Biden and Israel: A mutual love affair
As President Biden often reminds his Israeli interlocutors, he first visited Israel in 1973 when Golda Meir was prime minister. It was the year that Israel fought Egypt in the Yom Kippur War. Yitzhak Rabin, Meir’s successor, was ambassador to the United States during the early months of that year.
Israel was a relatively poor country in 1973. It had no relations with any Arab state, nor with India, China, or a hostile Soviet Union. It had few major trading partners. It was isolated in the United Nations, which two years later would equate Zionism with racism.
No longer. The Israel that Joe Biden just visited is at peace with six Arab states and has not-so-clandestine relations with several others, notably Saudi Arabia, which, apart from the Palestinian Authority is Biden’s only other Middle Eastern stop on this trip. Israel is now a high-tech economic powerhouse, counting China and India as among its greatest trading partners. Its per capita gross domestic product ranks 20th in the world, ahead of Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Korea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is not even isolated in the U.N., which rescinded its “ Zionism is a form of racism” resolution in 1991 and, in 2000, admitted Israel to the Western European group.
Israel’s fortunes may have changed, but Biden’s feelings toward the country have remained the same. He still relates to Israel as he did during his freshman year in the Senate. Indeed, at a time when his party’s left wing is increasingly hostile to the Jewish state, and when pro-Israel Jewish students have found themselves harassed and on the defensive on many American college campuses, Biden asserted that “you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.”
One highlight of Biden’s visit was his so-called “I2U2” summit meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Mohammed bin Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE. The meeting was intended to emphasize the growing economic cooperation among their countries but it also underlined Israel’s economic prowess. Yet, even more important to many Israelis, was what Biden did not do: The American embassy remains in Jerusalem and America still recognizes the Golan Heights part of Israel.
Biden’s meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz was no less significant than those with Lapid. The Israelis welcomed Biden’s assurance that he would not countenance an Iranian nuclear weapon. They also applauded his support for joint Israeli-American work on the Iron Beam laser defense against short- range missiles and mortars. Israel’s Rafael company has been developing the system since 2014. Gantz reportedly was elated that his meeting with Biden went so well.
There has been much speculation in Israel as to what extent Saudi Arabia will be willing to acknowledge publicly its relationship with Israel, one that has been ongoing for more than a decade. A senior defense ministry official evinced the hope that, at a minimum, Biden and his Saudi interlocutors will voice their concern about the Iranian threat without explicitly mentioning Israel. That way, it will be clear that Gulf Arab concerns are every bit as serious as those of Israel, yet independent of the views that Jerusalem has articulated for years. Whether Biden’s visit will also yield an announcement about joint Gulf-Israeli defense against Iranian missiles is uncertain, however. It appears that considerably more coordination must take place before any such a system can come into being.
If there is any concern on the part of Jerusalem, it is that Biden’s goodwill notwithstanding, America’s primary concerns are assisting Ukraine and deterring China. While that is certainly the case, it can only be reassuring to Israelis that, at least until the next presidential election, their country is fortunate to have a devoted, longstanding friend residing in the White House.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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