Biden’s Upcoming Middle East Trip

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi surrounded by American President Joe Biden

Jewish politics and power

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1. For Israelis: Can Biden deliver the Saudis?

If there’s one regional development that all Israelis love, it’s the Abraham Accords. The idea of normalized relations with regional Arab countries has taken over the Israeli mindset and gripped the country with a hopeful vision of coexistence. For everyday Israelis, nothing sounds better than new friendly destinations in the Gulf, where warm Emirati hospitality is coupled with direct flights from Ben-Gurion airport and all-inclusive affordable resort hotels. And for Israeli politicians across the political spectrum, it’s a win-win situation—a chance to engage with Arab neighbors and advance a vision of peace, without having to deal with those pesky issues of occupation, Palestinians and a two-state solution.

During President Biden’s three day trip from July 13-16, Biden will stop in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where he’ll discuss regional cooperation, try to rebuild U.S. relations with the kingdom (which he referred to, not so long ago, as a “rogue state”) and, hopefully, deliver American consumers cheaper gas at the pumps.

But Israelis are looking for other deliverables. Biden, they hope, can nudge Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accord circle.

No one expects the kingdom to sign onto full normalization with Israel during Biden’s visit, or anytime soon. But Americans promised their Israeli counterparts that Biden would not end his visit to Jeddah empty-handed.

As of now, U.S. and Israeli officials are talking about very modest normalization moves by the Saudis: permission for Israeli aircraft to fly over Saudi airspace (some reports indicate this is already happening, albeit discreetly) and allowing direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca.

These moves would demonstrate Saudi willingness to inch closer to Israel and highlight Biden’s ability to advance normalization in the region. But can Biden deliver more?

He will devote much of his time to discussing a new and ambitious regional defense system that will, eventually, combine Israeli, American, Saudi and Emirati air defenses to counter possible Iranian ballistic threats. This would be a dramatic strategic change, but would take years to implement. It also would have no noticeable impact on most Israelis, who are still waiting for their chance to try Saudi cuisines and stroll the shopping malls of the desert kingdom. Biden is aware of the expectations, but he also knows that normalization with the Saudis will be a very slow and gradual process.

2. For Palestinians: Empty gestures or real progress?

Palestinians already know not to expect too much from the Americans: Numerous administrations and endless peace initiatives have brought nothing more than bitter disappointment.

For his part, Biden will make an effort. A visit to an East Jerusalem Palestinian hospital, a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and expected announcements of new humanitarian and civilian aid are all worthy gestures and are definitely more than the previous administration had to offer. But they will not erase the Palestinian feeling that Biden, just like his predecessors, has thrown them under the bus.

The president will, according to aides, stress his support for a two-state solution, and he may even remind the Israelis that they need to curb their settlement activity, but these statements will not be accompanied by an attempt to launch any real steps that could actually lead to a two-state solution. And while a grand peace process may indeed be impossible right now (no government in Israel, Palestinians divided, no American political capital to spend), Biden will not even provide the Palestinians with symbolic diplomatic achievements. He will continue to  avoid the reopening of a U.S. consulate for Palestinian affairs in Jerusalem and ignore the Palestinian request to reopen the PLO office in Washington.

3. For American Jews: Can Biden bridge the split?

In a recent conference call with members of the Jewish community, White House officials reminded participants that Biden has a very long record when it comes to Israel: This will be his tenth visit and he has met with every Israeli leader since Golda Meir (and yes, the White House is well aware of the fact that Biden’s Golda story is already a joke in Jewish circles).

This unique background, and Biden’s mainstream views on Israel, could— perhaps—make his trip significant not only for Israelis, but also for American Jews. Framed correctly, Biden’s trip to Israel can potentially help heal the wounds of partisanship that have plagued American attitudes toward Israel in recent years.

How can he do that?

Just by being himself—experienced enough to know all the shticks of Israeli-American politics, smart enough not to fall into the trap of getting into bitter public disputes with the Israeli government (or he could just look at the mistakes made by his former boss, Barack Obama), and realistic enough not to expect to be the one leader who delivers a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This will by no means prevent the partisan bloodbath over Israel when the 2024 elections come around, but it will help everyone—especially Jewish Americans—to see a way forward in relations between the U.S. and Israel that keeps to the center, steering clear of both the progressive anger at establishment Democrats’ see-no-evil approach toward Israel and the Trumpist pro-Likud, pro-settler policies that had deepened this divide.

4. For progressives: Is Biden still the human rights president?

This is a tough one.

How can the president explain walking back on his promise to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? And what excuse can he come up with for meeting with the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman?

In a Washington Post op-ed published Sunday titled “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia,” Biden—well aware of the criticism in progressive circles—tried to make the case for reconciliation with the Saudi royal family. “From the start, my aim was to reorient—but not rupture—relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” Biden wrote. “My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank.”

Biden’s realpolitik approach is unlikely to convince members of his party’s progressive wing. Nor will his refusal to demand answers on the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in his meetings with Israelis. But in terms of domestic politics this won’t matter much. Progressives are already disappointed with Biden on everything from student loan forgiveness to climate change legislation to his response to overturning Roe v. Wade. Foreign policy decisions won’t make a huge difference when it comes to getting voters out in the midterms or in 2024.

5. Meanwhile, in Highland Park

As Biden prepares for his trip, a large and close-knit Jewish community in Highland Park is still reeling from the horrific July 4th attack. Synagogues are consoling grieving members and preparing funerals in the affluent Chicago suburb, where, according to a 2020 study by the Jewish United Fund, 50 percent of the 30,000 residents are Jewish.

The shock was apparent Tuesday morning, where I saw residents gathered behind police tape along Central Avenue, where foldable lawn chairs, baby strollers, picnic bags and shoes left behind by families fleeing the parade were  still strewn along the sidewalk as Highland Park became yet another dot on the crowded map of American cities torn apart by senseless mass shootings.

And for Jewish residents, there was a clear sense of unease.

No, they don’t think the shooting was motivated by antisemitism or by a desire to target Jews, but still, there is a gnawing thought—why Highland Park? Why the most densely Jewish populated town in the area?

“The first thought that went through my mind is that it was antisemitic,” said Yehoshua Shlafrok, a local resident who attended the parade with his wife and two children. “But then I asked myself: ‘If he wanted to hurt Jews, why didn’t he target the synagogue that’s just a couple of blocks away?’”

Others seemed to agree. They feel vulnerable. Maybe not as Jews, but just as Americans who lived through a horrific attack, and who will never be able to celebrate the 4th of July without recalling those moments of fear.

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