Middle East & Africa | A voyage to nowhere

Joe Biden sets off aimlessly to the Middle East

America’s president will have little to offer Israelis and Palestinians, and may not gain much more from the Saudis

A worker prepares Israeli and US national flag on July 12, 2022, in Jerusalem, ahead of US President Joe Biden's visit to Israel tomorrow. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
| Jerusalem

For decades American presidents have arrived in the Holy Land like earnest pilgrims searching for the holy grail of a two-state solution. George Bush hoped to find it in 2003 with his “road map for peace”. Barack Obama came in 2013, while John Kerry, his secretary of state, was trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. Even Donald Trump promised to “give it an absolute go”.

Joe Biden has lost the faith. His nearly 48-hour visit to Israel and Palestine, which begins on July 13th, will be an exercise in banality: shake a few hands, see a few sights, head back to the airport. He is unlikely to announce big plans or offer stirring words. No president in recent memory has arrived with so little to say about the region’s most intractable conflict.

It is hard to blame him. Both Israelis and Palestinians are in political turmoil. Even if Mr Biden wanted to wade into the peace-process swamp, there is no one to join him. And the conflict no longer seems as important as it once did. After decades of insisting that the status quo was not sustainable, America has decided it might be.

When the trip was planned, the hawkish Naftali Bennett was Israel’s prime minister. His government collapsed last month and an election, the fifth since 2019, is set for November. It will be Yair Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, who plays host to Mr Biden, with Mr Bennett hoping for a look-in. The president may not mind. Of all Israel’s potential prime ministers, Mr Lapid’s centrist politics are the most convenient for him. The Americans will go out of their way to offer photo ops and bolster his campaign. The president will make time—albeit just 15 minutes—for Binyamin Netanyahu, who hopes to make yet another comeback in November. That reflects both protocol (Mr Netanyahu is the opposition leader) and a recognition that he may return to power.

The Palestinians will receive far less attention. Mr Biden will make a brief stop in Bethlehem on July 15th to see Mahmoud Abbas, the octogenarian president who governs the West Bank. He will probably pledge $100m in aid for hospitals in East Jerusalem that offer specialist care to Palestinians who cannot find it in the occupied territories, reversing a senselessly cruel cut Mr Trump ordered in 2018. It is a laudable step, but a paltry one, showing how hopelessly deadlocked it all is. Mr Lapid’s party supports the two-state solution in principle, but he may not have time as prime minister for real diplomacy with the Palestinians, who themselves remain utterly divided. No doubt Mr Biden will offer the routine bromides on the peace process, but his heart will not be in it.

The focus of Mr Biden’s trip begins on July 15th, when he lands in Jeddah, the first American president to fly to Saudi Arabia from Israel. Even Israelis acknowledge that they are a warm-up act. “He’s coming here first because it’s now clear to the Americans they can’t deal with their allies in the region separately, as we’re much better co-ordinated now,” says a senior minister.

The administration would like that co-ordination, conducted in secret for a decade, to be more public. A Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal would be a foreign-policy win; Mr Biden’s advisers think it would also help them reduce America’s military presence in the region. They will urge the Saudis to draw closer to Israel, and to pump more oil, hoping to head off an American recession and a thumping in the November midterms.

The trip’s most fraught moment may be an expected encounter with Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, a bête noire for many Democrats because of his chummy ties with Mr Trump and his dismal human-rights record. Mr Biden has refused to talk to him since he took office.

Even now, the president insists he is not going to Jeddah, the Saudis’ commercial capital, to meet Prince Muhammad. Instead he is going to attend a broader meeting with leaders of six Gulf countries, plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. If the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia should happen by a diplomatic summit in Saudi Arabia, perhaps he will say hello. This is comical spin; that Mr Biden feels he must offer it shows how controversial the trip is among Democrats.

It would be less controversial if it offered the promise of real achievements. It does not. Israeli officials play down talk of a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia, with good reason. The kingdom is in no rush to make a deal. It will settle for incremental steps: Mr Biden is expected to announce in Jeddah that more Israeli airliners will be allowed to fly over Saudi airspace. On oil, even if the Saudis agree to pump more, it is unclear how long they can run fields at full tilt, and whether the world has enough refining capacity to turn extra crude into fuel that can be gobbled up.

In an unusual Washington Post op-ed on July 9th, Mr Biden set out a pre-emptive defence of his trip, saying it would show off America’s “vital leadership role” in the region. It may do the opposite. His hosts will offer a friendly welcome, but they will probably send him home with little more than a few token souvenirs.

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