About a year ago, just before the end of his term as Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin visited the White House to meet with his old friend Joe Biden. During small talk prior to the official meeting, Biden digressed into telling Rivlin, and Rivlin's daughter Anat, about his childhood.
He talked about life on a farm, his family’s poverty and about the meager offerings on the dinner table. But on many of the evenings around his childhood dinner table, his impoverished father would speak with pain about the Jews who had perished in the Holocaust only because America had not intervened in time during World War II.
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The American president explained how he resolved to himself that he would never stand aloof when it came to the Jewish people. On Wednesday, he made similar comments publicly in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News.
Biden is a person who speaks from the heart. That forms the very basis of his political successes, as well as some of his failures. On a subject such as Holocaust remembrance, he is able to connect to the Israeli people more than any other topic – whether it be the Iranian nuclear program or West Bank settlement construction. The most memorable moment in all of the nearly 80-year-old American president's current visit will probably be the sight of him bending down for quite some time to tearfully listen to a Holocaust survivor, a woman older than he is.
World leaders and their entourages have always been able to engineer memorable moments that appeal to the emotions. That’s not what happened here. Biden was seen in the course of an authentic moment involving real feelings, making the situation all the more powerful.
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This presidential visit is not expected to change the course of Israel’s current election campaign and certainly won’t change the outcome. No one would doubt whom Biden would vote for if he had the right to vote in Israel – or more accurately whom he wouldn’t vote for.
He might deliberate between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, but as an experienced statesman, with more than half his term ahead of him, he chose to hand Benjamin Netanyahu invaluable video footage for the former prime minister’s campaign: a warm and long handshake as the American president told him, “You know I love you.”
On Wednesday at Ben-Gurion airport, beyond the confines of the red carpet, Naftali Bennett looked like a guest who came to a dinner party where there was no place for him at the table. If the presidential visit had taken place as originally scheduled, Bennett would have been prime minister and would have gotten to host Biden.
It ended up being to Lapid’s benefit. On the other hand, the new Israeli prime minister wasn’t accorded an exceptional gesture by Biden, who was strangely more reserved in his welcome of Lapid, whom he would prefer to continue to do business with rather than Netanyahu.
Yet on Wednesday, mostly because he’s a mensch, Lapid still shared the limelight with Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
On Thursday, the stage will be entirely Lapid’s. As they would say on a reality show, Lapid’s term begins now. Until now, it was just a rumor of sorts.
Read the full analysis in Haaretz on Friday.