The Masochist in Chief: Biden, Israel and the Middle East

Why is the US president so eager to take abuse from a tiny client state?

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, looks on as then-US Vice President Joe Biden signs the guest book at the then-prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, looks on as then-US Vice President Joe Biden signs the guest book at the then-prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. Biden says there is a 'moment of opportunity' for peace between Israelis and Palestinians [File: Debbie Hill/Pool via AP]

You got to admire Joe Biden’s tenacity.

He may not be a genius, but unlike his predecessor, he is stable. He has also been a consistent and reliable establishment figure for decades, albeit consistently wrong on Israel and the Middle East, where he is expected this week.

Israel is the only “western country” where Biden is less popular than Trump, even though his Middle East policy looks a lot like his predecessor’s – “the nuclear deal is out, the Saudis are in, and human rights are down”. And Israel is, once again, front and centre. If you thought his trip to Saudi Arabia is about Saudi Arabia or oil, think again. The main aim of his trip is to increase Israel’s security and deepen its integration in the region.

True, Biden is not the first president to spoil Israel rotten, but there is something much more bizarre about Biden’s relationship with Israel. It is sort of a sado-masochistic relationship – the greater the abuse the bigger the schmooze.

During his first visit to the region in 1973, the 30-year-old junior senator from Delaware expressed his love for Israel and admiration for its then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. Bemused by his passion, ideas and offer to help mediate with Egypt, the Israelis scolded young Joe and brushed him off as an inexperienced political lightweight.

Half a century later, Biden is travelling back to the region older, wiser and president of the United States – the world’s foremost superpower – but apparently no less submissive to an ever more abusive Israel, alas. He gushes with adoration and adulation for “democratic Jewish Israel”, otherwise known as Apartheid, repeating old myths and mantras about its sacrosanct security, while receiving the same dismissive treatment from his Israeli juniors.

In fact, since he took office last year, Israeli leaders repeatedly rebuffed or ignored President Biden’s demands on major issues, including the freezing of illegal settlement expansion and resuming of peace talks towards a two-state solution. They also snubbed him on the immediate issues, rejecting his appeal to de-escalate last year’s Gaza war, obstructing his decision to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, DC and ignoring his request to allow the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to proceed peacefully.

Israeli soldiers killed Shireen in the morning of May 11, stormed her home in the afternoon and attacked her funeral procession the next day. And yet the Biden administration chose to whitewash the crime of the Israeli military against a Palestinian-American citizen, no less on Independence Day, and provide the Israeli occupation with impunity to carry on.

This reminds me of a photograph of Biden taken last summer showing him kneeling in front of Israel’s then-President Reuven Rivlin and his Chief of Staff Rivka Ravitz at the White House after hearing Ravitz is a mother of 12. He meant to be funny, but the image, eh, not so much.

Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been particularly sadistic towards Biden, his preferred punching bag, over the years.

This was particularly flagrant when the Netanyahu government announced major illegal settlement expansion on the eve of then-Vice President Biden’s arrival in Israel in 2010. Yet, Biden continued to confess his love for Netanyahu, becoming his preferred senior channel to the White House as relations deteriorated over the Iran nuclear deal.

A decade later, in 2021, when now-President Biden privately asked his friend Bibi to wind down the assault on Gaza, he rejected the timid appeal publicly, and vowed not to stop until Israel is satisfied with the results. And even after leaving office, Netanyahu publicly mocked Biden for “falling asleep” during a White House meeting with his replacement. Despite all this, Biden is reportedly planning to meet the former prime minister on his upcoming trip to Israel.

It is as if this commanded-in-chief needs the public humiliation, as he builds a broad coalition against the “Russian threat” and the Chinese “systematic challenge”.

It has been suggested that Biden also scolds his Israeli counterparts, only he does it in private. But there is no evidence of such gutsiness, except randomly reported hearsay, and no tangible results even if this is remotely true. But then again, why should any US president take any abuse from a tiny client state, well, unless he actually enjoys it, or perhaps used to it, thanks to the Israel lobby.

Mind you, Biden’s schmooze of the Israeli right goes back decades.

In 1984, Biden gave a speech to the radical Herut Zionists’ annual convention in New York, along with then-general Ariel Sharon, the architect of the criminal invasion of Lebanon. He took aim at what he called the “three myths” that “propel US policy in the Middle East”, namely, “the belief that Saudi Arabia can be a broker for peace, the belief that [Jordan’s] King Hussein is ready to negotiate peace, and the belief that the Palestine Liberation Organization can deliver a consensus for peace”.

Well, less than a decade later, the PLO and King Hussein signed peace accords with Israel, and Saudi Arabia supported and attended the 1991 Madrid International Peace Conference with Israelis and Palestinians.

In 2002, Saudi King Abdullah made public his peace plan that later became the historic Arab Peace Plan, offering Israel full recognition in return for full withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in 1967. But Israel rejected it and the US downplayed it.

Driven by political expediency, Biden had opposed the UN-sanctioned first Gulf war to liberate Kuwait, but later supported the illegal and disastrous second Gulf war; one waged against Iraq on false pretence.

In short, Biden’s detractors are not wrong to say that he has gotten every major foreign policy decision wrong, even if these critics have proven worse. Fast forward 20 years of American, Israeli, Saudi and Russian wars and disasters. During his presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and has treated it accordingly since. But now, under Israeli pressure and guidance, the president is making Saudi Arabia the focus of his appeal to the Arab world. Israel is nudging Biden to sell Saudi Arabia a new, more sophisticated missile system, which it hopes could become part of a US/Israel-led regional integrated missile system meant to contain and confront expansionist Iran.

Such a move could become the operational core of the much-touted future Middle East-NATO. Such an alliance may be overly ambitious or even utterly wishful, but it could nonetheless serve as a strategic framework for the US and its regional allies – acting as the strategic arm of the US-led Abraham Accords.

With the US military bases or troops stationed in every Gulf country, especially the Fifth Fleet harboured in Bahrain and the US Central Command (CENTCOM) at Al Udeid base in Qatar, bringing Israel into the equation is mainly political. And foolish.

Make no mistake, Israelis will never fight, let alone die, in defence of Gulf security. Ever.

At any rate, Biden’s thankless effort to build on the Abraham Accords and further integrate Israel into the Arab region requires the appearance of a balanced bid for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This necessitates picking up PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas from the Peace Process bin, dusting him off and polishing him well in preparation for a photo op with the president.

There will be excitement, and maybe a joint statement, even pledges of support, but mark my words, at the end of the day, photo op is all it is, and maybe a quick siesta for the two grandpas, before Biden flies out direct to Saudi Arabia, perhaps with an Israeli official on board.

In this theatre of the absurd, Abbas’s best opportunity to redeem himself, his “last stand”, may be to skip this useless, fruitless photo op altogether, and head straight to the siesta. You never know – a Palestinian snub may be what is needed to exhilarate Joe.