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How Biden could help Netanyahu come back to power

The U.S. president – who jokes about how little he has in common with Bibi – could be his political savior

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu

Even before the arrival in Israel of U.S. President Joe Biden, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already took credit for any progress toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia that Biden is set to announce.

Netanyahu and Biden will meet in Israel before the president takes his historic direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah – and Netanyahu plans to use the meeting to set the stage for his election campaign, which will claim that only he can bring peace to the Middle East. 

In a Knesset speech on Monday evening, Netanyahu said that Biden’s direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia – like Trump’s from Saudi Arabia to Israel – “is an expression of the enormous change we have brought about in the Middle East over the past decade.”

He said, “As your prime minister, together with excellent people in Israel, we first opened the skies for flights to Israel over the skies of Saudi Arabia. This was the first step in establishing normalization with Saudi Arabia. In addition, we also worked to promote direct flights to Mecca for Muslim citizens of Israel and shortened flights between Asia and Israel. 

“We will all be blessed if these initiatives mature during President Biden's visit this week.”

Netanyahu even went as far as to thank the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), for his contribution toward the Abraham Accords and said that “if I return to lead the State of Israel, I intend to bring about a full peace agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.”

While Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll and diplomatic analysts have cautioned that it is unlikely Saudi Arabia would establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel in the near future, it is expected that the American president will announce that more Israeli planes will be permitted to fly over Saudi Arabia.

There will likely also be the finalization of an Israel-backed agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and a discussion of a U.S. plan to integrate regional air defenses to better protect Israel and its neighbors from Iranian missile attacks. 

“A region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation – rather than coming apart through conflict – is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on U.S. military forces and their families,” Biden wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Post over the weekend. “In Jeddah, leaders from across the region will gather, pointing to the possibility of a more stable and integrated Middle East, with the United States playing a vital leadership role.”

MEETING’ LENGTH COULD BE MEANINGLESS

Biden’s visit comes just at the right time for Netanyahu, who polls suggest may be able to lead his party back to power after a year as head of the opposition. 

“In any diplomatic meeting, Netanyahu’s charisma and capabilities shine through,” said Arik Ziv, editor of the Likudnik Web site. “This is someone who has been prime minister, who stood up to [former U.S. President Barack] Obama and has proven he can stand against anyone.”

Ziv told ALL ISRAEL NEWS that he expects Netanyahu to stress to the president why the Iran agreement is dangerous but does not expect any public escalation between the two leaders who share a multi-decade friendship. On the contrary, he expects them both to “milk their meeting for all its worth.”

“These are two very, very experienced politicians,” Ziv said.

Biden’s meeting with Netanyahu has only been scheduled to last 15 minutes on the sidelines of an event hosted by President Isaac Herzog at his official residence and is only happening due to the requirements of diplomatic protocol. Prime Minister Yair Lapid will meet with the president for more than an hour.

But those who have known Netanyahu for decades stressed that even a few minutes could be enough to accomplish the Likud candidate’s goal.

What Netanyahu is looking for is the photo-op, the picture of him smiling with the Democratic president, said veteran former Netanyahu spokesperson Aviv Bushinsky - reminiscent of the 2013 iconic picture of Netanyahu and Obama on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport with their suit jackets slung over their shoulders, heads close in conversation. 

“Israelis will be watching to see if Lapid has good chemistry with the world leader or if he is just some TV star who accidentally got into his role,” Bushinsky said. “Netanyahu already knows how to play the part.”

40-YEAR HISTORIC BACKGROUND FOR MEETING

Netanyahu and Biden have a long and complex personal history that goes back to the 1980s when Biden was a 30-year-old Delaware senator and Netanyahu served in the Israeli Embassy in Washington under then-Ambassador Moshe Arens and as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. 

Since his first years in office, Biden has been considered a staunch supporter of Israel and a defender of Israel’s security. In the build-up to the last presidential election, the Jewish Democratic Council of America claimed that “no candidate for president in either party has ever run with as long and as strong of a pro-Israel record as President Biden.”

Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996 but was defeated in 1999. Biden sent Netanyahu a letter praising his political courage during talks with the Palestinians, according to the New York Times. Netanyahu said Biden was the only American politician who wrote to him after his defeat. 

In 2009, Biden was elected vice president under Obama and the same year Netanyahu was reelected as prime minister, but this time the relationship was more complicated, because Netanyahu did not agree with Obama’s policies on Israel. 

“Joe Biden was seen by the Israeli government as someone who they could communicate with more effectively,” so he became the White House point person for the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and Israel’s top echelon, according to Michael Crowley, a diplomatic correspondent in the Times' Washington bureau, who made the comment on a podcast last year. 

This personal friendship became especially important in 2010, when Biden visited Israel on a mission designed to help ease tensions between his boss and Netanyahu and Israel announced the expansion of a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem on the day of Biden’s arrival. 

Obama had forced Netanyahu to accept a 10-month settlement freeze, which Netanyahu sold to Israelis by emphasizing that it did not include Jerusalem. The Interior Ministry stressed that construction had been ongoing and the specific approval of 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo that day was just a coincidence.

But the reports of the construction of “new settlements” during the visit embarrassed Biden. His administration urged the vice president to leave Israel at once and skip a planned dinner with Netanyahu, but – after a tense hour and a half delay - Biden chose to talk it out with his long-time colleague instead and avoid what could have become a diplomatic crisis. 

“We’ve been personal friends for almost three decades,” Netanyahu told Biden during that visit. “And in all that time you’ve been a real friend to me and a real friend to Israel and to the Jewish people.”

Six years later, in March 2016, Biden visited again – and again was warmly greeted by the prime minister.

“I hope you feel at home here in Israel because the people of Israel consider the Biden family part of our family,” Netanyahu said in a public statement. “You're part of our mishpucha [family]. And I want to thank you personally for your, for our personal friendship of over 30 years. 

“We've known each other a long time. We've gone through many trials and tribulations. And we have an enduring bond that represents the enduring bond between our people,” Netanyahu said. 

Biden, too, expressed his close ties with Netanyahu in his public response:

"It's true that Prime Minister Bibi and I go back a long way,” Biden said. “I joked some time, a long time ago when you were at the Israeli consulate, we met in a parking lot outside of a restaurant where I was meeting with some American Jewish leaders, and we became close friends and I later signed a picture for you that I, as a joke I said 'Bibi, I don't agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.'”

Ziv said that quote encapsulates the relationship: “They have different opinions, but there is no bad blood to speak about.”

Maayan Hoffman is a veteran American-Israeli journalist and strategic communications consultant. She is the former news editor, head of strategy and senior health analyst for the Jerusalem Post, where she launched the outlet's Health & Wellness, Business & Innovation and Christian World portals.

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