Opinion |

The Desperate Campaign to Tar Biden as 'anti-Israel'

You might think Biden’s lengthy pro-Israel record would inoculate, or at least modestly protect him from the overwrought, vituperative 'Israel-hater' hyperbole thrown at Obama. You'd be wrong

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Lately I’ve been reminded of the truism that revoking a privilege can often feel like inflicting a grievous wrong. 

The presidency of Donald Trump granted a number of gifts the Israeli right and their supporters could not expect under any normal American administration, Republican or Democratic.

David Friedman, a vocal supporter of Greater Israel who denounced liberal Jewish backers of J Street as "worse than Kapos," was named Ambassador to Israel; the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv, a move previously viewed as not worth the potential headache; it kicked the PLO out of Washington, cut funding to UNRWA, and folded the Jerusalem Consulate meant to serve Palestinians; the administration released a "peace plan" that, had it been allowed to run its natural course, would have resulted in Israeli annexation of nearly one-third of the West Bank; and America, alone, broke with the international legal and normative consensus about the status of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Much, though not all, of this is expected to change in the incoming Biden administration.

Biden’s ambassador will not, like their predecessor, be an ideological and financial patron of the settlement movement. Biden will keep the embassy in Jerusalem, but has also pledged to reopen consular services for Palestinians there – an important gesture, which will require Israeli approval, that sets a clear American expectation of an eventual Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. And the Trump peace plan will not carry over into an administration staffed by veterans of the Washington foreign policy establishment. 

The opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. May 14, 2018Credit: Emil Salman

One consequence of this "shift" will be that Biden’s own position, considered strongly favorable to Israel in the before times, will now be painted by the right as "anti-Israel" when contrasted with the Trump precedent.

Reverting to a normal policy that doesn’t overtly put the U.S. on the side of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be called a "stab in the back," much the same way the relatively recent phenomenon of the U.S. automatically vetoing UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel became an entitlement unfairly denied when the Obama administration decided to abstain on one in December 2016. 

Surely, you may be thinking, Biden’s lengthier pro-Israel record will inoculate, or at least modestly protect, him from the vituperative hyperbole Obama faced through his two terms in office. This assumption is mistaken.

Not only has Biden already become a target, but renewed attacks on former President Barack Obama’s record underscore the changed nature of the politics of Israel in the United States. What was once primarily a policy debate, a setting where passionate but constructive argument was possible, has now turned into something much more intractable: a with-us-or-against-us demand that, due to the expectations set by the Trump administrations, no Democratic president can possibly meet. 

The desperation to tar Biden as anti-Israel was already evident during the campaign.

Then Vice President Joe Biden addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington. March 20, 2016Credit: AP

Shortly after he former vice president secured the Democratic nomination, the Republican Jewish Coalition sent out an email declaring, "Joe Biden isn’t wasting a moment trying to prove to his far-left base that he will continue the anti-Israel policies of the Obama/Biden administration." A famous but dubious account of a clash between then Senator Joe Biden and former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin soon began making the rounds again

Following Biden’s victory, conservative activists targeted his choice for Deputy White House Director of Legislative Affairs, a highly respected U.S. Senate aide named Reema Dodin, who happens to be Palestinian-American. Her grave offense was to reportedly say, when she was a politically active college freshman at Berkeley, that "suicide bombers were the last resort of a desperate people."

Characterizing suicide bombers as desperate may be objectionable, but her alleged words – there is only one secondary source for them, published 18 years ago – were soon thoroughly distorted. In a matter of days, Dodin had gone in the eyes of her critics from "excusing" suicide bombings to "justifying" them and even "advocating" for them, wild claims for which there is simply no evidence. 

But it is the connection to Obama that is the most powerful tool the right has to attack Biden. It is no surprise that even before Biden takes office, he has come under fire for hiring an outspoken Palestinian-American. Every action he takes related to Israelis and Palestinians will be examined for evidence that Biden is not really supportive of Israel, that he is in fact the man who "threatened"  Begin and stood by as Obama "threw Israel under the bus." 

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, listens to Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 6, 2010.Credit: Mark Wilson, Bloomberg

The release last month of Obama’s memoir, "A Promised Land," has provided more grist for these claims. Toward the end of the 700+ page book, which covers a little more than the first two years of his presidency, the former president provides a short precis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as background for readers unfamiliar with the topic. The point was not to write a comprehensive history, but a succinct briefing that would provide the context necessary to understand what happened during his time in office.

Most importantly, it is an even-handed account that does not seek to persuade anyone of either side’s narrative. It contains measured criticism of Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But that, apparently, was the problem for former MK Dov Lipman, who lambasted Obama in the right-wing American news site JNS for promoting "historical inaccuracies...which clearly impacted his policies as president."

The article, which was shared widely across social media and by Republican politicians, was mostly a tedious exercise in pilpul (hairsplitting): How dare Obama say Israel "engaged" in wars with Arab states; how is it possible the "rise" of the PLO followed the Six Day War, when the PLO was actually founded in 1964; how could he say the Camp David talks merely "collapsed" following Arafat’s rejection of the Barak offer; and so on.

But the effect was to remind his readers, already predisposed to the message, that Obama not only had policy differences with Israel but was "against" Israel in deeper ways. 

As President-elect Biden mulls reentering the Iran nuclear agreement, and reversing some of the Trump administration’s more excessive moves made at the expense of the Palestinians, he will likely face the very same overwrought accusations of "betraying" or "punishing" Israel that former President Obama did. In fact, it has already started.  

Abe Silberstein is a writer and commentator on Israel and U.S.-Israel relations. Twitter: @abesilbe

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