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Where Does Joe Biden Stand on Israel and the Middle East?

On Israel and the Mideast, will Biden 2020 be a repeat of Clinton vs. Trump in 2016?

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016.
Reuters

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden formally announced his candidacy in April for 2020 — instantly making him a front runner to win the Democratic presidential nomination and take on Donald Trump.

Biden, who at 76 will the second oldest candidate running (after Bernie Sanders at 77), brings with him decades of experience from the U.S. Senate, where he served as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and from his eight years as Barack Obama’s veep.

And while he is reportedly counting on reactivating Obama’s winning coalition, he will undoubtedly suffer some of the same setbacks that Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, did in 2016 when running for president on Obama’s record.

On foreign policy, Biden 2020 is all but certain to be a rehash of Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign. While his favorability numbers with voters are much higher, he will be attacked in the Democratic primaries from the Sen. Bernie Sanders- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard left and in the general election by Trump’s more isolationist right.

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Biden will be particularly exposed politically on Iraq and, just like Clinton, will come under fire from all sides for having voted for the war in Iraq before he was against it. The expanded use of drone strikes overseas, and questionable civil liberties practices of the Obama national security state, will also be fodder for his critics — as it was for Clinton. Biden will find himself stuck between Sanders calling for no more “endless wars” and Trump calling Biden part of the establishment that started “stupid wars” and made bad deals.

Biden’s relationship with Israel has been long yet somewhat complex. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk explained in 2010 that Netanyahu “humiliated” Biden when the then-vice president landed in Israel and Netanyahu immediately announced new settlement activities.

Obama’s eight years in the White House were marked by strained tensions between Israel and the United States, beginning with Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world in 2009 and ending with Netanyahu publicly sidestepping Obama and addressing the then-Republican-led Congress in March 2015 to rail against Obama’s landmark Iran nuclear deal (which Trump has since pulled out of). However, despite the strain, Biden remained on good terms with both Israel and Netanyahu.

A month after Netanyahu’s address to Congress, Biden spoke at the annual Israeli Independence Day Celebration in D.C. He made light of tensions in his remarks. saying: “Sometimes we drive each other crazy. But we love each other” — at times directly addressing Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. “And we protect each other. As many of you heard me say before, were there no Israel, America would have to invent one. We’d have to invent one because ... you protect our interests like we protect yours.”

In this file photo taken on April 18, 2019 Former US vice president Joe Biden leaves a rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike throughout the region at the Stop and Shop in Dorchester, Massachusetts
Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP

Netanyahu praised Biden in 2016, during a visit to Israel, saying: “I want to thank you for our personal friendship of over 30 years. We’ve known each other a long time. We’ve gone through many trials and tribulations. And we have an enduring bond that represents the enduring bond between our people.” He even went so far as to say Biden was “mishpucha” (Yiddish for family).  

During the 2012 vice presidential debate, getting visibly upset, Biden deflected criticism of strained Israel-U.S. ties from Paul Ryan by insisting he and Netanyahu had been friends for 39 years. 

Biden told “Shalom TV” in 2007: "I am a Zionist. You don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist" (Biden himself is Catholic). He also boasted of his son’s marriage to a Jewish woman and his enjoyment at attending a Passover seder at their home. Biden's daughter married a Jewish man, “By the way, I’m the only Irish Catholic you know who had his dream met because his daughter married a Jewish surgeon,” Biden joked in 2016 at an Ohio event.

As a senator, Biden made headlines in 1986 when he said: "Were there not an Israel, the U.S. would have to invent one. We will never abandon Israel — out of our own self-interest." He added that aid to Israel “is the best $3 billion investment we make.” Biden first announced a run president a year later and had to withdraw from the 1988 presidential primary after allegations of plagiarism derailed his campaigned. 

In the current climate of Trump attacking Democrats as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, the president will struggle to land that attack on Biden. However, Trump is all but certain to brand him a “globalist” and attempt to tie Biden to Obama-era policies like the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — all of which Trump has since pulled out of as part of his “America first” agenda.

Biden lambasted Trump in May 2018 after the latter announced he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. "Talk of a 'better deal' is an illusion," Biden said in a statement. "It took years of sanctions pressure, painstaking diplomacy.” Biden warned that all Trump’s move would “accomplish is to put Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon with no clear diplomatic way out" — putting the United States on a "collision course not only with an adversary but also with our closest partners."

Biden will have an advantage over Clinton, as he will be running not only on Obama’s legacy but also against Trump’s foreign policy legacy. As Trump is certain to attack Biden for serving in the administration that saw the rise of the Islamic State and failed to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad, Biden will be able to attack Trump for his bizarre press conference in Finland with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his regular praise of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his recent veto to protect U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen — a drawn out conflict that is fueling a disastrous humanitarian crisis.

Biden will instantly be seen as the adult in the room, a more moderate choice for Democrats afraid that Bernie Sanders may not be able to defeat Trump and a return to normalcy for voters fed up with Trump’s volatile (to say the least) tenure as president. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, endorsed Biden in January. She is supporting him over her state's other senator, Kamala Harris, explaining that it's his “huge international experience” and “knowledge that’s really unparalleled in terms of what’s happening in the world” that underlies why America needs him now. But if recent history has taught us anything, experience — especially foreign policy credentials — do not necessarily trump a candidate who rails against the system and promises fundamental change.