President Joe Biden meets Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday to address various regional security challenges ahead of potential domestic political change, as the United States and Israel both face elections in the coming weeks.
“The two leaders will consult on a range of regional and global challenges of mutual concern, including the threat posed by Iran and its proxies. They will also discuss the forthcoming conclusion of a historic agreement resolving the maritime boundary dispute between Israel and Lebanon, mediated by the United States,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
“President Biden will also underscore his commitment to advancing peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond, by deepening Israel’s regional integration and normalization with the Arab world. And they will discuss ways to promote equal measures of freedom, prosperity and security for both Israelis and Palestinians,” she said.
The visit is not expected to generate any significant outcome but is heavy on symbolism.
“Both sides have an interest in trying to make sure that the relationship is seen as something that’s not partisan in American politics,” said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the department of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “Israel, because it wants good relations with whoever’s in power in Washington. And President Biden, because he believes it is good for the Democratic Party.
“And with the midterms coming up, being seen to be with the president of the state of Israel, one who is identified with the center left, is very good because it makes Israel not a controversial issue for the Democrats,” Rynhold told VOA.
The United States is facing midterm elections in November, with polls suggesting Democrats would lose the slim majority they have in the House of Representatives.
In the same month, Israel will hold its elections — the fifth in four years — a tight race that will pit former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Yair Lapid, who has been the caretaker prime minister since July following the collapse of Naftali Bennett’s government.
With no clear majority predicted, Biden will try to assess whether Herzog will try to push for a unity government, Rynhold said.
“The president in Israel is the one who decides who to call on to form a government, and therefore his role when there’s no obvious winner is critical. So, no doubt, [the U.S. will] want to know what he’s thinking, and they’ll want to have some influence on what he’s thinking,” he added.
With Israeli presidents elected every seven years, Herzog will be there no matter who becomes the next Israeli prime minister.
“If it’s a Netanyahu government and it is a far-right government, then it’s possible that President Herzog might be seen as a channel that is easier to deal with,” said Rynhold.
Regional air defense
In June, Israel announced it is building a U.S.-sponsored Middle East Air Defense Alliance, a network of air defense systems with its Gulf state neighbors to thwart Iranian attacks and support Israel’s further integration in the region.
The DEFEND Act, a bill that would promote the development of such defense architecture, is currently being considered in the U.S. Congress.
The Biden administration is pursuing a vision to build up the military capacity of allies and partners in the Middle East to potentially reduce the U.S. footprint, said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security. But much of the plan’s details have not been made public.
“Whether it will be one network under which all the partners are operating, or more of what’s referred to as a hub-and-spoke system where all the partners will reach back potentially to U.S. Central Command that will then feed information back out to other partners [remains to be seen],” Lord told VOA.
A regional air defense system may facilitate Israel’s wider diplomatic recognition from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, following the 2020 Abraham Accords — normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain brokered by the Trump administration.
Israel’s support for Ukraine
Biden is expected to push Herzog as he continues to rally international support for Ukraine, eight months into Russia’s invasion of the country.
Israel has turned down Ukraine’s request for Israeli air defense systems that could shoot down Iranian drones operated by Russia but has instead offered to help Ukrainians develop air attack alerts for civilians. Iran denies supplying drones to aid Moscow’s war.
Israel has condemned the Russian invasion but has so far limited its Ukraine assistance to humanitarian relief, citing a desire for continued cooperation with Moscow in Syria. With its military presence in Syria, Russia can make it significantly more difficult for Israel to target Iranian weapons shipments destined for adversarial groups.
“They’re focused on not antagonizing Moscow so they can continue to protect their own borders from [Iranian] weapons falling in the hands of Hezbollah and other proxy actors,” Lord said.
Israel and Lebanon
Earlier in October, following months of mediation by the administration, Biden announced a “historic breakthrough,” where Israel and Lebanon agreed to formally end their maritime boundary dispute and establish a permanent maritime boundary between them.
The agreement would enable cash-strapped Lebanon to begin to explore offshore gas fields, while allowing Israel to provide for its own security in the waters and remove a point of friction with Hezbollah.
However, the deal is not a solution to the deeper problems between Israel and Lebanon, said David Hale, former ambassador to Lebanon and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.
“The overall fact that Hezbollah is able to make life and death decisions controlled by Tehran for all Lebanese is still a factor,” he said. “And so, the potential for an escalation of violence, unfortunately, probably has not changed significantly by this agreement.”