trip talk

Israeli-U.S. relations ‘at one of their all-time highs’ following Biden visit

Biden spent four days in the region last week, meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials

Can Merey/picture alliance via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Joe Biden speak to the media after their meeting.

As Israel’s government gathered for its weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, two days after the conclusion of President Joe Biden’s inaugural trip as president to the country, Prime Minister Yair Lapid proudly hung a framed copy of the newly signed “Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration” on the wall in the cabinet room.

“We’ve put up the Jerusalem Declaration for the first time, in the correct location for historic declarations,” Lapid said, straightening out the black frame. “It joins the rest of the historic declarations hanging here in this room.”

The declaration, a roadmap for the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance covering issues ranging from the threats posed by Iran to the Palestinian question to shoring up and expanding regional peace, is being touted as the pinnacle of the two-day trip, which also included a meeting with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

“The trip was a huge success,” a senior Israeli source told Jewish Insider on Sunday. “The dialogue with the U.S. on Iran is closer and more productive than ever. The work on regional integration is advancing and the Jerusalem Declaration is a sign of bilateral relations, which are at one of their all-time highs.”

Reaffirming the “unbreakable bonds” between the two countries and the enduring commitment of the U.S. to Israel’s security, the declaration outlines, among other things, the two countries’ commitments to democracy and “tikkun olam,” repairing the world, as well as a U.S. pledge never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and to continue maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

The declaration also commends the normalization agreements forged under former President Donald Trump between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and endeavors to “advance Israel’s regional integration over time; and to expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.”

Biden, who flew directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday afternoon, told Israeli leaders that he would relay a message of peace to the Saudis. On Friday morning, the largest country in the Middle East announced it was lifting any restrictions on airlines flying over its territory, which will allow Israeli airlinesl to travel over Saudi airspace. The move was widely celebrated in Israel as both a first step toward normalization and, on a practical level, a move that will reduce flying time from the Jewish state to destinations in the Far East.

The declaration also firmly rejects efforts by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to delegitimize and single out Israel, commits to recognizing Ukrainian sovereignty in the wake of Russia’s five-month-long war and promotes, once again, the U.S. desire to see the two-state solution as the only realistic solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

“The fact that this visit passed without any controversy and that Biden came off positively to Israelis, and no doubt Lapid came off positively to Americans, shows it was a success,” Jonathan Rynhold, head of the political studies department at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told JI. “They managed to agree on many things and disagree on some things, but that did not cause a crisis at all.”

“If you look at the declaration,” he continued, “it is a document that covers all major issues and frames them in a way that allows each leader to protect themselves from domestic criticism.”

“In their spoken comments, they disagreed on certain things but agreed on goals and on cooperating and made clear they can agree on cooperating despite having major policy differences,” added Rynhold.

During a press conference with Lapid on Thursday, Biden said that while “ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon is of vital security interest to Israel and the United States and for the rest of the world as well, I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome, and we’ll continue to work with Israel to counter other threats from Iran throughout the region.”

Lapid, in contrast, said words and diplomacy alone would not stop Iran. “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program the free world will use force… The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.”

Israeli leaders have emphasized to the U.S. that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran should not be revived in its original form and that a stronger agreement, with a viable military option, must be put in place to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Rynhold dismissed this difference in approach, however, saying, “This idea that the U.S. and Israel must agree on everything is wrong; even the most friendly of U.S. administrations have major policy clashes with Israel.”

Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, also said that despite the differences the trip was overall a success. Using Canadian philosopher Marshall] McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message,” he noted, “Biden’s trip was the message.”

“By hauling out Air Force One, Biden sought to demonstrate presidential commitment to U.S. engagement in global affairs and, more specifically, to collaboration with America’s allies in the Middle East,” said Lipner.

Lipner, who spent who spent nearly three decades working in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, added, “[Biden] didn’t come to debate the finer nuances and implications of policy with Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi leaders. Those conversations will continue between White House officials and their interlocutors in the region. His itinerary was crafted instead to illustrate his basic motivations, including: his friendship for Israel and the Jewish people; his belief in a two-state solution (even if “the ground is not ripe”); his support for accelerated normalization between Israel and its neighbors, and; his sponsorship of a regional coalition to combat shared threats and exploit shared opportunities.”

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was more cautious about the overall success of the trip, describing it as “an effort to deal with the challenges set in motion by the Russian invasion of Ukraine — securing more oil and bucking up partnerships in Israel and Gulf.”

“The Israel stop was a Biden lovefest,” he observed, adding, “Israel got the honey and Palestinians mostly vinegar.”

“In Saudi,” he continued, referencing the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, “Biden closed the Khashoggi file; legitimized [Crown Prince] Mohammed Bin Salman without guarantees on oil or Saudi distancing itself from Russia or China.”

On Iran, added Miller, “the Gulf states, despite closer cooperation with the U.S., have no intention of becoming the tip of the U.S. spear against Tehran. Biden left the region without any clear sense of how the trip came any closer to checking Iran’s nuclear program.”