Joe Biden visited Israel last week, declaring on his arrival: “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist”. Shortly before departing, he visited Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, where he once again restated his support for a two-state solution.

What happened

  • Kicking off his visit on Wednesday, Biden received a warm welcome from President Isaac Herzog and new prime minister Yair Lapid.
  • The president reaffirmed the US-Israel relationship with the signing of the Jerusalem Declaration, and played down the power of anti-Israel far-left Democrats.
  • Biden announced a big boost in aid for the Palestinian people, which was slashed under the Trump administration.
  • While there were no major breakthroughs, a number of small initiatives pointed to progress towards Saudi Arabia joining other regional states which have normalised relations with Israel.

“I’m home” 

Paying his 10th visit to Israel, Biden told the Israeli president: “I am home” after Airforce One touched down in Tel Aviv. Herzog, a former leader of the Labor party, responded: “You certainly are at home, Mr President.” In his public remarks, Biden recalled his first visit to the country as a newly elected senator in 1973. “I’ll say again, you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” the president said. “The connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep.” Herzog called Biden “a true friend, and staunch supporter of Israel and the Jewish people, of our security and wellbeing, your entire life.”

Emotional scene at Yad Vashem 

At Yad Vashem, a tearful Biden knelt down to speak with two Holocaust survivors, Rena Quint, originally from Czechoslovakia, and Polish-born Giselle (Gita) Cycowicz. “As my mother would say, God love you, dear,” Biden told the two women. “She wasn’t Jewish, but she was Irish,” the president clarified. After leaving Yad Vashem, the president tweeted: “I vow to continue our shared, unending work to fight the poison of antisemitism wherever we find it in the world.”

Security first 

A reaffirmation of the US’ decades-old commitment to Israel’s security topped the agenda for the president’s meetings with Lapid, former prime minister Naftali Bennett, and defence minister Benny Gantz.

  • Biden and Lapid signed the Jerusalem Declaration, which pledged “the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security” and affirmed “the maintenance of its qualitative military edge”.
  • The United States “reiterates its steadfast commitment to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat or combination of threats,” it added.
  • In a presentation from Gantz, Biden was briefed on Israel’s “Iron Beam” high-power laser interception system and security agreements with a number of Middle East states with which it doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations.

No to a nuclear Iran

For the past decade, the US and Israel have publicly disagreed about how to tackle the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme. With the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has adopted a policy of quiet diplomacy and a more nuanced, cooperative approach.

  • As the Jerusalem Declaration makes clear, however, there is no disagreement between Israel and the US on the ultimate goal: “The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
  • Lapid also thanked Biden for his decision not to appease Iranian demands to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of terrorist organisations. The Israeli prime minister is, however, opposed to the stalled American efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, preferring instead pressure on Tehran to force it to negotiate a tougher agreement with the US.
  • At a joint press conference, Lapid urged a more robust approach. “Words will not stop them, Mr. President,” he said. “Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear programme, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.”
  • Biden responded: “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.” However, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, the president was asked if the US would use force to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. He replied “as a last resort, yes.” Biden also attacked Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018, calling it “a gigantic mistake”.

Lapid on the world stage

Facing a general election in November, Lapid attempted to burnish his credentials on the world stage. The new prime minister set out “a vision for Israel and its regional relations that differed in tone and substance from that of his two recent predecessors, and that also challenged his guest,” argued Times of Israel editor David Horovitz. The most liberal prime minister since Ehud Barak’s departure from office in 2001, Lapid publicly called for a two-state solution: “A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong, democratic State of Israel with a Jewish majority.” Coupled with his tough talk on Iran, the prime minister urged Biden to deliver a message to Arab leaders: “Our hand is outstretched for peace. We are ready to share our technology and experience, ready for our people to meet and learn about one another, ready for our scientists to collaborate and our businesses to cooperate.”

Biden dismisses “apartheid state” talk

During this TV interview, Biden was also asked for his view of far-left Democrats who label Israel an “apartheid state” and call for US security aid to be cut. “There are a few of them. I think they’re wrong, I think they are making a mistake,” he responded. “Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally and a friend.” Under Biden, the US has provided $4bn in aid to Israel, including $1 billion in additional emergency funding for the Iron Dome missile defence system.

On to Bethlehem

Biden also travelled to the West Bank where he met Abbas in Bethlehem. The cordial visit represented a sharp break from the war of words between the US and the Palestinians which characterised Trump’s term in office.

  • Throughout his visit and in the Jerusalem Declaration, Biden repeated his “longstanding and consistent support of a two-state solution”. The declaration also confirmed the US and Israel’s “shared commitment to initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of Palestinians”.
  • As Haaretz columnist Amir Tibon argued, the president effectively buried Trump’s “absurd” and “unserious” peace plan by “by daring to speak again of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders as the basis for any future peace agreement”.
  • Since taking office and restoring aid cut by Trump, Biden has provided half a billion dollars in aid to the Palestinians. The president announced a further $316bn in aid during his time in the region: an additional $201m for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (bringing the total US commitment under Biden to $618m); $15m for improving nutritional efforts; and $100m to hospitals in East Jerusalem. US direct aid to the Palestinian Authority is highly restricted due to legislation designed to pressure Ramallah to stop paying salaries to convicted terrorists serving time in Israeli prisons.
  • While the Palestinians are looking to Biden to fulfil campaign pledges to allow a PLO office in Washington shuttered by Trump to reopen and to open a US consulate in East Jerusalem, senior officials in Ramallah reacted positively to the president’s visit. “The meeting was significant in terms of its timing and the message it conveyed.”

New Israeli measures …

As part of Biden’s visit, a series of measures designed to assist the Palestinian economy were agreed by Israel. They include upgrading the West Bank’s mobile networks to 4G; the reconvening of the Joint Economic Committee (a joint Israel-PA body which hasn’t met since 2009); and an increase to 15,500 in the number of Israeli work permits available to people in Gaza. Israel is also planning to allow West Bank Palestinians to fly out of Eilat’s Ramon International Airport rather than having to cross into Jordan and get international flights from Amman. By the end of September, round-the-clock Palestinian access to the Jordan border at the Allenby Crossing will be introduced.

… and US people-to-people support

Biden also announced a series of grants – including $2.21m for the Peres Centre for Peace – to people-to-people projects under the landmark Nita M Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. Modelled on the International Fund for Ireland, the act authorises $250m over five years to invest in civic society work designed to lay the foundations for a future peace agreement.

Israel, the region and the world

Biden’s visit also showed signs of the warming relations between Israel, some Arab states, and the wider world.

  • Together with Lapid, the president took part in a virtual inaugural meeting of the I2U2 forum which brings together Israel, India, the US and the UAE. Focused on economic cooperation for the benefit of the entire region, it saw agreements to establish a food corridor between India and the UAE using Israeli technology, as well as new investment in green energy.
  • After Biden left Israel, he flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman and the controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
  • Saudi Arabia edged closer to normal relations with Israel by announcing it would open its airspace to all civilian airliners. The move is seen as benefitting El Al, and Biden hailed it as “the first tangible step” towards normalisation.
  • While the Saudis said the overflight move had nothing to do with ties to Israel, the country’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told CNN that normalising relations was a “strategic option”. However, in line with the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, he said a peace agreement would have to follow, not precede, a two-state solution.
  • In a gesture to the Saudis, Israel also gave its formal consent – required under the 1979 Camp David Accords – for the transfer from Egypt to the Saudis of two uninhabited Red Sea islands. The latter intend to use them to develop a tourist zone.
  • Brian Katulis of the Middle East Institute in Washington said the moves announced in Biden’s visit were “modest,” although some represent “positive signs of perhaps something bigger to come.”
  • US General Michael E. Kurilla, the commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) arrived in Israel on Monday for talks focused on promoting a regional air defence alliance between Israel and Arab allies.

What happens next 

The positive reaction to Biden’s visit in Israel was tempered early on Saturday by the launch of four rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel. On Sunday, a senior Iranian adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the country now had the “technical means” to produce a nuclear bomb.