On one level, the Jerusalem Declaration, signed by President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid during the president’s visit to Israel, is simply a reassertion of existing relationships and policies between the two countries. It could be argued that that is never a bad thing, should be applauded, but not to go overboard about it.
That, however, would be to underplay the significance of the joint declaration when one considers its timing and its context.
It comes in light of an increasing tendency by America to minimize its leadership role in the world and in particular the Middle East. There were indicators of this, though manifesting themselves in very different ways, in both the Obama and Trump administrations. The theme of the United States needing to address its domestic challenges and not sacrifice them to futile exercises like trying to repair the chaos and disfunction of areas of the world like the Middle East was increasingly taking root on both the right and the left.
In that context, the Jerusalem Declaration is a major statement of intent about US leadership. Its commitment to go to any length to prevent Iran from going nuclear is an important component of that assertive leadership.
Secondly, the very fact that a Democratic president took this initiative when there are more anti-Israel rumblings within his own party is of great import as well. The anti-Israel sentiment that has surfaced in Democratic circles is unfortunately not limited to individuals on the extreme left who don’t hesitate to delegitimize and demonize the Jewish state, even moving into the sphere of anti-Semitism. It is also reflected in polling among individuals who identify as Democrats where support for Israel is evidently on the decline.
Indeed, when former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his speech to the US Congress about the Iranian threat without consulting the Democratic president or Democratic congressional leadership, it not only exacerbated the problem, but it also reflected the perception of Israeli leadership that indeed the Democrats were becoming a problem for Israel.
And so, to have President Biden engage in this initiative with Israel is a clear message to Israelis, to other regional players, and most importantly to the Democratic constituency that historic bipartisan support for Israel is not a thing of the past but is a matter of current policy.
Thirdly, this Declaration also sends a message to those who seek to have Israel demonized as an outcast, as a state that represents apartheid, war crimes, genocide and the like. The contrast between those assertions – Amnesty International for example tweeted, even as the president was arriving in Israel, that the Jewish state is an “apartheid” entity – and the strategic and moral collaboration between two great democracies could not be starker. And the emphasis on strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords in the document presents a vision for the future of the region that is a marked contrast of the nihilism of the anti-Israel forces that only ensures more conflict and suffering.
Fourth, when all this is said and done, the Declaration makes clear that the future vision for the region and for US-Israel relations is not a vehicle to ignore or avoid the Palestinian issue, but rather one that provides an opportunity and an opening to make significant progress toward a solution of the problem.
While it is a good thing that Israeli-Arab relations are no longer being held hostage to the Palestinian issue, the Jerusalem Declaration makes clear that the problem must be addressed by the parties for the future security of Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors as well. This, too, is a message that should not be taken for granted since parties on all sides have been tempted to interpret the Abraham Accords as a sign that the Palestinian issue no longer holds sway in the region.
Finally, it should be noted that the president sent an important message to Israel by calling this the “Jerusalem Declaration” rather than something else, a recognition of the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish state.
So yes, in some ways the Jerusalem Declaration is not all that new. Given the trends in the US and in some sectors around the world, however, its reassertion of American leadership and American-Israeli collaboration could not have come at a better time. Both friends and foes of the two countries will take notice.