July 13, 2022
By: Jonathan Feldstein
As President Biden arrives in Israel for a two-day visit, there’s concern about the possibility that he might end up in the hospital. No, not because of his age, the heat (which will be hotter in Saudi Arabia where he will fly when he leaves Israel), any medical condition, or God forbid any threats to him. Biden’s planned visit to a Jerusalem hospital is under scrutiny because he is planning to visit Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital. Despite being in the capital of Israel, reports are that the US has refused to allow an Israeli representative to participate in the visit.
Typically, when a head of state visits another state, s/he is accompanied by senior officials of the host country. In this case, the request was that a senior Israeli health ministry official asked to be able to participate, but the US declined, claiming that the visit was considered as “private.”
In Israel, there’s lots of symbolism in everything and the planned Augusta Victoria visit is among the most controversial of Biden’s itinerary. Here’s why.
Augusta Victoria hospital is in eastern Jerusalem, part of the city that Jordanian occupied until Jerusalem was unified in the 1967 Six Day War. It was built before WWI, when the Ottoman Empire occupied Jerusalem. While it is a private church-run hospital, the controversy is that such a visit to what’s considered a “Palestinian” hospital is unprecedented. According to his schedule, Biden will meet representatives of “Palestinian civil society organizations” at the hospital, underscoring that this is not a private visit as much as it is one to give a sense of legitimacy to the notion that Israel does not have sovereignty in Jerusalem.
As Biden will visit Augusta Victoria on Friday morning, before heading to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, one cannot help but wonder why the visit to Augusta Victoria is needed, much less the extra traffic congestion that will be created as a result. Are there no hospitals for him to visit in Bethlehem if he wants to give a hat tip to the Palestinian Authority (PA) medical services?
Apparently, Biden will announce $100 million in American aid to the Palestinian hospital network of which Augusta Victoria is a part. The US has asked the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to contribute an additional $100 million. But if it’s a private visit, one also has to ask where the $100 million will come from? His own money? That of his son, Hunter? If it’s from US taxpayers, it’s hardly a private visit.
Part of the problem with this visit is that doing so without any official Israeli participation, at least subtly, implies that Israel does not legitimately have sovereignty in Jerusalem. This is despite US law which recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem. It was reported that as a “private visit” the US did not want to make it political. Facing US midterm and Israeli national elections, this is absurd because nothing Biden does will not be political. His “private” Augusta Victoria visit, and $100 million gift, will be used to bolster his and the Democratic party’s credentials vis a vis the Palestinian Authority. It will also be used against incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid (and others) in the campaign for Israeli elections. Surely Biden and his team know that.
It’s also expected that Biden will reiterate his commitment to open a diplomatic office to the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem, further undermining Israeli sovereignty. Just as Biden’s visit to Augusta Victoria is unprecedented, so too would be the US opening a diplomatic office to a political entity (the PA) in the sovereign capital of another (Israel). Just like there are Palestinian Arab hospitals to visit in Bethlehem and Ramallah, and representatives of “Palestinian civil society organizations” that could meet Biden in Bethlehem, if the US wanted a diplomatic office to the Palestinian Authority, it could open a consulate in Bethlehem or Ramallah, or even in Gaza.
There’s one more issue. As much as Biden’s “private” visit to Augusta Victoria is a bad if not dangerous precedent, there is an ironic built-in paradox.
While it’s subtle, as much as I have seen reports about Biden excluding Israeli officials at Augusta Victoria, I have not seen any reports of the US asking the Palestinian Authority to provide security for that visit to the “Palestinian” hospital in eastern Jerusalem. If any part of Jerusalem were actually legitimately under Palestinian Authority sovereignty, that would be expected. Nevertheless, security will be provided by some 16,000 Israeli police and an undisclosed number of military and secret service.
Perhaps, even in the undermining of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, asking the PA to provide security for the Augusta Victoria visit, even with no official Israeli presence, would be a step too far. For now. Or perhaps, the US Administration and Secret Service know that it would be foolish, if not dangerous and unhealthy, to have armed Palestinian Arabs in control of Biden’s safety. Were the Palestinian Authority to provide security, that might actually lend the need for an actual private visit to the hospital.
For President Biden’s personal well-being, Israeli security is not only not a conflict but is preferred, if not expected. But for his “personal” visit to Augusta Victoria, no Israelis will be allowed. I am praying he stays out of the hospital.
The Genesis 123 Foundation will host a webinar, “Unpacking Biden’s Middle East Trip” on Sunday July 17 at 3:00pm Eastern (US). Registration is limited and available here.