The expectations in the region for Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as US President do not seem too high. A reporter for the left-liberal Haaretz praised that Biden’s first day in Israel stood for “boredom of the good kind”. America’s President landed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and completed a series of compulsory diplomatic exercises: a short speech at the airport with familiar phrases about the bilateral alliance, appointments with politicians, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
This appointment produced the most moving images to date. When two Shoa survivors rose from their chairs to greet the US President, he urged the two elderly women to sit down and in turn knelt down to shake hands with them. Additional appointments with the Palestinians were scheduled for Thursday, and Biden is scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia on Friday. One of the protagonists of this trip has not been invited, but is nevertheless omnipresent: Iran, the most important opponent of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
While still at Tel Aviv Airport, Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz presented the US President with a selection of Israeli air defense systems, including the futuristic Iron Beam, which is intended to use lasers to fetch enemy projectiles from the sky in the future. The terrorist organizations from which Israel is most likely to expect such shelling — Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon — are all backed by the Iranian regime.
On Thursday, Tehran was officially on the agenda. Biden and Lapid signed a declaration in which both countries pledged never to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
The concrete consequences of these words remain open to interpretation, especially since both parties are pursuing different strategies in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. While the USA is trying to reinstate the nuclear agreement, Israel is pushing for tougher sanctions and is explicitly keeping a military strike open as the last option.
Another topic was given little space: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. While previous US presidents had declared the solution to be a matter of the heart and the boss, Biden does not even give the impression of wanting to make a difference here. Although he supports a two-state solution, he said in Tel Aviv, he knows that such a solution cannot be achieved “in the near future”.
It is the second leg of his Middle East trip, which is awaited with greater anticipation. During his election campaign, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” because of its human rights violations. In the meantime, the constraints of realpolitik have caught up with him. With rising energy prices angering voters back home, he wants to get the Saudis to produce more oil.
The Israelis also hope that the Saudi royal family will grant the President a small diplomatic trophy and let him announce progress in Saudi-Israeli rapprochement. An extension of overflight rights for Israeli airlines, which have so far only been allowed to cross Saudi airspace on a few selected routes, is considered likely.
Security cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states is also to be promoted behind the scenes. However, hardly anyone expects a major breakthrough, let alone the announcement of official Israeli-Saudi relations. In Saudi Arabia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered too sensitive – an issue that the US President hardly likes to touch.