In February 1986, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Meir Rosenne met Delaware Senator Joe Biden, two years before Biden’s first attempt to become U.S. president. The senator, in an effort to convince the ambassador that he was friendly towards Israel, said that the U.S. should relate to Israel as “first but equal,” vis-à-vis the Arabs. The summary of that meeting, which can be found in the Israel State Archives, gives a glimpse of the way in which the current president-elect sees Israel, the Holocaust, and regional relations.
Even though he had been a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in the 1980s, Biden wasn’t regarded as a particularly important senator in the eyes of the embassy in Washington. The archived files are full of lists, naming those who are roughly categorized as with us or against us. Biden was in neither list, but somewhere in the middle. He wasn’t involved in the Jewish-Democrat politics of Washington or have much to do with Jewish organizations, and he had never visited Israel.
But when it came to important campaigns Israel waged in the 80s on Capitol Hill, he always supported Israel’s positions. This included issues such as the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, the continued military aid to Israel, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In the unclassified documents, there is no mention of direct links between him and the person responsible for diplomatic affairs at the embassy, Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, he was more preoccupied with Israel’s relations with the White House and the State Department, devoting less time to Capitol Hill. Netanyahu did not leave behind a detailed list of his activities, or document every meeting, but rather sent condensed cables relating to important issues.
Biden appeared on the embassy’s radar when his name was connected to the 1988 presidential election, in which he was a contender. He withdrew after being caught plagiarizing a speech. The embassy didn’t consider him very important, convinced that Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York (and the father of the current governor) was the leading Democrat candidate. Biden was perceived as one more candidate without a hope, but as a possible future Democrat prospect.
Embassy staffer and future ambassador Yosef Lamdan, who was then responsible for relations with the Congress, identified Biden as a senator with whom Israel had insufficient ties, and took ambassador Rosenne to a meeting with Biden in 1986. He left three pages of detailed notes following their meeting, which were marked as classified and sent to Jerusalem. Lamdan told Haaretz that he doesn’t remember that meeting. Rosenne died in 2015.
“Today, the ambassador [Rosenne] met Delaware Senator Biden, who is a member of the Foreign Relations, Judiciary and Appropriations Committees,” wrote Lamdan. “He shared with us his intention of running for president and was keen on sharing with us his positions on Israel, the peace process and U.S. policy in the Middle East. The conversation lasted for one hour, in a friendly and open atmosphere.”
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Rosenne began by thanking Biden for his support for the aid Israel receives. Biden replied by saying that the U.S. needs this more than Israel does. “That’s our best investment, where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” he said.
Rosenne gave a report on the peace process, which referred then to peace with Jordan and the cooling off of relations with Egypt. Rosenne then invited Biden to visit Israel. Biden accepted. Lamdan notes that “Biden had considered visiting Israel in January but that the unexpected withdrawal of Ted Kennedy from the presidential race caused him to change his plans and run for president himself.
You won’t be sorry if I’m elected
He said he was spending many hours with his strategic advisers planning his campaign. He was now considering visiting Israel in late May or late June, he said. We told him of the planned visit by [Democratic] Senator Gary Hart. Biden said that in contrast to Hart, he didn’t have to prove his credentials regarding Israel, which is why he preferred a working visit. That is why he rejected the entreaties of his Jewish supporters in the U.S. to join them on a visit to Israel.”
Following some preliminary pleasantries, the two discussed the Middle East. The Reagan era was a complicated one in U.S.-Israel relations, with both support and confrontation. The Democrats were then perceived as the more pro-Israel party.
Biden noted that “the declarations of the U.S. do not correspond to its actions and this is paradoxical and a mistake,” he said. The record of the meeting goes on to say that Biden “wanted to say that even though the positions of the U.S. were, with a few exceptions, alright, the U.S. continues to claim outwardly that it wishes to be equally friendly to all sides. Biden believes that the U.S. should tell the Arabs that Israel is foremost among its friends, and that if the Arabs had a problem with that, they should be aware that they would have a problem with the U.S. as well. He believes the U.S. should change its public debate with Israel and treat it like it treats its other friends. It would be inconceivable to openly argue with Mrs. Thatcher on disputed topics, but in the case of Israel, the U.S. does not hesitate to openly disagree with it [Israel]. This approach is unacceptable to him. If he were elected, he would have a frank exchange with us, without publicity and through diplomatic channels,” wrote Lamdan.
Biden held an anti-PLO position then, and documentation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shows that he often brought this subject up. He told the ambassador that “as someone of Irish descent, he considered the IRA to be like any other terror organization which would never compromise with the moderates, with the lowest common denominator always holding sway.” Regarding the Saudis, he added that “Saudi Arabia is no more than a collection of 500 princes and their families. The fatal mistake in U.S. policy occurred in 1982, when it decided to strive for strategic consensus in the Persian Gulf. The result was a shift of the center of gravity from America’s true friend, Israel, to others [referring to the sale of warplanes to Saudi Arabia].
At the end of the meeting, Lamdan noted that “Biden repeated his commitment to Israel,” adding that he “believes the United States did not do enough for the Jews during World War II. He ended by saying that we wouldn’t be sorry if he were elected to the White House.”
It will soon be possible to test the promise he made to Meir Rosenne 35 years earlier.