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Biden, old-school backer of Israel, arrives at a tricky moment for both nations

President Biden arrived in Israel on July 13, applauding U.S.-Israeli security commitments and again calling for a two-state solution. (Video: The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — Joe Biden and Israel go way back. As he began his 10th trip to the Holy Land, he can look back on visits — as a senator and vice president — spanning almost five decades and nearly a dozen prime ministers.

“I was saying to a couple of younger members of my staff, before I came over, about the many times I’ve been to Israel,” he said in December at the White House Hanukkah celebration. “I said — and then, all of a sudden, I realized, ‘God, you’re getting old, Biden.’ I have known every — every prime minister well since Golda Meir.”

It wasn’t the legendary Meir, who led Israel from 1969 to 1974, hosting Biden on his first trip as president, of course, or even Benjamin Netanyahu, the longtime premier whose frenemy relationship with Biden goes back 30 years. It was the newly minted Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the former TV news anchor who is in his 13th day on the job as he greeted the president on the tarmac.

Biden landed in Israel touting his decades-long relationship with the country and reaffirming his Zionist credentials.

“The connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep,” he said at the airport after disembarking. “It’s bone deep. Generation after generation, that connection grows. We invest in each other. We dream together. We’re part of what has always been the objective we both had. I’ve been part of that as a senator, as a vice president, and quite frankly, before that, having been raised by a righteous Christian.”

As Biden visits, Palestinians reminded of their descent into autocracy

Israel’s unsettled political scene — Lapid assumed office when the coalition government collapsed in turmoil at the end of June — means that the leaders will be navigating domestic pressures during a tightly scripted state visit, according to officials in both countries.

Lapid’s centrist party faces a November election and polls that show Netanyahu poised for a possible comeback. Biden, an old-school Democratic Israel supporter, is contending with the left wing of his own party, which has increasingly aligned itself with the Palestinians and connected the Middle East conflict to the struggle for racial justice in the United States.

Lapid, a centrist and Israel’s most moderate leader in more than a decade, is one of the few national politicians willing to endorse the possibility of an independent Palestine and the “two-state solution” that Biden has returned to the center of American policy. But the dynamics in both countries will take the most contentious issues off the table.

“Some things are just not in the cards,” said Dan Shapiro, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “Any significant moves on the Palestinian issue are not possible during election season in Israel,” adding that the current leadership could easily be gone in a few months.

In a joint statement Wednesday ahead of the arrival, Biden and Lapid announced the creation of a “strategic high-level dialogue on technology.” The leaders said the two countries will partner to address a range of issues including climate change, pandemic preparedness and the implementation of artificial intelligence.

Biden’s trips to Israel haven’t always gone smoothly. Diplomats here still cringe at the 2010 dust-up in which the vice president nearly cut his trip short after the Israeli government announced an expansion of settlement construction soon after Air Force Two landed.

But a repeat of that sort of controversy — which Netanyahu at the time blamed on a bureaucratic mistake — is unlikely during the two days Biden is scheduled to spend in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

After Trump’s dramatic tilt toward Israel, Biden likely to restore traditional approach

For their part, many Israelis view Biden as a throwback president, a staunch supporter of Israel who is neither the right-wing booster Donald Trump was nor the ideological scold that Obama was seen to be.

“His relation to Israel, his relationship to foreign policy is different. He’s a realist, a practical man,” said Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Discussions between Biden and Lapid could cover very different ground than in the meetings between Netanyahu and Trump, who dramatically tilted U.S. policy toward Israel by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, approving the annexation of the Golan Heights and declaring West Bank settlements legal.

But like Netanyahu, Trump has declined to retire from political life. The former president is weighing a comeback run in 2024, and Israelis know that the current moment, with centrists in both Washington and Jerusalem, may be fleeting.

“It has to be said, this may soon look like just a blip, and we’ll have Trump and Bibi back again,” said one Israeli official familiar with government planning for the visit, using Netanyahu’s nickname, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal discussions. “Both of them could be waiting in the wings.”

Biden and Netanyahu have a history going back decades. But Netanyahu infuriated the Obama White House by airing his complaints about the potential nuclear-containment agreement with Iran at a joint session of Congress. Biden, when he was declared the winner of the 2020 election, waited almost a month before calling Netanyahu, which many Israelis viewed as a snub.

Biden, as is customary, will meet with Netanyahu in his role as the official leader of Israel’s parliamentary opposition. But Israeli media has reported that just 15 minutes is allocated for the session and no joint appearance is scheduled.

The president will take pains not to be seen as favoring any of Israel’s competing parties in the upcoming election, Israel’s fifth in the last three years. But Lapid’s supporters relish his chance to appear at the U.S. leader’s side just as campaigning begins.

The president will also meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. He plans to visit a hospital in East Jerusalem and is expected to announce $100 million in new aid to the Palestinian health system.

But those gestures may not satisfy liberal Democrats who decry Israel’s six-decade occupation of the West Bank. When fighting broke out between Israel and Gaza in May of last year, prominent liberals admonished Israel for its military strikes and called on Biden and United States to condemn its actions more forcefully.

“We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation and systems of violent oppression and trauma,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who rose to political prominence as a Black Lives Matter activist, said in a speech on the House floor in May 2021. “Until all our children are safe, we will continue to fight for our rights in Palestine and in Ferguson.”

The dynamic has put Biden, an ardent and steadfast supporter of Israel, at odds with a growing contingent of Democrats who not only refuse to shy away from criticizing Israel, but also have called for significant policy changes in how the United States supports the country.

Beyond the most prominent critics of Israel in Congress, several politicians who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and then-South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, signaled at a 2019 event hosted by J Street, a liberal Jewish lobbying group, that they would be willing to make foreign aid to Israel contingent on the country forging more peaceful relations with Palestinians. Biden, who participated in the event, notably did not bring up the idea of conditioning aid.

Still, Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan backing in the United States, and even as the mood toward the country shifts, U.S. politicians still overwhelmingly support it. In September, for example, the House of Representatives approved $1 billion in new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system by a vote of 420 to 9.