columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Can Joe Biden save the day for pro-Israel Democrats?

His denunciation of threats to cut Israel aid was great, but it’s far from clear that the fading establishment champion can best his party’s increasingly dominant left wing.

Joe Biden, then serving as vice president, speaks at the 2013 J Street conference. Credit: J Street via Facebook.
Joe Biden, then serving as vice president, speaks at the 2013 J Street conference. Credit: J Street via Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

After a week in which attacks on Israel by Democratic presidential candidates dominated discussion at the J Street conference, Joe Biden finally gave what’s left of the pro-Israel wing of the party a reason not to despair. After Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg had all endorsed cutting military aid to Israel, Biden finally weighed in on the subject.

Speaking to a reporter from The Wall Street Journal, the former vice president said the notion of conditioning continued assistance to Israel was “absolutely outrageous,” and that such a policy would be a “gigantic mistake.”

For Biden to speak up in this manner is important because it means that for once, the one-time frontrunner is showing some willingness to stand up to his party’s increasingly dominant progressive wing, rather than trying to appease it. This means the Democrats can now have a debate about supporting Israel, as opposed to merely engaging in, as seemed to be the case at J Street, a competition to see which candidate could be tougher on Israel.

This ought to hearten the still significant numbers of moderate and liberal Democrats who support the Jewish state. And given that Biden is still in first place in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, it might mean that the head of the Democratic ticket in 2020 will be someone who is committed to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

But it’s not at all clear that it’s going to play as well with primary voters as it would in the general election a year from now. Moreover, it has to worry pro-Israel Democrats that their champion is the candidate who has been steadily losing ground since the race began in earnest over the summer. While Biden’s pro-Israel rhetoric is supported by 43 percent of Democrats, according to a Gallup poll conducted in March who are favorable towards Israel, it may also, like Biden himself, better represent the Democrats’ past than their future.

After starting his bid for the Democratic nomination with a commanding lead over the rest of the field, Biden has fallen to the back to the pack with a thud. Thanks to shaky performances in the first debates and the attention given his son Hunter’s attempts to profit from his father’s name in business dealings in Ukraine and China, Biden is no longer the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. He’s trailing in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as flopping in the competition for campaign donations. Right now, the momentum is on the side of his more liberal rivals Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg.

That quartet make up the top tier of the Democratic field, and if the still large cast of “also-rans” drop out in the early going next year, that could leave Biden as the sole occupant of the moderate lane in the primaries. In theory, that would mean the most pro-Israel of the Democrats might have a clear advantage.

But the longer this race continues, the more apparent it is that Biden is running to be the candidate of the party that nominated Bill Clinton, not the one that treats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib—the three most notorious members of the so-called radical “Squad” that has dominated the conversation about many issues in the last year—as the party’s rock stars and its future.

The party activist base of the Democrats has largely bought into intersectional theories that accept the slander of Israel as a given. But as the Democrats demonstrated during the 2018 midterms, they win elections by appealing to moderates and independents. They won control of the House by winning numerous seats in districts where President Donald Trump prevailed in 2016 by nominating moderates—not radicals like AOC and her pro-BDS, anti-Semitic pals.

That’s why the Democratic establishment still prefers Biden since they believe that he is the most likely to defeat Trump.

The problem here for pro-Israel Democrats is that, out of necessity, they’ve hitched the fate of their cause to what right now looks like a fading star. Biden, who hasn’t won a competitive race on his own (being Barack Obama’s running mate doesn’t count) since Richard Nixon was president, has so far been a disappointment to his backers. With a focus on the effort to impeach Trump dominating the headlines this winter, it may also remind voters of his son’s questionable behavior further dragging him down.

Nor, it should be added, is Biden coming to the issue with entirely clean hands. He was part of Obama’s eight-year-long pressure campaign against the Israeli government, as well as an ardent supporter of the disastrous 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which he still defends.

Biden may be instinctively supportive of the Jewish state in ways that eclipse those of Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg; however, the tenor of his dialogue with Israel has always been that of an American who thinks he knows the Middle East better than Israelis. Biden received a devastating—and completely deserved—tongue-lashing from former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at a Senate hearing in June 1982. In response to Biden’s threats of aid cuts that were hardly different from the statements of the primary opponents he now considers “outrageous,” Begin slapped him down by telling him that he was “not a Jew with trembling knees,” and that Israel would defend its principles, “and, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”

In a competition with far more extreme critics of Israel than he ever was, Biden is the best that pro-Israel Democrats, who once dominated their party yet now seem unable to muster sufficient support for censoring or shunning anti-Semites like Omar and Tlaib, can muster. It is on his aging and uncertain shoulders that the fate of the Democrats as a pro-Israel party rests. That’s a prospect that should scare friends of the Jewish state, no matter which party they support.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin. 

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