Biden’s trip to Israel unhindered by country’s political turmoil

Israeli government set to dissolve next week, with fresh elections planned for autumn

Tel Aviv, Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Monday that his eight-party governing coalition is set to dissolve at the end of the month. Reuters
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US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel next month remains on track despite the looming collapse of the Israeli government and with the country heading towards its fifth election in three years.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Monday that his eight-party governing coalition is set to dissolve at the end of the month, sending Israel to yet another election. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the formidable Likud party, seems poised to make a bid to return to his previous role.

A White House National Security Council representative told The National that Mr Biden’s Israel trip, scheduled for July 13 and 14, will not be affected by any potential political turmoil.

“The US-Israel relationship is broader than the leadership of each country. It is deep and enduring and transcends leadership changes,” the official said, adding that the "President looks forward to his visit next month."

In apparent confirmation of these sentiments, Al Monitor reported that Mr Biden had told Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban: “I am going to visit Israel, not to visit Israel’s prime minister.”

Under the current government terms, centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will take over as caretaker prime minister and will be the one to welcome Mr Biden.

The US president is expected to meet Israeli leaders, visit an area where defence systems such as the Iron Dome are installed and host a four-way online meeting with the leaders of Israel, the UAE and India, members of what is known as the “West Asia Quad” to discuss innovation and food security.

He will also visit the West Bank and meet members of the Palestinian leadership.

When asked if there are any changes to his planned trip to Israel, Mr Biden on Tuesday said: "No."

A senior Arab diplomat told The National that there “is no surprise” in Mr Bennett’s announcement.

“We always knew this will be a government with a very short lifespan and a weak political hand when it comes to the Palestinians,” the diplomat said.

Anshel Pfeffer, a scholar and columnist on Israeli politics for Haaretz, agreed that the political turbulence in Israel will have little bearing on the trip.

“Israel has been in a state of political turmoil now for almost four years … the same strategic and regional issues exist whether or not Israel is an election period,” Mr Pfeffer told The National.

Those issues include the Iran nuclear file, defence co-operation with the US and growing relations with the Gulf countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid announced on June 20 their intention to submit a bill to dissolve the Knesset, setting up the country for new elections. EPA

Mr Pfeffer argued that the visit may prop up Mr Lapid, who will be “very happy to have his photo taken with the president of the United States, as a prime minister, [when] many Israelis don't take him seriously”.

The British-Israeli scholar said Mr Biden’s major leg of the trip is to Saudi Arabia and not Jerusalem, where he is seeking a reset in relations with Riyadh and will attend a summit with dozen Arab leaders.

Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the political upheaval in Israel could limit Mr Biden’s ability to reach concrete understandings in Israel.

“The concrete part of the discussions will be impacted as a caretaker Israeli government is legally and politically constrained in what it can do,” Mr Al Omari told The National.

But the overall political and symbolic implications of Mr Biden visiting Jerusalem will not be affected, he added.

“Put simply, President Biden would not want on his first trip to the region to skip Israel.”

Mr Al Omari said it was unlikely there would be a heightened risk of tension within Israel or with the Palestinians following the collapse of the government.

“The Palestinian Authority has no interest in escalation in general. If anything, it will step up its ongoing efforts to maintain the quiet, particularly since Mr Biden is scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” he said.

“Hamas has never stopped trying to create tension in the West Bank, but lacks the capability to successfully do so.”

He argued that the one variable to watch is Iran, but such escalation is “more likely to be on the Saudi leg of the trip” and not Israel.

Updated: June 21, 2022, 10:15 PM
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