What not to expect from Biden’s Jerusalem trip

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Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi CNN  — 

It has taken President Joe Biden, who arrives in Jerusalem this week at the start of a short regional trip to the Middle East, almost eighteen months to schedule a visit to the holy city. After that he will travel to Saudi Arabia.

By contrast, his predecessor Donald Trump made Jerusalem one of his first foreign destinations, visiting four months after taking office.

Biden, though, has sought to remove some of the intensity around the previous administration’s embrace of Israel, as well as to recalibrate relations with the Palestinians. Nothing too dramatic, though; the White House has made it clear from the start it has no interest in investing any political capital in re-starting peace negotiations.

The President’s visit also comes less than a month after the collapse of the latest Israeli government, a development that will have only reinforced the belief in Washington this is not a time to kick start Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Instead, expect attention on Israel’s growing regional relationships, and a focus on the Palestinian economy.

New Prime Minister Yair Lapid will be the man welcoming Biden to Israel, but the American visitor is also making time to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu, who opinion polls suggest could be poised for a comeback. Look closely when the President shakes hands with the former Israeli premier, and the shadow of Trump might – ever so slightly – be present in the room.

For more on what to expect from Biden’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, CNN spoke to former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

How does Biden’s Israel policy differ from his predecessors’, especially regarding Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, the Golan Heights, and settlements?

Biden strongly believes that the only possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an agreement for two states, living in peace and security. He has maintained Trump’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, in recognition of Israel’s capital. But he has also pledged to reestablish the separate US consulate to conduct diplomacy with the Palestinians that Trump closed, and he is mindful that resolving both sides’ claims in Jerusalem can only be done at the negotiating table. With the civil war in Syria grinding on and Iran seeking to threaten Israel with weapons based there, there is no serious possibility of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. So Biden sees nothing on the horizon that raises any question about Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, and no reason to delve into the question of sovereignty.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Biden is yet to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East one year into his presidency. What does this say about the importance he attaches to solving the Middle East conflict?

That likely reflects the realistic appraisal that Israeli and Palestinian domestic political dynamics make a breakthrough exceedingly unlikely, as well as the elevation of other priorities, like competing with China, revitalizing NATO, and now, helping Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion. In the meantime, the Biden administration supports steps that strengthen the Palestinian economy, reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, and limit actions by either side — like settlement expansion and payments to terrorists [through the Palestinian Authority Martyr’s Fund] — that can make an eventual solution even harder to achieve.

If the US wants to get something from Israel in regard to a political solution for the Palestinians, what can Biden offer in return?

I don’t think Biden is trying to coax a particular action or decision out of Israel on a political horizon. In this phase, when there are no negotiations, it is more about keeping prospects for two states alive for a negotiation that would come later. Even while normalization with Arab states advances, which he fully supports, the Palestinian issue continues to resonate in much of the Arab world and will affect prospects for new countries to join.

Is Israel likely to make any gestures towards the Palestinians ahead of Biden’s trip?

Israelis are newly focused on another election, their fifth in less than four years. Even though the new acting prime minister, Yair Lapid, is more moderate on the Palestinian issue than either outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett or his longtime predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli election campaigns are not a time when gestures to the Palestinians are most likely.

Biden is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition. Since Netanyahu is strongly associated with the Trump presidency, how much of a setback would it be for the Biden administration to find Netanyahu installed again as Israel’s prime minister, if at all?

There is nothing unusual about a friendly stay-in-touch meeting between a visiting American president and the opposition leader of a democratic ally. With Netanyahu, there could be more policy differences than with Lapid, particularly sharper disagreements around the Palestinian issue and Iran nuclear negotiations. But such differences are not new in US-Israel relations. Biden will be careful not to wade into domestic Israeli politics.

Do you expect Biden to bring up the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh during the visit, or is the case considered closed as far as the US is concerned?

Shireen Abu Akleh’s tragic death remains a subject of concern for the US because she was a US citizen and because of the priority placed on journalists being able to do their jobs safely. While the outcome of the US investigation about who was responsible for her killing was inconclusive [but added that Israeli military gunfire was “likely responsible” for her death], the Biden administration continues to push for accountability. The subject is not going away, although neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are likely to be satisfied with the US position.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The digest

Family of slain Palestinian-American journalist demand meeting with Biden

The family of slain Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on Friday sent a strongly worded letter to United States President Joe Biden accusing the US government of “an apparent effort to undermine our efforts towards justice and accountability,” and demanding a meeting with the President during his visit to the region this week.

  • Background: Abu Akleh was shot dead in May while covering an Israeli military operation in the West Bank city of Jenin. Several news organizations, including CNN, as well as the United Nations, published investigations into her death concluding that the bullet that killed her was most likely fired from an Israeli soldier’s gun. Earlier this month, the Palestinian Authority handed over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to the US. It was examined by Israeli experts with US army officials present, according to an Israeli army statement. The US State Department said it “could not reach a definitive conclusion” regarding who fired the fatal bullet but that gunfire from Israeli army positions “was likely responsible.”
  • Why it matters: The Abu Akleh family’s letter concluded with an appeal to Biden, asking that he “meet with us during your upcoming visit and hear directly from us about our concerns and demands for justice.” At Friday’s White House briefing, spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said she had not read the family’s letter and would not be drawn on any possible meeting, but added, “we hear their concerns, we feel their pain.”

Biden defends decision to visit Saudi Arabia

Biden on Saturday defended his controversial visit to Saudi Arabia later this week, saying the trip is critical to the security of the United States. “As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure,” Biden wrote Saturday in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

  • Background: The President’s visit has drawn criticism given that US intelligence has deemed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi (bin Salman has denied involvement). As a candidate for president, Biden had pledged to make the kingdom a “pariah.”
  • Why it matters: The trip comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine has oil prices skyrocketing and global trade disrupted. Biden said he will be focused on a more integrated and stable Middle East, calling the region “essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on” while also noting how critical Middle Eastern energy supplies are in light of sanctions on Russia.

Iran says US-backed regional military alliance will increase tensions

A US-backed Israeli-Arab military alliance will only exacerbate regional tensions, the Iranian foreign ministry said on Saturday as US President Joe Biden gears up for a visit to the Middle East.

  • Background: Israel is working with regional partners on an air defense alliance led by the US, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said last month. The air defense systems would defend against rockets, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, Gantz said. Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Saturday the plan was a “provocative move” and that Iran sees it “as a threat against its national security,” according to the state news agency IRNA. Kaani added that the US is raising the issue “with the aim of sowing the seeds of discord and spreading Iranophobia among regional countries,” added IRNA.
  • Why it matters: The US has been keen to reassure its Middle East allies of its determination to combat attacks by Iran or its armed proxies in the region. But Middle Eastern nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, have expressed concern over an emboldened Iran if sanctions are lifted after a possible nuclear deal with Tehran.

What’s trending

Egypt: #Unlimited_internet_in_Egypt

A social media campaign urging Egypt’s government and internet providers to offer unlimited internet access on home services has been trending, with many expressing outrage over usage quotas and slow speeds.

Egypt’s major internet providers offer limited home-service data bundles at varying speeds with usage caps. Many countries in the region removed data caps for home usage years ago.

“The internet has now become our life,” tweeted famed actor and comedian Mohamed Henedy to his 13 million followers. “Unlimited internet is now a huge necessity for the future.”

The issue was taken up by parliament last week, reported state-backed media, and will be discussed amid nationwide pleas.

Despite the restrictions, the country of about 100 million has high internet penetration.

The World Bank estimates that around 72% of Egypt’s population was using the internet as of 2020, when the global pandemic first peaked. That’s higher than the internet penetration of Italy and China. Usage in Egypt was up from 57% in 2019.

Earlier this year, communications minister Amr Talaat said that Egypt in January ranked first among African countries for fixed broadband speed, citing a report by Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index. Egypt ranks 107th worldwide as of May, with an average speed of 39.9 Mbps.

The ministry has also said that major investments are underway to improve broadband infrastructure.

Internet access was pivotal in Egypt ahead of the 2011 uprisings, when online rallying played a key role in the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Tweet of the day

United States ambassador to Algeria Elizabeth Aubin found a quirky way to wish Muslims a happy Eid Al Adha last weekend: she went to a cattle market to haggle for a sacrificial goat.

In a video posted on her Twitter account, she and her husband Daniel can be seen arguing with a seller in Algerian Arabic, dressed up in traditional gear. “She’s in charge,” Daniel shrugs when the ambassador insists on buying a goat with horns.

Eid, which fell on Saturday, is marked by Muslims with the sacrificing of animals for distribution to the poor.