Biden: Netanyahu Is Drifting to the 'Extreme Right' to Stay in Power

The former VP, who called Netanyahu a 'friend' during the Obama era, shifts his tone on the prime minister but reiterates support for U.S. military aid to Israel

Joe Biden at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College, South Carolina, October 26, 2019
\ SAM WOLFE/ REUTERS

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for president, said over the weekend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drifted to the "extreme right" in order to survive politically.

While Biden called Netanyahu’s political direction “a serious mistake," he reiterated his opposition to cutting or limiting U.S. military aid to Israel.

Biden spoke at an event in Iowa, and was asked about calls by other Democratic presidential hopefuls, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, to withhold or condition military aid to Israel. Biden said it was a “bizarre” idea and compared it to “telling France we disagree with you so we’re kicking you out of NATO.” 

The former vice president's criticism of Netanyahu marked a departure from past statements by Biden, who had formerly described himself as a "friend" of the prime minister's. During the Obama administration, Biden was often used as an emissary to Israel at times of tension between the two countries. During the 2012 presidential election, Biden rejected Republican attacks on Obama’s Israel policy, claiming that he and Netanyahu had been friends for decades, ever since he was a young senator and Netanyahu an Israeli diplomat in the United States.

On Saturday, Biden said that Israel is a democracy, but one that is “on the wrong trajectory.” Regarding Netanyahu, he said: “I know him well, and we disagree significantly.” Netanyahu, Biden explained, has “gone in a direction that is counterproductive. He wants to stay in power and has gone to the extreme right in his party and in the country. I think it’s a serious mistake.”

During the early years of the Obama administration, Netanyahu publicly supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the 2015 Israeli election, Netanyahu reversed his position, saying he would never support such a solution. Ever since President Donald Trump entered the White House, Netanyahu has adopted increasingly right-wing positions.

After failing to form a government after the April election, Netanyahu began to promise to annex parts of the West Bank in the lead-up to September's do-over election if he succeeded in forming another government. Biden said that unilateral annexation, which Netanyahu is promising to do, would be a “fundamental mistake."

“You cannot have a democratic Israel in a country where the majority is Arab and they have no rights,” Biden stated. He promised to promote a two-state solution to the conflict if elected president, and while criticizing Netanyahu for adopting these positions, leveled criticism at the Palestinian side as well. 

“When we were in office, the Palestinians had at least four occasions to reach a peace agreement,” Biden said, referring to several failed attempts at negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority between 2009 and 2016. “This is a two way street,” he added. “I’m tired of everyone giving the Palestinian Authority a pass.” 

Biden also mocked the Trump administration’s handling of the peace deal. Trump has appointed his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to lead the work on this issue. Kushner and his team have written a peace plan, but its publication has been delayed several times due to the ongoing political crisis in Israel. “I would not have my son-in-law handling the Middle East peace process,” Biden said, earning laughter and applause from the crowd.

Biden’s line on Israel – criticizing Netanyahu, who was recently indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases – while still expressing support for Israel as a country, is representative of public opinion among the majority of Democratic voters, according to public opinion polls. Most Democrats have a positive view of Israel, but a negative view of Netanyahu.