population in the world,” noted Gilboa, adding that “this is the start to a bigger, more fundamental agreement with India.”
It was the Palestinians, said Gilboa, that had come away from the visit empty-handed.
“If anything emerged from [Biden’s] visit, it is that the Palestinians are not doing anything to satisfy the United States,” he said. In fact, he added, the Palestinians had not even deserved a meeting with the U.S. president, given their constant public criticism of the United States.
Gilboa pointed to the list of demands the Palestinians had written up before their meeting with Biden, which went unmet. The Palestinian Authority wanted Biden to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem and declare that a future Palestinian state would exist within the 1967 lines. They also wanted Biden to ask Israel to allow a Palestinian security presence on one of the border crossings with Jordan, which Israel firmly answered in the negative, and demanded that the United States remove the PLO from its list of terror organizations.
“The Palestinians are not really serious. The United States does not believe that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has any support anymore; he is like a dead horse,” said Gilboa. But “they met him anyway, simply because they didn’t want to demonstrate that the Palestinians are completely irrelevant,” he added.
However, during his visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in eastern Jerusalem, Biden announced that the United States intends to provide a new multiyear contribution of up to $100 million for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network (EJHN), subject to congressional approval.
Gilboa downplayed Biden’s visit to eastern Jerusalem, saying it had been overblown.
“People interpreted it to mean that this was some recognition of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. I don’t buy that,” he said.
Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and current chairman of World Likud Danny Danon disagrees.
While there were “many heartwarming moments throughout [Biden’s] visit,” making an “unprecedented visit to east[ern] Jerusalem without the accompaniment of Israeli officials was seen by many as a direct challenge to Israel’s sovereignty in its capital,” Danon told JNS.
Danon added that the removal of the Israeli flag from Biden’s limousine for the jaunt had “served to underscore these notions.”
Furthermore, Biden’s signing of the “Jerusalem Declaration,” which reaffirms America’s commitment to Israel’s security and condemned Iran’s nuclear program, “while simultaneously pursuing the unchanged 2015 nuclear deal, which legitimizes Iran’s nuclear power and is a direct existential threat to Israel, is contradictory and confusing,” said Danon.
The U.S. president’s announcement of more than $300 million in funds to the P.A. “without calling for an end to their terror and pay-to-slay policies recalls bygone days and failed policies of previous administrations,” he said.
“Biden’s trip tested Israel’s boundaries at a time of uncertainty for the country,” he concluded.
‘Build momentum toward Israel’s further integration’
Turning to Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Gilboa noted that Biden’s was not actually on the first plane from Tel Aviv to Jeddah. That plane took off at 6 a.m. on Friday morning, carrying the journalists and personnel who needed to be in Jeddah when Biden landed.
Other American presidents, too, have flown directly between Israel and Saudi Arabia, he said. Former U.S. President Donald Trump flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv in May 2017, and former President George W. Bush flew from Tel Aviv to Riyadh in May 2008.
These facts, however, didn’t dampen the idea that Biden was about to take a historic flight to Jeddah directly from Tel Aviv.
“As we mark this important moment, Saudi Arabia’s decision can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia,” Biden said in a statement on Friday. “I will do all that I can, through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process.”
However, Saudi Arabia was quick to rein in expectations, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir telling CNN the same day that “peace [with Israel] comes at the end of the process, not at the beginning of it,” referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
He reiterated Saudi Arabia’s longstanding support for the Arab Peace Initiative endorsed by the Arab League in 2002, which was rejected by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
And while there was talk of a regional defense alliance against Iran, al-Jubeir denied on Saturday that any discussions had taken place on the matter, Reuters reported.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States “will still remain, even after the visit,” said Gilboa.
“Saudi Arabia would like the United States to do much more than just this visit,” he said. “And obviously, this is difficult, especially in an election year, because of the so-called progressives in [Biden’s party], which oppose any relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
On the American domestic front, the visit was likely a bust for the administration, said Gilboa.
U.S. elections are usually determined by domestic issues, with the economy being a dominant factor, he noted.
“If the economy is good, then the ruling party is likely to win, and if the economy is bad, the ruling party is likely to lose.
“If he thought this trip would help him win in November,” then he’s likely to be disappointed, Gilboa said.