It’s risky for Biden to go to the Middle East

Israeli and American flags stand during the final rehearsal for the ceremony to welcome U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his visit to Israel, at Ben Gurion International airport, in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel July 12, 2022. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Editor's note:

President Biden’s high-profile trip to the Middle East, with stops in Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia, garners little popular enthusiasm from Americans while risking playing into the hands of critics, Shibley Telhami writes. This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

President Biden is gearing up for a high-profile mid-July trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia — a trip that has generated debate about its purpose, wisdom, and utility. The president called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state after the 2018 killing of Washington Post contributing journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and now risks angering many Americans by going there.

Biden’s planned visit to Israel and the West Bank also risks playing into the hands of critics, who have accused the United States of not pushing hard enough to end the decades-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, while at the same time mobilizing significant efforts to counter Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine.

The visit to oil-rich Saudi Arabia comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted energy prices, leading to speculation that oil is the real reason for the president’s visit. But Biden has pushed back, saying the true purpose is the broader summit of Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, a meeting he sees as advancing Israel’s national security interests. Last week, Biden noted that Israeli leaders have lobbied him to attend, presumably because they want his help to make peace with Riyadh.

It is possible that the president is hoping to temper expectations that his visit might lead to lower U.S. oil prices. But Biden’s invocation of Israel as the catalyst for the trip is somewhat curious, and perhaps predicated on the expectation that this would help him gain public support for the trip.

How do Americans really feel about Biden’s visit?

To answer this question, I designed a set of questions for the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, which I co-lead with Professor Stella Rouse. The poll was fielded online by Nielsen Scarborough from June 22-28, among a national sample of 2,208 adults, with a 2.09 percent margin of error. We divided the sample group into three subsamples, asking whether respondents approved, disapproved or neither approved nor disapproved of the president’s visit — but we led with different introductions.

For the first group, we provided minimal information: “As you may have heard, President Biden is planning a high-profile visit to the Middle East region, including to Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

In the second group, we highlighted Biden’s message about helping Israel: “As you may have heard, President Biden is planning a high-profile visit to the Middle East region, including to Israel and Saudi Arabia. In explaining his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Biden said: ‘It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them — for the Israelis.’ ”

For the third group, we noted what Biden had said about Saudi Arabia: “As you may have heard, President Biden is planning a high-profile visit to the Middle East region, including to Israel and also to Saudi Arabia, a country important to the global energy market but one that Biden had pledged to ‘make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.’ ”

In all three versions, there was no mention of the Palestinians and Israeli occupation, or of the Khashoggi slaying.

Mentioning Israel or Saudi Arabia invokes less support

Regardless of how we introduced the question, respondents showed little enthusiasm for the president’s Middle East trip — fewer than one-quarter of Americans approved of the president’s trip overall. For respondents who saw the first question, with a minimal/neutral introduction, nearly 24 percent approved, and 25 percent disapproved of Biden’s trip. In the second group, with the introduction mentioning Israel, nearly 25 percent approved, and 31 percent disapproved of the trip. And in the third group, with the introduction that emphasized Saudi Arabia and oil, nearly 23 percent approved, and 33 percent disapproved of the trip.

Mentioning Israel boosted disapproval of the trip, from around 25 percent in the first/neutral introduction group, to nearly 31 percent. And disapproval reached nearly 33 percent when the introduction emphasized Saudi Arabia.

As might be expected, Republicans we surveyed disapproved of Biden’s trip more than Democrats. But Republican disapproval of the trip is highest when the question emphasized Saudi Arabia — from around 41 percent in the neutral sample group to nearly 54 percent.

Democratic disapproval was highest when Israel is invoked, from around 10 percent in the neutral sample group to 17 percent. The boost in disapproval among young Democrats (under 35) was notable: from around 8 percent in the neutral group to 30 percent in the second group, where the introduction mentions Israel.

What explains these results?

Despite the U.S. public’s concern over high oil prices, Americans also seem concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. That might be why mentioning Saudi Arabia produced higher disapproval numbers, as this option included a reference to Biden’s “pariah” statement but without elaboration. And whatever Biden’s intent in declaring that his trip is intended to advance Israeli security may be, that doesn’t seem to help him sell his trip. In fact, it may be hurting him among his Democratic constituency.

This last point may seem surprising, but this split has grown increasingly evident. While Republicans’ affinity for Israel has risen over the years, the opposite has happened among Democrats. Our March poll, for example, included an open-ended question asking respondents to name the two countries that are the closest allies to the United States. As their first choice, many Republicans listed Israel, second only to the United Kingdom and ahead of key NATO allies such as Canada, France and Germany. For Democrats, Israel was more of an afterthought, coming in ninth place (see figure).

In our June 22-28 poll, we also found that most Republicans (nearly 59 percent) wanted the United States to lean toward Israel — less than 2 percent wanted to lean toward the Palestinians. In contrast, most Democrats (about 68 percent) wanted the U.S. to lean toward neither side, while more Democrats (19 percent) wanted to lean toward the Palestinians than toward Israel (nearly 13 percent). Young Democrats (under 35) tilted heavily toward support for Palestinians — nearly 27 percent want the U.S. to lean toward the Palestinians compared to around 10 percent who want to lean toward Israel.

These survey findings suggest that Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East does not garner much public enthusiasm, even among Democrats. Invoking Saudi Arabia and Israel seems to increase public disapproval, particularly among young Democrats.