Joe Biden has just ended his presidential Middle East tour. He met individually with several leaders and proffered the obligatory lip-service about “peace” and “human dignity” in every speech he delivered. He even weaved some personal anecdotes into his empty rhetoric.
To Israel, Biden promised his commitment to Zionism, and to the Palestinians he assured the United States would support their statehood along 1967 borders. It is the same froth we regularly see in these Middle East presidential tours, except during the Trump era when the commander-in-chief had something new to say for a change. But with Trump out of office, we are back to the usual vacuous, boring statecraft in the Middle East.
Observers, of course, say there is something new and unusual happening. Not really. Anything that commanded attention was just a symbolic gesture, not a substantive policy shift or a novel approach to an old problem. The truth is, Biden’s trip was only conspicuous for its conventionality.
One example was his pledge of $100 million for Palestinian healthcare. There are six Palestinian hospitals on the eastern side of Jerusalem now apparently strapped for cash and in deep debt. The problem is so bad that the Palestinian Authority still owes the Augusta Victoria hospital $70 million. The U.S. Congress was informed of this by the hospital administrators, as if it is our bill to pay. Biden promptly offered to pay their debt along with a little extra.
Congress might have a few questions first. Where will the money go? Will it go directly to the hospitals, or will it go to the Palestinian Authority? If the latter, how do we audit that? And even assuming the funds go somewhere to actually do some good, what then? Are we just going to continue giving the Palestinians humanitarian aid indefinitely, or does the administration think the key to their economic prosperity is independent statehood?
Also: Why is the Palestinian Authority in so much debt? It is true that the Palestinians have had fewer finances to work with lately because of President Trump’s temporary withdrawal from the United Nations relief fund. Also, the movement for Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) has been successful in getting profitable businesses that employ many Palestinians out of the West Bank. That loss cannot possibly be good for Palestinian prosperity. But the PA still gets quite a large amount of money from other sources, including the United States, European countries, Gulf states, international agencies, nonprofit organizations, and even Israel. And yet, the Palestinian people continue to live in dire poverty—except, of course, for their unelected leaders.
A larger question is why is this aid America’s responsibility? Considering there are many Americans who cannot afford medical treatment, why would we send $100 million to this impoverished people halfway across the world?
Naturally, the same question could be raised about our military aid to Israel. But that question actually has an answer. When we are talking about aid to Israel, there are justifications that appeal directly to American interests. We are not really transferring something in one direction in that case. We receive technological knowledge and regional intelligence from the Israelis in return. As in the case of our military expenditures for Japan, it is more of a strategic alliance than foreign aid, and thus, the relationship is transactional.
But the healthcare aid is only one example out of many in which the presidential visit has, yet again, failed to impress. Biden was unable to convince the Saudi crown prince to sign onto the Abraham Accords normalization agreement with Israel, but that was fully expected. The trip ended with a senior advisor to the Iranian ayatollah claiming that they already have a nuclear bomb. Whether or not that is true, it is a sign that Biden failed to move the ball on that issue as well.
In the meantime, Israel seems to be doing just fine on its own in strengthening its peaceful relationships in its region. It has just announced that it will be working with Egypt to export natural gas to the European Union, and the United States had nothing whatsoever to do with this venture.