A visit by a US president to the Middle East should matter. Otherwise, why bother?

A visit by a US president to the Middle East should matter. Otherwise, why bother?

A visit by a US president to the Middle East should matter. Otherwise, why bother?
Jihad gunmen carry the flag-draped body of a teenage victim of Israeli violence in Jenin. (AFP)
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US President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Israel next month, and possibly to the occupied West Bank, is garnering much interest but, equally, little hope that it stands a chance of making any difference to the fragile relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
It would be Biden’s first visit to the Middle East since assuming office, and to a part of the region where he is least likely to reap success. Were it to be a courtesy visit, simply to further validate the close relationship between Israel and the US, it would be a wasted trip, especially in the midst of mounting tensions in all of the areas of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, which are raising tangible concerns of a repeat of last year’s bloodshed and all such previous flare-ups.
The level of violent confrontations and killings of Arabs and Jews is already on the rise, with barely a mechanism in place to stop them. As long as it seems clear that there is no feasible path to peace — whether driven by forces within the conflict or initiated by the international community — US involvement to calm the situation is crucial.
Cynics would point to the US midterm elections in November as the catalyst for this visit, knowing that an expression of Washington’s commitment to the Jewish state, if it does not dramatically improve the results for the Democrats, will definitely not harm the president’s party at the ballot box.
Considering that Biden’s approval rating, generally a reliable indicator of how a president’s party will fare in midterm elections, is averaging in the low 40s and that he desperately needs to convince the American people that losing control of Congress would paralyze Washington for another two years, every little bit helps.
However, a visit to Israel and Palestine could be tricky for him, especially at present. His record during a very long career in both the Senate and as vice president in the White House, is one of an ardent friend of Israel. But unlike his presidential predecessor, he is also a critical friend.
He is well aware that within his own party there are growing calls to hold Israel accountable for its behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories. Some, still a minority but they are gaining ground, are questioning whether supporting Israel with billions of taxpayer dollars can be justified, particularly as this directly implicates the US in the ongoing, oppressive occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, which are being facilitated by American money and weapons.
Biden himself, among others within his administration, is concerned both by Israel’s expansion of settlements, which perpetuates the occupation, and by the repressive nature of its treatment of the Palestinians. His concerns stem from both moral reasons and, equally, because the issue is harming US interests in the region and beyond.
Yet, Washington faces a real dilemma when it comes to leaning on the current Israeli government, as it fears for its survival and the possible return of Benjamin Netanyahu to power should the fragile coalition collapse. Only last week, the Israeli Defense Ministry body that authorizes construction in the West Bank approved a further 4,227 new settlement homes. This leaves little room for doubt about Israel’s true intentions regarding the future of the occupied territories or recognizing the right of Palestinians to self-determination.
Washington’s response to this move was flaccid, with a White House spokesperson simply reiterating that the administration views this development as an obstacle to any eventual peace agreement. It remains to be seen whether Biden, during his planned meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, will be capable of galvanizing himself to go beyond stating the obvious and make his opposition to the expansion of settlements more concrete.

Biden has an opportunity to remind his Israeli hosts of their obligations under international law to the Palestinians.

Yossi Mekelberg

To be sure, the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has never been high on Biden’s agenda. Nevertheless, the hostilities that broke out between the two sides last spring was a bruising reminder that this conflict, if not resolved or at the very least contained, invariably explodes.
In recent weeks, a wave of terrorist attacks on Israelis by Palestinians and the continuous killing of Palestinians by the occupying security forces, combined with clashes at Al-Haram Al-Sharif between the Israeli police and Muslim worshippers, have underlined the volatility of the current situation which threatens to ignite widespread violence between Israelis and Palestinians and lead to anger in many parts of the world.
The tragic killing of respected Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian who also held US citizenship, and the outrageous behavior of Israeli police during her funeral drew a critical response from Biden, who called for both incidents to be investigated. This serves as a reminder that what happens in the holy land affects the US, too.
In a preemptive move last week during a meeting with King Abdullah in the White House, Biden expressed America’s unwavering support for Jordan and reaffirmed his administration’s recognition of the country as the custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. There is concern in Washington that a deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations, in Jerusalem in particular, also has the potential to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom.
It has been suggested that during his visit to Israel, Biden will visit East Jerusalem unaccompanied by Israeli officials, a strong indication of his disapproval of Israel’s annexation of this part of the city. This would be a much-welcomed gesture, especially if it is followed by a visit to Ramallah and a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and, significantly, the reopening of the US Consulate in East Jerusalem.
The US-Israeli relationship is strong and the two countries share powerful strategic interests. The closer ties currently being established between Israel and the Arab world have added another angle to its importance.
Yet, there are areas of disagreement that should not be swept under the carpet, including Israel’s opposition to America’s return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal; Israel’s neutral stance, at least initially, on the war in Ukraine; and, above all, the entrenchment of the occupation, which is rendering a peaceful solution impossible.
During his visit, Biden is expected to reaffirm the close alliance between the US and Israel, and America’s commitment to the Jewish state’s security and well-being. But he also has an opportunity to remind his Israeli hosts of their obligations under international law and human rights agreements when it comes to the Palestinians — or Ukraine for that matter — and that they also have an obligation to consider US interests in their engagements with the world, to ensure this alliance continues to prevail.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
Twitter: @YMekelberg


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