Analysis |

Biden’s 50-year Affair With Israel Explains His Visit This Week

U.S. President Joe Biden doesn’t really have time for a trip to Israel, which will do nothing to boost his approval rating. So why is he arriving? Because that’s what genuine friends do

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Joe Biden, then U.S. vice president, preparing to give a statement in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2016.
Joe Biden, then U.S. vice president, preparing to give a statement in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2016.Credit: Debbie Hill/AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

The morning after the 1992 U.S. presidential election, I walked into Shimon Peres’ office. He was the seasoned, veteran, been-everywhere foreign minister. I was the young, know-it-all foreign policy adviser who figured it was his job and mission to enlighten and enrich Peres on U.S. affairs.

“What’s up?” he muttered, barely lifting his eyes from a book he was reading on the history of China.

“I want to give you initial insights and takeaways on Bill Clinton’s victory,” I said.

“Is that so?” He looked up intently and asked: “What are they?”

Barely a minute into my magnum opus presentation (there have been several others since), he waved his hand at me and quietly said: “Let me tell you something. I’ve met every American president since Harry Truman. I briefly met Eisenhower” – which I sort of doubted, but kept silent – “then JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. So you really think you can come in here and tell me what you think the ramifications of this Clinton guy getting elected are, barely 12 hours after the election?”

I don’t recall what I answered. I probably didn’t.

Now think of the American equivalent of Peres: Joe Biden. No one comes even remotely close to his experience with and intimate knowledge of Israel in the U.S. government, past and present. Sworn in as the junior senator from Delaware in January 1973, he spent 36 years in the Senate, twice being chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2001-2003 and 2007-2009). He was then a two-term vice president, between 2009-2017 under President Barack Obama, before being elected president in 2020.

Biden has met and worked with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. He met and knew Yitzhak Rabin in 1974, Menachem Begin in 1977, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir since 1984, reacquainted himself with Rabin in 1992, then Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, Ehud Barak in 1999, Ariel Sharon in 2001, Ehud Olmert in 2006, Netanyahu again in 2009, and then Naftali Bennett in 2021. On Wednesday, he will meet Yair Lapid, a caretaker premier but a premier nonetheless.

Joe Biden pictured in December 1972 as the newly elected Democratic senator from Delaware. He has met with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir.Credit: AP

Whomever the next prime minister is after the November 1 election, Biden has already met them.

This biographical profile doesn’t reflect the full scope of Biden’s relationship with Israel. His reliable voting record, statements, signature on letters and proclamations, and in-the-loop presence in key intersections of U.S. policy in the Middle East and during defining events in the U.S.-Israel relationship, paint a picture of a dedicated, committed and genuine friend of Israel.

But there is something even more significant to note with regard to Biden: He is the last president to have accompanied the U.S.-Israeli relationship’s growth and evolution from the early stages of cooperation after the 1967 Six-Day War to the alliance that exists today. He was present at the creation of the “special relationship” and substantial U.S. defense assistance to Israel. That relationship is a product of the late 1960s, against a backdrop of the Cold War and the Americans’ deepening involvement in Vietnam. It matured only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Biden was already a senator. And despite what the brochures like to ceremoniously declare, the relationship wasn’t forged on Mount Sinai in the 14th century B.C.E., nor was it naturally set in motion in 1948 when Israel became independent.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden embracing Israel's then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak at AIPAC in 2013.Credit: AFP

Biden also represents something of a vestige of Democratic support for Israel. Only 1 percent of Democrats cited Israel when asked to name two important American allies in a recent Critical Issues Poll. Twenty percent of Republicans did – which is also a low figure given that 80 percent of America’s 75 million evangelical Christians vote Republican.

But Biden is to a large degree a relic of traditional, visceral and cerebral support for Israel in a changing Democratic Party. Explaining his Mideast trip in terms of the geopolitical benefits to Israel, when the clear U.S. policy trajectory is toward disengagement from the region, is not something Israel should get used to. It most likely will not happen again in the near future.

It is pointless to relitigate the “Why is Biden coming to the Middle East?” question. It is clearly not about increasing Saudi oil production, because the Americans know they simply cannot pump enough to compensate for the loss of Russian oil (in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine) and the sanctions imposed on Moscow.

The White House then changed the narrative. Biden isn’t coming for Saudi oil, nor is he enthusiastic about the reversal of policy that will now involve meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – a man Biden vowed to turn into a pariah following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. He is coming to help forge and offer U.S. guidance for a regional Israel-Gulf alliance that would counter Iran.

The subsequent enthusiasm in Israel was so hyperbolic that some began fantasizing about a Mideast NATO, no less. That will not likely happen, certainly not during the visit. What may be feasible is some ad-hoc, defensive cooperation between the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia included) and Israel. In and of itself, that would be a major contribution by Biden to Israel’s regional security.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaking with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010.Credit: REUTERS

True to both his decades-long friendship with Israel and his administration’s fundamental foreign policy principle of maintaining and attentively managing alliances, Biden will go to Jeddah (after his Israel visit) for regional security reasons. As he explained in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Sunday, “leaders from across the region will gather [in Jeddah], pointing to the possibility of a more stable and integrated Middle East, with the United States playing a vital leadership role.”

Biden knows this is not a popular visit. He could have just as easily gotten Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to attend a meeting in the White House. The United States is coming apart at the seams, its political system dangerously dysfunctional. It is also heavily invested in challenging Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, yet Biden still chose to come here.

In fact, fewer than 25 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s trip, according to a poll and follow-up Washington Post article by University of Maryland Mideast and U.S. foreign affairs public opinion scholar Shibley Telhami.

Israel should be cognizant not just of Biden’s ironclad friendship and heap empty praise on his visit, but also recognize his political troubles – both internal and external – and the criticism he is receiving for a visit whose deliverables and cost benefits are questionable. This is why mumbling and sulking that the Iran deal is “catastrophic,” and that there is no viable chance of reviving a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, will only compound the criticism against him.

There will come a day, not far in the future, where Israel will miss having a U.S. president like Joe Biden.

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