Israeli politics a chaotic backdrop for Biden’s visit

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JERUSALEM (AP) — President Joe Biden, facing his own set of challenges back in Washington, will spend Thursday navigating Israel’s chaotic politics as he meets with the country’s leaders to bolster cooperation with the United States and other nations.

Biden begins the day by sitting down with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who became head of an interim government earlier this month after the previous coalition collapsed. The country is holding its fifth election in less than four years in November.

Although Biden will likely be cautious about showing any favoritism — after all, previous American presidents have tried to influence Israeli politics with little success — there’s little question that he would like to see Lapid prevail. Their joint appearances could burnish Lapid’s image in a country that prizes its relationship with the United States.

Biden and Lapid are expected to sign a joint declaration emphasizing military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, as well as their commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. They’re also planning to launch a strategic initiative on high-tech collaboration.

In addition, the two leaders are scheduled to hold a joint news conference and host a virtual summit with India and the United Arab Emirates, a collection of countries known as the I2U2. A senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly before the meeting, said the UAE will help finance a $2 billion project supporting agriculture in India.

Lapid, 58, is a former journalist and television anchor who entered politics only a decade ago. He served as finance minister under Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, before becoming leader of the opposition and cobbling together a diverse, eight-party coalition ending Netanyahu’s government.

Naftali Bennett became prime minister, with Lapid as his foreign minister. But the coalition collapsed after months of infighting, and Bennett agreed to step aside for Lapid until the election.

Lapid worked hard to solidify his credentials as a statesman while foreign minister. His aides believe the private face time, public appearances and demonstrations of friendship with Biden — who, at 79, is making his 10th trip to Israel — will strengthen that image and get the electorate more comfortable with the idea of Lapid as their leader.

However, Netanyahu is running for prime minister again, and opinion polls have projected that his conservative Likud party will win the most seats in the next election, well ahead of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party.

Neither party is poised to singlehandedly capture the majority of seats needed to form a government, and it is unclear whether either man could cobble together a ruling coalition with smaller parties.

Biden played down the political uncertainty in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 that aired Wednesday.

“We’re committed to the state, not an individual leader,” he said.

Biden is expected to meet only briefly with Netanyahu, with whom who he’s had a rocky relationship in the past. Most notably, when Netanyahu was prime minister, his government approved a massive settlement project in East Jerusalem while Biden was visiting the country in 2010. Biden, then vice president, was infuriated.

Much like Lapid, Biden also faces a political threat from his predecessor. Donald Trump, an ally of Netanyahu who still enjoys strong support from Republican voters despite his attempt to overturn the last election, may run for another term.

Asked by Channel 12 if he expected a rematch, Biden replied, “I’m not predicting, but I would not be disappointed.”

Given the U.S.’s status as Israel’s closest and most important ally, Biden is at the center of the country’s attention during his visit.

Israel staged an elaborate welcoming ceremony for him at the Tel Aviv airport, including a red carpet and a band that played the national anthem of both countries. Major television channels set up special live coverage of Biden’s arrival, and even broadcast a nonstop loop of his motorcade traveling on the highway to Jerusalem.

Biden can also expect to meet numerous politicians eager to have their photo taken with him, or perhaps share an earful about his administration’s attempt to rejuvenate the Iran nuclear deal.

Israel was opposed to the original nuclear deal, which was reached under President Barack Obama in 2015, because its limitations on Iran’s nuclear enrichment would expire and the agreement didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile program or military activities in the region.

Instead of the U.S. reentering the deal, which Trump withdrew from in 2018, Israel would prefer strict sanctions in hopes of leading to a more sweeping accord.

Biden also will receive the nation’s top civilian honor, the presidential medal of honor, from Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Thursday.

He’s also scheduled to meet with U.S. athletes who are participating in the Maccabiah Games. Also known as the “Jewish Olympics,” it’s the country’s largest sporting event that’s held every four years for Israeli and Jewish athletes from all over world.

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