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Biden Has Tried to Reverse Trump's Legacy. In Israel, He's Amplifying It

Biden is too pragmatic and too pro-Israel to pass up on the opportunity to bolster ties with Saudi Arabia, but with the tides changing in his party, the veteran statesman could end up as the last Democratic president to favor Israel over the Palestinians

נתנאל שלומוביץ
Netanel Slyomovics
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U.S. President Joe Biden at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, on Thursday.
U.S. President Joe Biden at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, on Thursday.Credit: Nir Keidar
נתנאל שלומוביץ
Netanel Slyomovics

U.S. President Joe Biden has met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, but she’s the one he mentions most often. His many speeches about Israel often describe his first visit here as a 30-year-old senator.

As Biden visits Israel, and election shuffle begins

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There are slight changes depending on the venue and the audience, but the story always ends with Meir brandishing a map of the Middle East. Then he would quote Meir as telling him Israelis have a “secret weapon” – the fact that “we have no place else to go.”

Biden has remained staunchly pro-Israel throughout his 50 years in Washington. As a senator, especially during his two terms as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he aggressively pushed all possible military aid for Israel and thwarted any move he feared would harm the young country or neutralize its military edge over its enemies.

For instance, when Saudi Arabia sought F-15s from America in the 1980s, Biden took it upon himself to prevent Republican President Ronald Reagan from selling the fighter planes to an Israeli enemy, even though the senator was no fan of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In a New York Times op-ed in 1981 titled “Stop arms for Saudis,” he warned that the sale would endanger Israel.

The Biden who landed here this week is a different man. Fifty years have brought too many Israeli premiers and far too much time with Benjamin Netanyahu. The eager senator and vice president has become a worn-out president who is sick of promises and disappointments, efforts and failures.

Biden has always been known for slips of the tongue that reveal the truth. He made one such at Ben-Gurion International Airport. As usual, he expressed support for the two-state solution, but also muttered that it won’t happen “in the near term.”

Biden is first and foremost a pragmatist. He has no interest in tilting at windmills. At Ben-Gurion, he said aloud what other presidents preferred to whisper in private – not because he isn’t interested in the peace process, but because he believes there are no Israeli or Palestinian partners for it.

Since entering the White House, Biden’s administration has refrained from getting involved with Israel as much as possible. On the eve of his visit, a senior White House official told CNN that the administration has been very cautious in defining the trip’s goals. Previous administrations got into trouble, he explained, because they made promises, wasted time and money and then couldn’t keep those promises. Moreover, if the administration had launched a peace initiative, he said, there would be no one to come to the table.

U.S. media reports say the real goal of Biden’s visit is to strengthen economic and security ties between two of America’s Middle Eastern allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden is no fan of his predecessor, Donald Trump, but he’s willing to settle for what he deems realistic. And his administration is convinced that a gradual Israeli-Saudi rapprochement is possible.

Old-school sentiment

Biden’s Mideast visit is different from all the other trips he has made since his inauguration in January 2021. From NATO headquarters in Brussels to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Biden has traveled the world in an effort to repair the damage Trump did. But he came to Israel to embrace and even leverage Trump’s achievements – the Israeli-Arab normalization agreements.

He’s still convinced that only a two-state solution will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he’s an old-school, pro-Israel Democrat, sentimental toward Israel in the most American way.

“The connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep,” he said at Ben-Gurion Airport. “Generation after generation, that connection grows ... I’ve been part of that as a senator, as a vice president, and, quite frankly, before that, having been raised by a righteous Christian.”

But that statement is wrong, and misleading. The American-Israeli connection has actually been weakening from generation to generation.

Democratic Party leaders Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were born in the 1940s, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was born in 1950. It’s not inconceivable that the defeat the party expects in November’s congressional elections will usher in new leaders from a new generation. And younger Democratic legislators don’t see Israel as a small, threatened country but as a regional power with nuclear weapons.

There has been a slow change in Democratic attitudes toward Israel in recent years, and it turned dramatic during the May 2021 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. After an air force strike on a high-rise that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and The Associated Press, a Democratic majority emerged in Congress almost overnight to demand that Biden intervene.

Biden is always attentive to his party’s mood, and he is paying great attention these days to its progressive wing, which is demanding a more forceful stance toward Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

A Palestinian protester burns a portrait of US President during a demonstration in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on July 14, 2022, to protest the visit of US President Joe Biden to Israel. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)Credit: ABBAS MOMANI - AFP

In a Washington Post op-ed published shortly before his trip, Biden sought to balance his longstanding pro-Israel views with his party’s growing support for protecting Palestinian rights.

“In Israel, we helped end a war in Gaza — which could easily have lasted months — in just 11 days. … We also rebuilt U.S. ties with the Palestinians,” he wrote. “Working with Congress, my administration restored approximately $500 million in support for Palestinians, while also passing the largest support package for Israel — over $4 billion — in history.”

While Republican support for Israel has merely grown in recent years as the Christian right gained dominance over the party, Democratic support has been gravitating toward the Palestinians. Credit for this goes to Netanyahu, who spent his 12 years as prime minister helping Republican politicians poke Democrats in the eye and thereby made support for Israel a partisan issue.

The anti-racism protests that swept America after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis also contributed, because many young Democrats see great similarity between Black rights in America and Palestinian rights in Israel and the West Bank.

A Pew poll conducted shortly before Biden’s trip found that while 71 percent of Republican voters said they support Israel, only 44 percent of Democrats did. That continues the trend of the past two years, which has seen Israel fall below 50 percent support among Democrats for the first time.

But the poll’s most important finding was the generation gap. Fully 56 percent of all respondents under 30 – Democrats and Republicans – had a negative view of Israel.

Biden will apparently be the last Democratic president to defend Israel unilaterally. And with his own poll numbers reaching lows not seen since President Harry Truman, Democrats are already preparing for a different candidate in 2024. Even if a Republican wins that race, another Democratic president is only a matter of time.

Prominent Democratic politicians with presidential ambitions are already reflecting the turnaround in their voters’ views. During the 2020 primaries, senators Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, both progressives, said that military aid to Israel should be conditioned on Israel meeting American demands. But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is not in the progressive camp, said the same. And if Biden doesn’t run again, all three are considered leading contenders.

The party’s progressive wing, which includes almost half of its congressional representatives, is very engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This wing’s members were Biden’s greatest allies when he tried to enact far-reaching domestic reforms. But on the eve of his trip, 29 of them wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding that he put a stop to settlement construction. The signatories, who included rising stars like Pramila Jayapal and Joaquin Castro, wrote that immediate American intervention was essential, given the growing number of violent Israeli-Palestinian clashes in recent months.

The letter could be dismissed as mere campaigning by progressives running for reelection. But that’s precisely why it is important. It reflects the fact that growing numbers of Democratic voters care about the Israeli occupation, to the point that their representatives think such a letter can win votes.

And when almost half of Democratic members of the House of Representatives are progressives, no Democratic president can ignore them for long. Not even Biden.

For now, the Democratic Party still unequivocally backs all Israeli governments. Even after the May 2021 war, Biden made sure the House of Representatives approved an extra $1 billion for Iron Dome missiles, by a vote of 420-9. Most progressives fell in line with the presidential request.

That war cracked support for Israel, but didn’t shatter it. The next war, however, may well bring about a more dramatic change.

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