It may be too soon to know whether U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will actually enter the race for president, as Rupert Murdoch predicts (the press baron’s tweet, which lit up the Internet, certainly has the ring of truth to me). But it’s not too soon to start thinking of what kind of president Biden might be in respect of Israel. My advice is, as the French like to say, prenez garde, take heed.
Biden likes to present himself as the most pro-Israel figure in the Democratic Party, a claim also laid by, among others, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. But he has voiced nary a syllable of dissent during the presidency of Barack Obama, even as relations with the Jewish state have plunged to the most contentious of any American administration since partition, including the patch when Eisenhower hung back from Sinai.
There is, just for the record, no constitutional basis for Biden’s silence. That is to say, there’s nothing in the American system that requires the vice president to play the fool for the president. The vice president is independently elected and is not even, technically speaking, a member of the executive branch. Constitutionally, he is a member of — even president of — the Senate.
There, by my lights, Biden could have played, had he been inclined, a constructive role. Particularly because he is a former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. But the truth is that Biden is not inclined. He agrees with President Obama that neither Israel’s elected prime minister nor the leader of its pro-labor opposition comprehend the Jewish state’s true national security interests. And even if they do, to the devil with them.
The truth is that Biden wants the deal with Iran, and he’s been none-too-particular about senatorial advice and consent. This is in stark contrast to his behavior when the objections weren’t coming from Israel and its supporters in the United States, and when it was a different president. In 2002, he signed the so-called Helms-Biden letter, in which both powers on the Foreign Relations Committee warned President Bush against signing a nuclear arms deal with Russia in absence of the advice and consent of the Senate.
In another memorable moment during Biden’s tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee, the future vice president threatened that if America attacked Iran’s nuclear program without a resolution of Congress, he would move for impeachment. It was a weird moment not only in terms of foreign policy; it was also off the rails constitutionally, in that it’s not the Senate but the House that does the impeaching (what the Senate does is decide whether the impeached officer is guilty).
The moment suggested how touchy Biden is against a hard line (at the time the New York Sun called him a “one-winged hawk”). His dovish temper erupted, too, in 2010, when the newly minted vice president was in Jerusalem, supposedly, as Los Angeles Times put it, to “highlight U.S.-Israeli cooperation to counter a perceived nuclear threat from Iran.” Instead, Biden exploded over the issuance of permits for housing construction in Jerusalem.
Most famous among the Biden moments, though, was his confrontation with Menachem Begin when the prime minister visited Capitol Hill. It is a tale oft-told (including by me) but worthy of being oft-remembered. Biden, nearly 30 years Begin’s junior, lost his temper with the prime minister over settlements, banged the table with his fist and threatened to cut off aid to the Jewish state. Begin, master of his own emotions, replied that the desk was made for writing and not for fists.
That Israel was grateful for America’s help, Begin suggested, did not mean that America was “entitled to impose on us what we must do.” It’s a lesson that, to judge by the denouement of the Iran Pact, Biden has yet to learn. He has privately tried to convince Jewish leaders that he was the most skeptical Obama aide in the room as the deal was negotiated. If he runs for president, though, it will be for the party that is preparing to deny the deal the vote in the Senate that Biden once insisted was the obligation of every president.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The Forward and a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.
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