JERUSALEM – President Biden, who prides himself on having known every Israeli prime minister for half a century, is meeting a new one on Thursday: Yair Lapid, the head of an interim government.
Unusually for a presidential visit, Mr Biden arrived in Israel in the middle of an election campaign, as Israelis prepare to return to the polls on November 1. Yet, given the country’s long political stalemate and governmental instability, US officials would have been in a hurry to find a time when Israel was not in campaign mode.
The last ruling coalition, an unwieldy alliance of eight ideologically disparate parties led by Naftali Bennett, lost its parliamentary majority in June and collapsed just a year after being sworn in. This will be Israel’s fifth election in less than four years.
While protocol demands that Mr Biden avoid being drawn into domestic politics, his mere presence could give a boost to Mr Lapid, who is running for prime minister and is second in the polls after the prime. Israel’s longest-serving minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. However, a presidential visit is no guarantee of success for an incumbent.
President Bill Clinton came to Israel for a 22-hour visit in March 1996, four months after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who opposed the peace process with the Palestinians and about 10 weeks before a very busy national election. Shimon Peres was prime minister at the time, but a wave of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings that killed more than 60 civilians damaged his national status.
Mr. Clinton had obviously come to try to bolster the prime minister’s chances and to try to rekindle Israeli faith in the peace process. Nevertheless, Mr. Peres lost out to Mr. Netanyahu, who served for three years until 1999 and then returned to power a decade later.
Mr Lapid, 58, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, has previously served in government as minister of finance, strategic affairs and foreign affairs, and as alternate prime minister, as well as a stint as leader of the opposition. But it also suffers from a lack of security in the eyes of many Israelis. Discussing important issues such as the Iranian nuclear threat with Mr. Biden could help restore his image as a statesman.
“In Israel’s history, people who naturally entered the prime minister’s office had security training,” Nahum Barnea, a veteran political commentator with the popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper, said in a recent interview, citing decorated generals who became Prime Minister. , like Mr. Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
“It was a prerequisite,” Mr. Barnea added, noting that Mr. Lapid had spent most of his compulsory military service as a writer for a military magazine.
In remarks broadcast at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr Lapid said Mr Biden’s visit would deal with “both challenges and opportunities”, with the discussion of the challenges focusing first and foremost on the issue of Iran, its uranium enrichment and Israel’s efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
“Israel will not sit idly by while Iran tries to attack us,” Lapid said, echoing harsh messages from his predecessors. “Our security services know how to reach anyone, anywhere, and they will do just that. We will discuss with the President and his team the expansion of security cooperation against all threats.
After arriving in the country on Wednesday, Mr. Biden warmly welcomed Mr. Lapid and put an arm over his shoulder as if they were longtime friends. At a welcoming ceremony moments later, Mr Lapid called the US leader “a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known”.