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Joe Biden and the trouble with old friends

The former veep is a long-standing supporter of Israel, but one who always thinks he knows more about what’s better for the Jewish state than its leaders and its people.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden departing Israel following a 2016 visit. Credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy of Tel Aviv.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden departing Israel following a 2016 visit. Credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy of Tel Aviv.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The shoe finally dropped for the Democratic presidential field this week with the announcement by former Vice President Joe Biden that he is running. It remains to be seen whether his place atop the polls for the 2020 nomination is more a matter of name recognition than a genuine desire by Democrats for Biden to lead them back to the White House. Biden does provide Democrats with a choice more moderate than some and more experienced than almost all of them. The same is true with respect to his past vis-à-vis Israel.

The experience issue is a touchy one because it is, in part, a function of his advanced age and a national career that stretches all the way back to the Nixon administration. That exposes Biden to criticism about stands he took on the issues decades ago that are no longer in fashion in the Democratic Party.

Indeed, the fact that he is touted as the leading moderate in the race testifies to his party’s drift to the left. Biden is hoping to run as the man determined to rescue the legacy of President Barack Obama. And if Obama’s liberal stands are now what passes for moderation among Democrats, then it’s clear that the definition of the word may have changed in the last decade.

The Democrats are a party that polls tell is deeply divided about support for Israel. Yet a time when young Democratic rock stars like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) are open supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement, and the ubiquitous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is also calling for a rethinking of the U.S.-Israel alliance, Biden is more of  an old-school pro-Israel Democrat.

Biden dates back to the time when the Democrats were a lockstep pro-Israel party. He has lived to see his side of the aisle split on the issue while Republicans, who were once equally divided, have now become the more ardent supporters of the Jewish state.

That Biden is an enthusiastic supporter for Zionism should not be doubted. Those who have been repeatedly exposed to his spiels about his father’s sympathy for the newborn Jewish state or his many encounters with various Israeli leaders may be bored silly by his stories. But there’s no question that he views Israel with a degree of affection and familiarity than is unmatched among most of his party’s younger generation. And while Bernie Sanders is Jewish and once worked on a kibbutz decades ago, the former veep is far more comfortable with the pro-Israel community and Israelis than the Vermont senator.

But that familiarity and even his basic sympathy for Israel should not be confused with stands that are supportive of its government. The issue with Biden is not a matter of underlying antipathy towards Israel—as was the case with President Barack Obama—or ideological distaste for Jewish nationalism. Rather, it is that Biden has always thought that he had a better grasp of what was good for Israel than its own citizens and their democratically elected government.

That produced a famous confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at a Capitol Hill meeting. Biden’s table-banging condemnation of Jewish settlement-building prompted Begin to give the senator a memorable tongue-lashing about Jews being unwilling to be intimidated by threats, even if they emanate from America.

Begin wasn’t the last Israeli to be lectured by Biden, whose trademark loquaciousness and know-it-all routine has grated on the nerves of generations of prime ministers who regarded him as insufferable bore, even if his status as a senior member of the Senate and then vice president made tolerating his talks a necessary evil. Throughout the last few decades, Biden has clung to the same mantra about opposing settlements and the need for concessions to the Palestinians. But after the colossal failures and bloodshed caused by the Oslo process, the patience of Israeli politicians began to run thin for stunts such as his much-publicized hurt feelings after Israel announced approvals for building in Jerusalem while he was still in the city.

Few public figures have been more affable or charming than Biden, yet even fewer have been more consistently wrong about the Middle East—whether it was with respect to Palestinian willingness to make peace, or what to do about Iraq and Iran. Though wisdom is supposed to come with age, one of Biden’s shortcomings has always been an inability to recognize his mistakes and learn from them. After nearly a half-century in politics, among the worst things you can say about Biden is that he is still convinced that what he thought at the start is still correct, largely ignoring intervening disasters like Oslo or the Gaza withdrawal that might have taught a more self-aware statesman some humility.

More to the point, Biden is running as the executor of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. That means he is deeply committed to reinstating the disastrous 2015 Iran nuclear deal, regardless of the implications for both Israel and Sunni Arab states that regard the pact as a piece of feckless appeasement that has been properly tossed on the ash heap of history by U.S. President Donald Trump. He would also probably revive Obama’s embrace of a policy of more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, as opposed to Trump’s warm embrace.

None of this will likely deter Jewish Democrats from latching on to Biden if they think he really is their best chance to defeat Trump. Biden’s invocation of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., in his opening campaign address will also likely resonate with Jewish voters who are too appalled by Trump’s behavior to care about his pro-Israel policies and equally as wary of their party’s growing left-wing. But Israelis will regard Biden as an unfortunate relic of an Obama administration that is best forgotten. He may be an old friend, but his conceit that he knows better than they about what must be done is something Israelis lost patience with long ago.

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

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