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Will President Biden Play an Active Role in Israel’s Election Campaign?
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the conflict in the Middle East from the White House on May 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Will President Biden Play an Active Role in Israel’s Election Campaign?

Joe Biden will be greeted by caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid when he arrives in Israel next week, but it is unlikely that the US president will try to influence the vote, experts say

When US President Joe Biden arrives in Israel next week, he will be greeted by the country’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid.

When the visit was being planned, it was already clear that Israel was in political turmoil. The coalition was on shaky ground and there were increasing clues of its upcoming demise. After being postponed for a few weeks, the trip was finally scheduled and Biden was set to meet then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett then dissolved Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and handed over power to Lapid.

Lapid is seen as one of the main front-runners to win the right to form a government after the coming election slated for November. His main rival is former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden will meet both Lapid and Netanyahu, in his capacity as head of the opposition, in order to maintain the appearance that the US is not choosing sides.

Biden and Netanyahu are both veterans in the political arena who share a long history together. Their paths have crossed many times, dotted with many disputes.

The visit of the US leader also comes at a critical political juncture for Biden. With mid-term elections to be held a week after the Israeli vote, Biden, Lapid and Netanyahu are each angling to influence their domestic audiences.

With Lapid leading an interim government, he is largely unable to make any major policy shifts or announcements during the Biden visit.

“There is no real substantial reason for the visit to Israel,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York and an expert on Israel-US relations.

“The visit is the message itself,” said Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “The Democrats are in an inferior position heading to elections. A visit to Israel could garner support from pro-Israel Americans.”

The Democrats are in an inferior position heading to elections. A visit to Israel could garner support from pro-Israel Americans.

Biden leads a Democratic Party whose support for Israel is no longer as solid as it used to be.

The visit comes at a critical time in terms of geopolitical developments in the Middle East. Biden will use the visit to bolster regional alliances and sending a message to American allies including Israel, that the US is still very much involved in the area. Choosing to visit Israel during this period of political instability shows American interests cannot wait, experts say.

President Biden is scheduled to fly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, in order to mend broken ties with the Muslim country. There has been speculation that the visit could herald some form of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an extension of the Abraham Accords.

The US president has come under criticism for from the progressive camp within the Democratic Party about his willingness to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia.

“Biden, who is conflicted about his policy toward Saudi Arabia, needed the visit to Israel to justify the trip,” Pinkas added.

President Biden’s domestic challenges are clearly more pressing than his need to meddle in Israeli politics.

And the US president may have a clear preference as to who he wants to see lead Israel, but he will unlikely play a very active role in trying to influence the vote.

“Biden is interested that Netanyahu does not return to power and prefers governments not led by the Likud. Left and centrist governments are considered by him as more comfortable to the American strategy and policy,” said Gilboa.

The current White House sees any Netanyahu-led government as a potential source of headaches.

President Biden’s most recent memories from the former Israeli prime minister mark some of the lower points in Israel-American relations. In 2010, when President Biden visited the region as vice president under Barack Obama, Israel’s Netanyahu approved a contentious plan to build thousands of housing units in eastern Jerusalem. In 2015, Netanyahu spoke to the US Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal, which the Obama White House was working studiously to promote.

“Their experience with Netanyahu is negative, but it is not only a personal matter. Any possible coalition Netanyahu will form will be problematic for the US, creating instability and forcing the Americans to get further involved, something they are not interested in,” said Pinkas.

Although Netanyahu and Biden share a history of political scuffles, the US administration will be careful in taking sides.

“It is very important for the Americans that Netanyahu will not be reelected, but they will not do much in order to prevent it,” said Pinkas, “Such interventions have failed in the past.”

“Netanyahu is seen as an irritant, a source of constant friction on a wide number of issues,” he added.

It is very important for the Americans that Netanyahu will not be reelected, but they will not do much in order to prevent it.  Such interventions have failed in the past.

Most Israelis do not appear to vote based on the affinity any US president shows for a candidate, even though the optics may help. For Lapid, such photo-ops are especially vital in building his reputation as a statesman, particularly in the international political arena.

“The meeting with help Lapid,” said Gilboa. “There are many questions in Israel about Lapid’s ability to serve as prime minister. He will campaign as someone who can do as much as Netanyahu on world affairs and even better. Biden is here to help legitimize Lapid’s functioning as a prime minister.”

President Biden was one of the first leaders to congratulate Lapid as he assumed office last week. When President Biden took office in January 2021, it took one month until he made the customary courtesy call to Netanyahu, who was then serving as prime minister. It was taken as a sign by many of his distaste of the leader.

The visit next week will be used by leaders on both sides to their political advantage. There will be a great effort to avoid controversy. Amid the flurry of photo-ops, Biden secretly will be hoping his favorite candidate will benefit. But, other than giving the interim Israeli prime minister the opportunity to play on the world stage, experts say there will be no outright favoring of Lapid or voices of disapproval for Netanyahu.

 

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