[‘The Jerusalem Declaration’] How Biden’s Middle East visit has exposed American biases

Joe Biden attends the 2022 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem (Gil Cohen-Maggen - AFP)

James Zogby

The National  /  July 18, 2022

The administration and the media’s attitudes towards Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia couldn’t have been starker.

The US administration’s approach and media coverage given to President Joe Biden’s visits to Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia were starkly contradictory. While Mr Biden was gushing towards the Israelis, he was vague and hesitant with the Palestinians; and with the leaders of the Gulf countries, he was so cautious that he almost undercut his message.

The President arrived in Israel declaring, as he has in the past, that he is a “Zionist”, and that he felt “at home”. He received an Israeli Presidential Medal of Honour and signed what is called “The Jerusalem Declaration” with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. This document, heralded by an Israeli newspaper for its “intimacy”, was excessively effusive and included a number of over-the-top expressions of affection in the lexicon of such terms used by American politicians.

On just the first page, the declaration affirms that the US commitment to Israel is “unbreakable”, “unwavering”, “unshakable”, “sacrosanct”, “enduring”, and is a “moral commitment” based on a “bedrock of shared values”.

Palestinians aren’t mentioned until near the end of the statement, where it notes that both countries “condemn the deplorable series of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens” and pledge to “improve the quality of life of Palestinians”. It’s intriguing that the declaration departs from its “both leaders” frame to note that only “President Biden reaffirms his … support for a two-state solution”.

The double standard undercuts our credibility as we struggle to find our way forward in the post-Iraq world

Mr Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was, as expected, stiff and uneventful. Because they couldn’t agree on a joint statement, each delivered their own readouts on the meeting – both of which included expected, tired formulas making it clear that nothing had happened to move the needle on Palestinians achieving their rights or the US playing a more proactive role in helping to advance Palestinian rights.

In his statement following the meeting with Mr Abbas, Mr Biden used his now shopworn “Israelis and Palestinians [both] deserve to enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy”, and “his belief that the Palestinian people deserve to live lives of dignity and opportunity; to move and travel freely; and to give hope to their children that they will one day enjoy the same freedom and self-determination of their neighbours”. The US President not only failed to criticize any Israeli behaviours that are impeding his hopes for Palestinians or provide any assurances that he would act to rein in these Israeli behaviours, but also went further to dash Palestinian hopes by twice stating that the time wasn’t right for any movement towards achieving long-denied Palestinian rights.

As Mr Biden left Tel Aviv flying to Jeddah, Israelis were left overwhelmed by the President’s affection and commitments of billions in aid and political support, and the Palestinians were left underwhelmed by his hollow words of support for their aspirations without any commitments to help realize them.

Mr Biden’s arrival in Jeddah was described as low-key. In contrast to the effusiveness of his engagement with Israeli leaders, his initial greeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was punctuated by a fist bump – which was featured on the front pages of US newspapers and played endlessly on US news programs. If intended by the White House as an effort to make clear the President’s reservations about the leadership in Riyadh, it wasn’t read that way by a hostile US media. An editorial in The Washington Post, for instance, weirdly decried his meeting with “despotic regimes subsidized by US taxpayers” and failing to live up to the values of an “American-led world order”.

In the first place, it’s important to note that no Gulf state is “subsidized by US taxpayers”. Secondly, after going out of his way to please the leadership in Israel, it strains credulity to suggest that Mr Biden’s behaving in a statesman-like manner with Saudi leaders is about US domestic politics. Thirdly, after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and all their attendant horrors, it takes more than a bit of hubris and/or disingenuousness to speak of “American values” or an “American-led world order”. And finally, it is patently dishonest for the same US media to freely quote from reports by human rights groups to make their case against Saudi Arabia, when they have refused to even cover these same groups’ extensive reports critical of Israeli practices. In fact, there was nary a mention of alleged Israeli violations of Palestinian rights or the need for the US to take measures to pressure Israel to cease and desist.

In the end, Mr Biden’s meetings with GCC+3 countries and his bilateral meetings with each of the leaders concluded with several signed agreements on mutual defence, energy security and clean energy co-operation, and Arab-US joint humanitarian assistance to alleviate hunger, promote health care, and build infrastructure in developing countries. These, however, received scant mention in the US media’s coverage, which remained focused on the fist bump.

At the end of the trip, what we are left with is a stark study in contrasts in how US political leadership and media sees Israel and the Arabs through two different lenses: one is above criticism, the other is fair game. The impact of this double standard is that it distorts our relationships and undercuts our credibility as we struggle to find our way forward in the post-Iraq, multipolar world.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National