President Joe Biden has a politically risky itinerary for his scheduled trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia in mid-July. The question is, why he is doing this?
The tour is scheduled to begin in Jerusalem, where the president plans “to meet with Israelis leaders to discuss security, prosperity and increasing integration into the great region.” All worthy topics, but not quite in sync with the moment.
On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced his resignation. According to the U.S. Embassy, Biden's visit is still on. When he arrives in Jerusalem, he will find a caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, and a government incapable of making major moves or decisions. Elections are scheduled for late October or early November. Biden will also meet with the opposition leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who polls say is most likely to lead the next government.
His visit to the West Bank, where he plans to meet the head of the Palestinian Authority, is a controversy waiting to happen. No American president has ever visited the contested area before. The break from diplomatic precedent will be welcomed by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
But the battle here is for the future, and there is no reason to suppose that a summer chat between 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas and the 79-year-old Biden will make much of a difference in the contours of the Holy Land.
Irrelevance abroad won’t prevent the president’s visit to the West Bank from becoming a talking point in America, with midterm congressional elections coming in November. Supporters and critics of Israel will argue over the departure from protocol. Biden may have concluded that this could be advantageous to his party.
I wouldn’t presume to argue politics with the president, but most public opinion polls show the Democrats are facing a landslide defeat in the House for reasons that have nothing to do with the West Bank or the moribund “peace process,” now going on for more than 55 years.
The last stop on the president’s tour, in Saudi Arabia, is the one most likely to matter. Or maybe matter too much.
According to the White House, Biden will be meeting the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and additional Arab leaders from Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. The Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, will chair the gathering. The name of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was intentionally omitted from the announcement.
The White House notes that Saudi Arabia “has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades.” That is mostly true, but it requires an asterisk when it comes to the Biden administration.