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A tale of two visits

Aug 02,2022 - Last updated at Aug 02,2022

The Biden administration’s approach and media coverage given to the president’s visits to Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia were starkly contradictory. Biden gushed with the Israelis, but was vague with the Palestinians, and so cautious with Gulf Arab leaders that he almost undercut his message.

The president arrived in Israel declaring that he felt “at home”. He received an Israeli Medal of Honour and signed “The Jerusalem Declaration” with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The document was embarrassingly effusive, affirming that the US commitment to Israel is “unbreakable”, “unwavering”, “unshakable”, “sacrosanct”, “enduring”, and a “moral commitment” based on a “bedrock of shared values.”

Palestinians are not mentioned until near the statement’s end where both countries “condemn the deplorable series of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens” and pledge to “improve the quality of life of Palestinians”. Intriguingly, the declaration departs from its both leaders frame to note that only  President Biden reaffirms his…support for a two-state solution.”

Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was, as expected, uneventful. Unable to agree on a joint statement, each delivered their own readouts, making it clear that nothing had moved the needle toward peace. 

In his statement, Biden used his now-shopworn “Israelis and Palestinians [both] deserve to enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy”, and “his belief that the Palestinian people deserve to live lives of dignity and opportunity; to move and travel freely; and to give hope to their children that they will one day enjoy the same freedom and self-determination of their neighbou rs. 

The US president not only failed to criticise any Israeli behaviours that are impeding his hopes for Palestinians or provide any assurances of action to rein in these behaviours, but also further dashed Palestinian hopes by twice stating that the time was not right for any movement toward achieving long-denied Palestinian rights.

As Biden departed, Israelis were left overwhelmed by the president’s affection and commitments of billions in aid and political support, and the Palestinians underwhelmed by his hollow words of support for their aspirations without any commitments to help realise them.

Biden’s low-key arrival in Jeddah markedly contrasted his effusive engagement with Israeli leaders,  his initial greeting with Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman punctuated by a fist bump that was featured on the front pages of US newspapers and played endlessly on US news programmes. If intended by the White House as a sign of the president’s continued displeasure with the crown prince, a hostile US press did not read it that way. Biden was accused of giving the Saudi leader “a free pass”.

First, it is important to note that no Arab Gulf state is “subsidised by US taxpayers”. Secondly, after the excessive pandering in Jerusalem, it strains credulity to suggest that Biden’s behaving in a statesman-like manner with Saudi Arabian leaders is about US domestic politics. Thirdly, after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their attendant horrors, it takes hubris to speak of “American values” or an “American-led world order”. Finally, it is dishonest for the US press to quote from human rights groups’ reports to make their case against Saudi Arabia, when they refuse to cover these same groups’ extensive reports on Israeli practices. In fact, ongoing Israeli violations of Palestinian rights or the need for the US to pressure Israel to cease and desist were not mentioned.

In the end, Biden’s meetings with GCC+3 countries and bilateral meetings with their leaders concluded with several signed agreements on defence, energy security and Arab-US joint humanitarian assistance to developing countries. These received scant mention in press coverage, which remained focused on the “fist bump”.

At trip’s end, we are left with a stark study in contrasts in how US political leadership and media see Israel and the Arabs: one is above criticism, the other is fair game. The impact of this double standard is that it distorts our relationships and undercuts our credibility as we struggle to find our way forward in the post-Iraq, multipolar world.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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