Why Biden’s visit to Israel is a big deal

“Joe Biden loves Israel,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said. “Joe Biden continually refers to his idea that he is a non-Jewish Zionist."
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waves with his wife Dr. Jill Biden as they walk out of the plane at Ben-Gurion airport on March 8, 2016 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

U.S. President Joe Biden will arrive in Israel tomorrow on what will be his 10th visit to the Jewish state (and his first trip to the Holy Land as president) before heading to Saudi Arabia to attend the GCC+3 summit on Saturday.

(Read our interview with Chanan Weissman, White House liaison to the American Jewish community, about Biden’s thinking on Israel, West Bank settlements and the Abraham Accords ahead of the trip.)

Biden’s trip to Israel and the West Bank will include meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (read more about his itinerary below).

According to a statement from the White House, the purpose of Biden’s visit to Israel is “to reinforce the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity.” 

Similarly, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said in an interview on the Haaretz Weekly podcast that the objective of the trip is to convey the “unbreakable bond the U.S. has with Israel and Joe Biden’s personal commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Joe Biden loves Israel,” Nides added, citing the president’s nine previous visits to the Jewish state. “Joe Biden continually refers to his idea that he is a non-Jewish Zionist. Joe Biden frequently talks about his meeting with Golda Meir.”

(Biden has met with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. He is fond of telling a story about meeting Meir in 1973 when he was a 30-year-old senator. And in a 2007 interview with Shalom TV, Biden declared, “I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”)

Notwithstanding Biden’s personal connections with the Jewish state and the long history of friendship between Israel and the U.S., the two countries’ current relationship is also marked by tensions over how to confront Iran and the issue of the Palestinians and West Bank settlements.

As Israel gets ready to welcome President Biden, we wanted to preview his trip and what to expect. What’s the history of U.S. presidential visits to Israel and why is this a big deal?

Should we expect a new normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel to come out of this visit? How do Israelis view the American president and his trip to the Middle East?

The history of U.S. presidential visits to Israel

To start, let’s zoom out and look at the tradition of U.S. presidents visiting Israel and the goals of such visits. With the notable exceptions of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has visited Israel.

According to former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, U.S. presidential visits to Israel and the Middle East used to be “specific and tied to a particular initiative.”

The most obvious example was when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was active, Indyk said on the Israel Policy Pod podcast. For example, “President Clinton was going out there either to try to push the process forward…or to try to salvage the peace process,” he said. 

Although U.S. presidential visits have typically been tied to those kinds of events, “since the peace process is more or less dormant now, and since the ‘action’ is elsewhere [and there are other priorities on the international stage and in the region], the trip to Israel takes on more of a political dimension to serve the president’s political agenda,” Indyk explained.

Why is this trip happening now?

Many foreign policy experts speculate that Biden’s visit to the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, “is being driven largely by a domestic U.S. political crisis linked to the price of oil,” as Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Steven Simon of MIT’s Center for International Studies wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted the supply of oil, causing energy prices to skyrocket around the world. 

Ahead of midterm elections in November 2022, Biden hopes to convince the Saudis to increase oil production, which would help lower the price at the gas pumps in the U.S., Miller and Simon (and others) wrote.

But Biden has pushed back on this, saying the true purpose of his visit to Saudi Arabia is the meeting with Arab leaders at the GCC+3 summit, which he sees as advancing Israel’s security interests and the security of the region.

Biden is making the stop in Israel because he did not want to “repeat the mistake of his former boss, former U.S. President Barack Obama, by not visiting Israel early in his term — or worse, traveling to the region without stopping in Israel,” Miller and Simon wrote.

(President Obama made his first presidential visit to Israel in 2013 during his second term in office, and some criticized him for not making the journey during his first term.)

As far as the Israel visit is concerned, some have argued that this is not a good time for Biden to take the trip, given that Yair Lapid is “merely” a caretaker prime minister who took over after the Bennett-Lapid coalition government dissolved earlier this month.

Lapid could be out of office in November when Israel heads to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, and, in that way, it would be better for Biden to wait until Israel has a stable government.

But David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out in a Times of Israel op-ed that Lapid is “aiming for a term of his own via the November election. Moreover, he may stay on as caretaker prime minister for quite a bit longer, given the real possibility that no government is formed.”

Plus, Makovsky and others note that Biden and Lapid (who have only had one meeting in 2013) have a lot in common as fellow moderates and pragmatists.

Lapid and Biden “each hold the political center in their own countries. In this polarized era, that is no small feat,” Makovsky wrote.

“Biden is proud of the bipartisan coalitions he was able to form during his many decades as a senator and subsequently as vice president. For his part, Lapid was the true architect of Israel’s current ‘Change Coalition,’ the most ethnically and ideologically diverse coalition in Israeli history,” he added.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said that the recent political drama in Israel won’t affect the president’s trip. “The show will go on,” Ambassador Nides said. “Joe Biden is coming here for the Israeli people. He’s not coming for one political party or another.”

What’s on the itinerary for Biden’s trip?

Okay, let’s get down to details. What’s the itinerary for Biden’s trip? 

Upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport tomorrow afternoon, he will be greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and will view Israel’s defense technology at a special display that will be set up at the airport. Biden will then head to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for a tour.

On Thursday, he will meet with Prime Minister Lapid, President Isaac Herzog and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu; participate in a virtual summit called the “I2U2” with the leaders of Israel, India, the U.S. and the UAE; and speak at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games (known as the “Jewish Olympics”) alongside Lapid and Herzog.

On Friday, Biden will visit Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, the largest Palestinian medical center in the city, which will be the first-ever visit by a U.S. president to East Jerusalem. He will then meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

He will then head to Saudi Arabia to attend the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah on Saturday with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — plus three other countries: Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Although Israel is not slated to be part of the meeting, Saudi official told Ynet News that the Kingdom is considering inviting an Israeli official to attend Biden’s visit to Jeddah, a possible sign of warming ties between the two countries.

Will Biden broker a breakthrough in Saudi-Israeli ties?

“Saudi Arabia has been the big prize, the jewel in the normalization crown for Israel for understandable reasons,” Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said

“It’s the country that leads the Arab and Muslim world. It’s the custodian of the two holy mosques of Medina and Mecca. It has considerable influence in the region, and, of course, as one of the largest oil producers in the world, it also has influence there,” he added.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to “get past this issue” and work with Israel to counter the common threat of Iran, Indyk explained.

The Iranians have been supplying missiles, drones and rockets to the Houthis in Yemen, who are using these weapons on a regular basis to attack Saudi Arabia, he said. “So there are some very real and tangible common interests that lead Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together.”

On the other hand, the Saudis “have always wanted to work with Israel below the radar screen” and changing the status quo is not so simple, Indyk said, adding that the Saudis have had an under-the-table strategic relationship with Israel since the 1960s.

Officially, Saudi Arabia has maintained that it will not normalize relations with Israel without progress toward a “just solution” to the Palestinian issue.

When asked whether a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be announced during or following the trip, Ambassador Nides answered bluntly: 

“We’re not going to be announcing normalization with Saudi Arabia on this trip. What we are going to do is show the importance of regional security.”

Although a normalization agreement may not be in the cards in the immediate future, Saudi Arabia could take small steps in this direction during Biden’s trip.

To start with, as President Biden noted in his recent Washington Post op-ed, he will be the first president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

That travel will “be a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand,” Biden wrote.

Prime Minister Lapid said that, in traveling from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Biden “will carry with him a message of peace and hope from us. Israel extends its hand to all the countries of the region and calls on them to build ties with us, establish relations with us, and change history for our children.”

As far as other steps toward normalization that could be announced, “Saudi Arabia is expected to allow Israeli airlines to use Saudi airspace for eastbound flights to India and China,” Axios reported.

There might also be an announcement of “direct charter flights to Saudi Arabia” for Israeli Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, according to Axios.

And there have already been signs of progress. Avi Jorisch, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, was part of a delegation of 50 Jewish business leaders who visited the Prophet’s Mosque, Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, in Medina last month, “as part of a visit meant to promote mutual understanding, respect and tolerance.”

“For perhaps 1,300 years, only Muslims have been allowed to visit Islam’s second holiest city. But that appears to be changing,” Jorisch wrote in The Jerusalem Post, adding that Saudi officials recently removed signs reading “Muslims only” on the road to Medina.

(The history of Jews in Saudi Arabia is thousands of years old, but there has not been an established Jewish community in the country since the mid-1900s. Read more about the history of the Jewish community in Saudi Arabia.)

Focusing on the challenge of Iran

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Lapid called Biden “one of the closest friends that Israel has ever had in American politics” and said that discussions during his visit will “focus first and foremost on the issue of Iran.”

Iran announced on Sunday that it is enriching uranium up to 20% using advanced centrifuges, an escalation that comes as nuclear talks have been at a standstill for months.

“That Tehran is enriching uranium up to 20% purity — a technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90%…deals yet another blow to the already slim chances of reviving the accord,” the Associated Press reported.

However, Biden stated his administration will continue its efforts to revive the deal, writing in his Washington Post op-ed, “My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do.”

Meanwhile, at the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Lapid said that the international community must take “decisive” action and reapply sanctions, in full, against Iran. He added that Israel reserved the right to “full freedom of action, both operational and diplomatic” to curb the Iran threat.

MK Yuval Steinitz of the Likud party pointed out that, in his op-ed, Biden pledged to increase “diplomatic and economic pressure” on Iran but did not mention possible military action.

Biden’s visit “is only worthwhile if it gets one result: A U.S. military threat to Iran,” Steinitz said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 news.

“All the talk of bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer and that maybe our planes will be able to fly over their airspace on the way to India — that’s all very nice, but if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it will overshadow all the steps of bringing countries closer together. This is the only real game in town now,” he added.

How do Israelis view Biden and his visit to the Middle East?

On the eve of Biden’s visit, where do Israelis stand on the president and his trip? According to a Pew survey published yesterday, the vast majority (83%) of Israelis have favorable views of the U.S.

With Biden in the White House, however, “the intensity of positive sentiment in Israel toward the U.S. has diminished, with Israelis offering mixed reviews of the president’s leadership relative to his predecessor, Donald Trump.”

“Israel stood out as one of the only countries (among 37 surveyed worldwide) where marks for Trump were higher than for former President Barack Obama in 2017, and Israelis’ confidence in Trump actually grew during his presidency,” the Pew report stated. 

(In 2015, the Obama administration signed the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or “JCPOA,” with Iran. The agreement was overwhelmingly unpopular with both Israeli politicians and citizens.)

Today, 60% of Israelis say they have a great deal or some confidence in Biden to do the right thing regarding world affairs, compared with 71% who said the same of Trump in 2019, the report found.

Meanwhile, Israelis are divided on the question of whether Biden “favors Israelis or Palestinians too much”:

“Around a third think Biden favors the Israelis too much (31%), roughly a quarter say he favors the Palestinians too much (26%) and 34% think he’s striking about the right balance.”

Another survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, released on Sunday, probed Israeli attitudes toward the president and his visit to the region further.

It found that the large majority of Israelis (75%) do not trust the Biden administration to take Israel’s interests into account during dealings with Iran regarding the nuclear deal.

The Israeli public is evenly divided (with 44% on either side) on the question of Biden’s ability to bring about a breakthrough toward signing an agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, a very large majority (82%) of the Jewish public do not believe that the efforts of the Biden administration will succeed in bringing about a breakthrough with the Palestinians.