Biden’s last visit to Israel was spent doing damage control. Here’s what he needs to do now
President Joe Biden is slated to visit Israel beginning July 13 in his first trip to the Jewish state as president. He has visited Israel more often than any previous American president — 10 times. He often recounts to Jewish audiences his experience as a junior senator meeting Prime Minister Golda Meir, and there’s little question that the emotive Biden appreciates Israel in his “kishkes.”
Biden’s trip comes at a pivotal moment for the policy and politics of U.S.-Israel relations. Israel has become more integrated into the broader Middle East thanks to the Abraham Accords, and Biden, who will visit Saudi Arabia after Israel, can push toward further normalization with that region’s dominant power. In the U.S., Israel has become a more partisan issue in some corners of the Democratic Party, and Biden can reassert its priority amongst mainstream Democrats.
This will be Biden’s most important visit since his one as vice president in March 2010, when he landed in the midst of a very public argument between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2010, the U.S.-Israel relationship was as solid as ever in military and economic partnerships, but more contentious than ever politically. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu had sparred publicly over Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement construction freeze, and Biden was dispatched to Jerusalem to calm things down.
Unfortunately, the goal of calming the waters was thwarted. As Biden arrived in Israel, the Israeli government approved plans to expand housing in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood — a community that lay east of the 1967 Green Line, and was thus considered illegally occupied territory by the Obama Administration.
Issuing the housing approval with the vice president on the ground in Israel was seen by the White House as a direct slap in the face to their desire for a two-state solution to the conflict. Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs stridently denounced it on national TV.
The flap turned Biden’s trip into a damage-control mission. The rest of the Obama — Netanyahu era of U.S.-Israel relations followed the pattern of governments cooperating on military and intelligence matters even as their leaders publicly disagreed.
To date, President Biden has pursued a broadly pro-Israel foreign policy. Despite pressure from some progressive politicians to cease funding Iron Dome when Hamas was launching terrorist rockets at Israel, Biden endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense; he has kept the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem while not granting the Palestinians’ request to reopen a separate consulate for them in the same city; he has embraced the Abraham Accords and, so far, not reentered a nuclear deal with Iran.
In this context, there are three things the President should do while in Israel to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship.
First, Biden must explicitly acknowledge the ancient connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Leaders of Iran, Hamas and a host of other anti-Israel and antisemitic groups continue to deny this historic reality that dates to biblical times.
It is essential for Biden to explicitly embrace this storied history of the Jewish people and Israel. Speaking to this history will affirm Biden’s persona as a man of faith, and it will also positively position him in contrast to Obama. In remarks delivered at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, Obama linked the Jewish presence in Israel to the aftermath of the Holocaust, implicitly denying that the pursuit of Jewish statehood long predates the Holocaust. Biden has the opportunity on this visit to assert Israel’s existence as both the ancient and contemporary homeland of the Jewish people — a fact that has been called into question by members of Biden’s own party.
Second, Biden should commend Israel’s democratic institutions. Israel is not only a vibrant electoral democracy but one that has members of its Arab minority sitting on its Supreme Court and in its parliament, and that affords robust legal protections to women and an array of minority groups — in stark contrast to other countries in the region. Biden speaking to Israel’s durable and diverse democracy will connect to the most critical issue of the moment in the U.S. and across the globe: to not take democracy for granted.
Finally, Biden should visit Israel’s communities that border Gaza, such as Sderot. The U.S. partnership with Israel has supported the Iron Dome missile defense system to keep innocent Israelis safe. Yet funding for this crucial defense system has been under scrutiny from Israel’s critics, who minimize the risks ordinary people face from rockets shot by Hamas. Biden’s presence with front-line families on the Gazan border will convey the U.S.’s ongoing commitment to this partnership and repudiate the rejectionists of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Although the two countries are close allies, American and Israeli leaders have disagreements over various policy issues. That is not a problem so long as there is trust and mutual respect between the nations’ leaders and people.
During his upcoming visit, President Biden can fortify the U.S.-Israel relationship by expressing his “kishkes” commitment to the Jewish state, people and supporters, and thus advance this important alliance.
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