Much of the public attention on US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East in the coming days will be focused on the Saudi side, given energy issues and a very troubled bilateral relationship; however, his stop in Israel will also be decisive. It is the first time Biden will sit with Yair Lapid since the latter’s recent ascension as interim prime minister. They are likely to build a strong relationship because, among other factors, they are in sync with each other’s political temperament and political priorities.
Although Lapid is an interim prime minister, he is aiming for a term of his own, via the November election. Moreover, he could stay on as caretaker prime minister for a bit longer, given the real possibility that no government will be formed (November’s elections will be Israel’s fifth in three-and-a-half years; he won’t was unable to form a stable coalition). Under Israeli law, an interim has the same executive power as all other prime ministers.
Biden and Lapid only had one meeting. Then-Finance Secretary Lapid visited the United States in 2013 when Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president. The meeting lasted longer than usual, as the US government was shut down at the time. And that’s not the only reason to believe that the next visit will go well; the two have a lot in common.
Biden and Lapid are of different ages (79 and 58, respectively) and backgrounds (lifetime politician and talk show host turned politician), but they each hold the political center in their own countries. In this polarized age, this is no small feat. Moreover, both are dealing with populist predecessors who want to return to power: Donald Trump in the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
Biden is proud of the bipartisan coalitions he was able to form over his many decades as a senator and then vice president. For his part, Lapid was the true architect of Israel’s current “Coalition for Change,” the most ethnically and ideologically diverse coalition in Israel’s history. It was no small feat to unite Israel’s right, center and left, as well as an Islamist party, under one umbrella, but this eight-party coalition was Israel’s answer to populism. To that end, despite having a mandate to form a government, Lapid handed over the premiership in a rotation with Naftali Bennett after the March 2021 elections. Their partnership was one of utmost civility and even friendship.
Biden and Lapid also share key political priorities, which will likely strengthen their bond. Biden has underscored the role of the United States in leading a club of democracies, while as foreign minister Lapid has done everything possible to steer Israel away from Eastern European countries whose governments have moved away from liberal democracy. In his first speech after becoming prime minister last weekend, Lapid said, “We believe that Israel should be a liberal democracy,” adding, “No one can be denied basic rights: respect, liberty, freedom of employment and the right to personal security. .”
Lapid sees Israel’s association with Western liberal democracies as a key source of his strength. While Israel has been criticized for tempering its opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine amid fears that Russia could restrict Israeli actions against Iran in Syria, Lapid served as Israel’s prime minister to publicly and explicitly condemn Russia for “war crimes”. The White House has taken note of it favorably.
If Biden is happy with how Lapid is positioning Israel, Lapid will appreciate how Biden has framed his upcoming visit. At a press conference after the NATO summit last week, Biden downplayed the oil angle of the visit and instead said a key goal of his trip was “to deepen the integration of Israel in the region,” calling it “good for peace and good for Israelis.” Security.”
Lapid and all Israeli leaders support Biden’s success in the first steps between Israel and Saudi Arabia, namely allowing overflights of Israeli planes and allowing Israeli Arabs to fly directly to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage. . US officials suggest Biden is likely to mention other developments, such as a regional air defense system under CENTCOM that allows Arabs and Israelis to take the first steps toward sharing radar to detect incoming missiles or drones. originating from Iran or its proxies.
Beyond liberal democracy and regional integration, Biden and Lapid also share an aversion to airing dirty laundry in public, for both principled and political reasons. Biden appreciates that Lapid publicly tempers his criticism of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and Lapid appreciates keeping American criticism of the Palestinian issue and the settlements behind closed doors. Both see the submersion of public differences as a way to avoid rifts between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and Israel.
Still, containing criticism may be easier than charting a course forward on both issues in a political season for both leaders: midterms for Biden and elections for Lapid.
The new Prime Minister views the current negotiations with Iran as fundamentally inadequate, believing that the United States and its allies must broaden their horizons to a much broader set of issues to be negotiated, given the scale of the nuclear challenge and Iranian regional. Lapid agrees with Biden on the gradual move on the Palestinians, but he limits progress to economic measures, at least during election season.
It is no doubt a source of frustration for some members of the Biden administration that the United States has not charted a political horizon for the Palestinians, or pressured Israel for more visible signs of peace building. a Palestinian state. So far, Lapid shows no signs of even meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. After all, Lapid functions not just as a party leader, but as the leader of a bloc of right-to-left parties that he wants to keep intact during the election campaign.
An obvious question is whether Biden’s seemingly destined visit will help Lapid run for office. The answer is complex. On the one hand, it never hurts Israel to get along with Israel’s boss, the United States. On the other hand, the election will include attacks from Netanyahu claiming that Lapid’s friendship comes at the cost of not speaking “truth to power” by not publicly exposing the flaws of the eventual nuclear deal.
Biden will obviously stay away from any explicit endorsement of Lapid’s election, to avoid a political backlash in Netanyahu’s direction. Still, Biden’s appeal will likely be clear, if subtle, in demonstrating that the two can work together because they are like-minded. That may be enough to signal to the Israeli public that good relations can last beyond November.
David Makovsky directs the Arab-Israeli Relations Project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is co-author with Dennis Ross of the new book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. He is also the host of the new podcast Decision Points: The US-Israel Relationship.