By Ray Hanania
On the first leg of his trip to the Middle East this week, US President Joe Biden will meet with Israeli leaders and then make a gratuitous stop in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, before heading off to Saudi Arabia for the second leg to lobby regional countries on oil and “normalization.”
Biden’s path will be rough, as it comes in the wake of Israel’s May killing of American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Normally, the US makes powerful statements in response to the killings of Americans abroad, but not in this case as the killer was Israeli.
To help smooth Biden’s path, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued a carefully worded statement in English that asserted Israel was not to blame for the Abu Akleh killing. Biden has waffled on the topic, trying to make both sides happy, although mostly the Israelis.
Despite the overwhelming support Israel enjoys among Americans, Biden knows the killing of a US journalist puts him at odds with the normally pro-Israel news media and creates an awkward atmosphere when he travels to the region. Outlets such as CNN and The Washington Post have reported in near unanimity that Israel was responsible for Abu Akleh’s death. It raises the question, what will Biden do about it? The answer is likely to be nothing.
Biden hopes to walk through the fog created by Gantz’s statement to focus on other goals, such as strengthening ties with Israel and preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon. The US president also wants to help Tel Aviv’s attempts to expand its normalization policy with other regional countries. But he cannot do any of that if the Abu Akleh murder continues to hang over his political agenda like the sword of Damocles.
Abu Akleh’s family — American citizens living in the West Bank — sent Biden a letter demanding a meeting, criticizing his “betrayal” for refusing to condemn Israel. Biden has not responded to the family, but his spokespeople have blamed Abu Akleh’s killing during a military raid in Jenin on “an Israeli bullet,” not an Israeli sniper.
Biden and Israel know they must deflect from this issue if the trip is to be successful. The president’s credibility is at stake.
Failing to hold Israel’s government accountable for Abu Akleh’s killing will only further weaken Biden politically as he and the Democratic Party round the corner to the midterm elections on Nov. 8. Traditionally, the political party that holds the White House loses congressional seats during midterm elections.
Recent polling shows Americans are slowly but steadily shifting attitudes and supporting the Palestinians. Biden needs to be able to respond to questions that he tried and continues to try to pin down responsibility for the Abu Akleh killing, but cannot come to a conclusion yet, at least not during this trip.
Election politics weigh heavily on him. Biden also cannot forget the criticism President Barack Obama received from the powerful pro-Israel movement for not visiting Israel until his second term in office. Instead, Obama visited Cairo less than six months after his election, promising “a new beginning” in relations. Biden, who was vice president in the Obama administration, does not want to make the same mistake or see support from the pro-Israel community soften.
To balance his perceived strong support for Israel, Biden announced during his presidential election campaign a “partnership” with Arab Americans. He said he would appoint Arab Americans to key positions in his government and address their concerns, emphasizing fighting racism while championing “democracy and human rights globally.”
The reality of Biden’s administration is much more sobering, however. Biden did appoint dozens of Arab Americans to support positions in the White House and State Department, but they seem to have been muzzled and are hesitant to publicly speak out on issues relating to the Middle East, especially Palestine.
Biden’s stroll through the political minefield of the Israel-Palestine conflict will be like walking a tightrope while holding a balancing pole with unfulfilled promises to the Israelis and Palestinians on either end.