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Biden and Israel, 2008-2016

WASHINGTON — JTA spoke with half a dozen people who saw the Biden-Israel relationship up close during the years that Biden served under President Obama as vice president. 

What emerges is a picture of a man who did little to innovate policy, who was a loyal lieutenant to Obama and remained a friend to Israel — and was often left to  bridge the divide.

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill/AFP/Getty Images)

The single overarching difference between Obama and Biden when it comes to Israel was Biden’s preference for keeping differences behind closed doors.

“I think the difference is that Biden reserved his most strident criticism for Netanyahu for behind the scenes,” said someone close to Biden. “There was a lot less public drama involving Biden.”

An interlocutor who was close to Obama, Biden and Netanyahu put it bluntly.

“Barack Obama is correct and Spockish,” said this person, referring to the Star Trek character famous for his wisdom and for keeping his emotions in check. “Biden can talk to people and he will remember their families and where they live.”

The fact that Netanyahu could trust Biden was critical, said Dennis Ross, a top Middle East adviser to Obama in his first term. 

Netanyahu “understood that Biden would disagree with him on a lot of things but never questioned Biden’s basic friendship,” said Ross, who is now counsel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. 

“And as a result, there were things he would do with Biden that he would not have done with someone that he didn’t trust.”

Biden’s relationship with Israel dates back to 1973, when as a freshman senator from Delaware he visited the country on the eve of the Yom Kippur war.

“There’s hardly anyone out anyone out there who was in the US government in 1973, and is still involved in politics in 2020,” said David Makovsky, a member of the Obama administration team that tried in 2013-2014 to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace and is now at the Washington Institute. “He remembers an Israel that is not just a startup nation, but facing wars.”

Here are five snapshots from the Obama-Netanyahu relationship illustrating Biden’s role.

A 2010 dinner delayed, but not canceled

Obama launched a bid to get to Israeli-Palestinian peace from the get-go. His top negotiator, George Mitchell, was despairing of a deal by 2010 and seeking an end to the impasse. Obama sent Biden to Israel to calm tensions between the Israeli and US sides.

The visit was almost torpedoed when a lower-level functionary announced, just in time for Biden’s visit, a new housing development in disputed eastern Jerusalem.

Biden’s response was to turn up more than an hour late to a planned dinner with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara — but not to cancel the dinner.

Biden was appeased after Netanyahu expressed regret for the announcement and his officials relayed a pledge to Biden that Israel would not build in the area for several years.

Lipner said Biden did not want to waste the opportunity to kick-start the peace process. “He was sympathetic to Israel but I think he probably appreciated the value of being able to do what he had come out here to do,” he said. “He was more amenable to say, ‘OK, let’s get this back on track.’”

Alan Solow, an Obama donor and at the time the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Biden had been looking forward to the trip, which he made clear in a meeting with the Jewish communal leadership before he traveled.

“He was with a bunch of friends,” Solow recalled. “He was talking about a subject that he knew a lot about and that he cared about and that he loved. And, you know, at some point, probably 45 minutes after he was supposed to be done, I got a tip to extract him from the meeting — unwillingly.”

Obama, however, was furious about the housing announcement and wanted a strong statement: He asked Biden to condemn the planned building in a speech he gave at Tel Aviv University. Biden did, while describing the US-Israel relationship as “unbreakable” and “impervious.”

Ross objected to Obama’s directive that Biden use the word “condemn,” saying the term was too strong, and usually used for terrorist attacks.

Ross’ impression was that Biden was also unhappy with the term. But Biden knew how to extract lemonade from the lemons he was handed: He met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was appeased by the use of the word “condemned” and who stayed in the negotiations.

“He took advantage of a word that had been issued by the White House,” said Ross. “The irony was, Abu Mazen came out satisfied.” Abu Mazen is Abbas’ nickname.

1967 lines and reception lines

Netanyahu, on his way to the US in May, 2011 to meet with Obama, was blindsided by a Middle East policy speech by Obama, in which the US president said he envisioned an outcome of two states, based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps.

Netanyahu saw the speech as pressuring Israel into making concessions that would endanger its security, and in a famous scene, lectured Obama in the Oval Office about Middle East history.

The tensions persisted and were not dissipated by the time Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of the US House of Representatives and the Senate. But then, at the reception after Netanyahu’s address, Biden showed up.

Lipner recalls Biden working his charm as if nothing had happened. “There was a reception on the Hill, and Biden was there pressing the flesh,” Lipner recalled, which he said comforted the Israeli delegation.

More substantively, Ross said, Biden launched talks with Israel to use the ideas Obama outlined in his speech as the basis for a joint US-Israeli-Palestinian statement that would agree on terms, including “that Israel would be the nation-state of the Jewish people and Palestine would be the nation-state of the Palestinian people.”

It was another instance, Ross said, of Biden hoping to extract lemonade from lemons — but this time it didn’t work. Abbas rejected the principle of recognizing Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.”

‘Get it done’: Missiles for the 2014 Gaza War

Daniel Shapiro, a top National Security Council official in Obama’s first term and the ambassador to Israel in his second, said Biden had a hand in funding the Iron Dome short-range anti-missile system during the early years of the Obama administration.

Eric Lynn, then a senior Pentagon official, added that Biden was critical in getting funding for supplemental missile batteries to Israel during the 2014 Gaza War.

“Israel needed to produce many more of the Iron Dome missiles and quite quickly, so they came to State to ask for an emergency level of funding for resupplying the Iron Dome missile,” he said.

“As soon as that request was made by the Israelis in the middle of the conflict and taken to the president, Vice President Joe Biden’s words and President Obama’s words were ‘Get it done.’”

Iran: ‘Never tell another man his own interest’

The greatest US-Israel divide during the Obama administration was over the Iran nuclear deal.

Obama said the best means of containing Iran was to work with other major nations to relieve sanctions in exchange for Iran rolling back its nuclear program.

Netanyahu said the plan endangered Israel, and wanted the US to pressure Iran to end its nuclear program in total, and to end its adventurism in the region and its missile program.

Biden has suggested during this campaign that he believes Obama’s plan needs improvements, particularly in extending the period through which Iran must restrict its nuclear activity.

At the time, however, Biden’s job was to sell the plan to Israel, to the Jewish community and to Congress.

Someone close to Biden said that after the deal was signed in 2015 the vice president “really leaned in . . . to make the case to members of Congress that they shouldn’t block it. He met with the entire Democratic Caucus.”

Some Jewish Democrats — under pressure from AIPAC to reject the deal — were especially hard sells. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in South Florida, wept when she revealed on TV that she would back the deal.

“He took a special trip down to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s district to defend the deal,” said the person close to Biden. “He had groups of congressmen and women and senators to his house at the Naval Observatory, multiple times.”

Shapiro, ambassador to Israel at the time, said Biden was just as dogged with Israeli leaders — and was also eager to bring the Israeli perspective back to Obama.

He recalled a private dinner Biden had with Netanyahu and others in January, 2014, when Biden attended the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“They had one of those intense, friendly discussions,” Shapiro said. “It was an important channel to obviously express the US perspective, but also to hear the Israeli perspective.”

“Biden has a saying which he attributes to his father, which is, ‘Never tell another man his own interest,’” Shapiro said.

That would have been a contrast with Obama, whom Israelis perceived as thinking he understood Israel’s best interests better than they did.

The UN resolution

The Obama administration got wind in its final months of Palestinian efforts to get through the UN Security Council a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements.

A number of top officials — including Secretary of State John Kerry and Samantha Power, the ambassador to the UN — wanted to vote for the resolution, seeing it as an opportunity to make clear to Israel’s government that the two-state solution could soon disappear. Biden and Jack Lew, the Jewish Treasury secretary, wanted the US to veto the resolution.

“Biden’s argument was that we could end up encouraging the Trump administration right out of the gate to try to swing the pendulum all the way back in ways that would undermine what we’re trying to achieve,” said someone who is close to Biden.

At the last moment on Dec. 23, 2016, Obama split the difference — literally minutes before Power was set to vote, according to Shapiro — and instructed his ambassador to abstain, which would allow the resolution through, but say that the Obama administration thought the resolution lacked balance because it did not mention Palestinian obstructionism.

Trump condemned the abstention and has retreated from supporting the two-state outcome that Obama had spent eight years seeking.

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