A coalition crisis in Jerusalem and U.S. election may be combining to push off the trip, but White House press secretary says there’s no trip at all to announce.
By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News
The White House has decided to delay President Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East, possibly to July, according to several media reports.
Biden was scheduled to visit both Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month. Israeli officials were unofficially informed of the postponement Friday, according to a Walla report, because of scheduling constraints and the feeling among Americans that the “content” of the trip was “not ready” yet.
A senior administration official told Walla that the delay had nothing to do with the political situation in Israel. However, given the current precarious state of the coalition, there is a possibility that the government will fall this month.
Traditionally, American presidents do not visit during Israeli campaign seasons so as not to be seen as trying to influence the election results. By postponing the trip, Washington has more time to see if the coalition is stabilizing or not. The administration has also not committed to any firm date yet, which gives it some more wiggle room if needed.
Another reason for the postponement could be internal U.S. politics. Midterm elections are coming up in November and Biden’s Democratic party is plunging in the polls, with high inflation and the resulting rise in prices, especially at the pump, angering Americans. The administration may be angling for a public foreign policy win connected to Saudi Arabia and Israel that is not quite ripe yet.
Last week, it was reported that the U.S. was working on closing a deal, whereby Jerusalem would agree to an Egyptian return to the Saudis of two islands in the strategic mouth of the Straits of Tiran, which leads into the Red Sea and Israel’s southern tip.
Tiran and Sanafir were transferred to Egypt in 1950 and played a large role in Cairo blocking the Straits in 1967, which led to the Six Day War in which Israel captured the islands.
They were given back to Egypt and demilitarized as part of the 1979 peace accords. Egypt in turn decided to hand them back to Saudi Arabia in 2018, but according to the terms of the peace treaty, Israel must give its consent.
Brokering such an agreement, which could be seen as an important step on the way to having Riyadh join the Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Israel, could be helpful to Biden domestically.
‘Reporting is actually not accurate’
Nevertheless, at a press briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre denied that an upcoming visit was ever confirmed. In response to a question about it, she said:
“I do want to be — make — you know, be clear here: People have been asking if it was postponed. You — look, he said — the President said himself on Friday — I believe, yes, Friday — that the — that there was a — a visit in the works. But it was — it was — it wasn’t moved or postponed. It was — that — that reporting is actually not accurate. We were still having discussions, it was being considered, but it was never locked in. So I just want to be very clear on that.
“This trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, when it comes, would be in the context of significant deliverables for the American people and the Middle East region,” Jean-Pierre told the reporters.
“You know, we look forward to consulting closely with members of Congress. But again, I don’t have a trip right now to announce,” she said. “So there’s really — I don’t want to get ahead of something that we’re just — don’t have anything for — to share.”
Plan to embarrass Israeli gov’t
In related news, veteran settlement movement leaders announced Monday that they would establish 10 new communities in Judea and Samaria ahead of Biden’s arrival.
The stated aim is to retaliate for the government not implementing an agreement whereby the nascent Evyatar community was voluntarily evacuated until a survey of the land could take place. Once part of it was found to be state land, the government could have given permission for a hesder yeshiva to be built there immediately, with homes to eventually follow, but it has yet to uphold its side of the deal.
Considering that Biden is a firm opponent of Jews building in Judea and Samaria, this would embarrass the Israeli government as well as fuel progressive Democrats’ ire at the president.