(April 25, 2019 / JNS) After much speculation, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced his third run for the White House, entering a crowded field of now 20 Democratic contenders for the American presidency in 2020.
Biden, 76, served as a senator from Delaware for almost 36 years before being tapped as vice president in 2009 under Barack Obama. During his long career, which included sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—he served as chair from 2001 to 2003, and from 2007 to 2009—Biden has exhibited an extensive record on Israel, combining enthusiastic support for its existence with occasional tough criticism.
‘Don’t threaten us with slashing aid’
Back in 1982, appearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin angrily confronted senators over their criticisms of his country’s policies in Lebanon and the West Bank. Biden threatened to cease U.S. assistance to Israel.
“Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work,” responded Begin. “I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history.”
“Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it,” he continued. “We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Throughout his career, Biden was adamantly optimistic about the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, despite repeated Palestinian rejections over the years.
In 2002, Biden echoed the notion that “if you take care of Iraq, the rest will fall in place, including Israel and the Palestinian issue.”
In March 2003, he said that in addition to the United States needing to demonstrate to the world that it can lead in freeing and rebuilding a secure Iraq, “We also must show a consistent commitment to building a secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to supporting democratic reform throughout the Middle East, and to helping lift people throughout the region out of poverty and into hope.”
The following July, Biden expressed optimism about Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s “commitment to achieving peace and security for his people and the State of Israel.”
He added that the Foreign Relations Committee “welcomed his emphasis on the need to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis, and his willingness to denounce and marginalize Hamas and other terrorist organizations.”
In a March 2007 Miami Herald op-ed, titled “Mideast Needs More, Not Less, Diplomacy,” Biden blamed President George W. Bush for overruling “Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and many Palestinians and insisted that the January 2006 legislative elections go forward, despite having failed to empower Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The result was a Hamas victory.”
In June 2014, Hamas and the P.A. formed a unity government. Despite this, Biden said the following December that “the end result of a two-state solution with each enjoying self-determination, security and mutual recognition is I think—not only is the right thing vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Israelis, but has the potential to unlock a whole new potential.”
He added that the Obama administration had “no illusions about Hamas. It says a great deal that this terrorist group chooses to pour its resources into the ground for sophisticated tunnels to infiltrate Israel, instead of building hospitals and schools and meeting the needs of the people of Gaza.”
“But I also remain convinced, as I said, that the vast majority of Israelis and the vast majority of Palestinians believe—as President Obama said in Jerusalem last year—that peace is possible, peace is necessary, and peace is just.”
In April 2016, when a bomb injured 21 people on a bus in Jerusalem, the then-vice president blamed Israeli policies for undermining the peace process.
“I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past the past several years—the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures—they’re moving us, and more importantly, they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction,” Biden told the annual J Street gala. “They’re moving us toward a one-state reality, and that reality is dangerous.”
Biden also remarked that “I didn’t come away from my recent meetings with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu or President [Mahmoud] Abbas feeling encouraged about the prospect for peace in the near future. There is no will for peace.”
The White House downplayed criticism that Biden’s remarks at the conference maligned America’s closest Mideast ally.
In 2007, Biden voted against a measure calling on the Bush administration to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group.
In May 2008, in response to Bush suggesting in a speech in Israel that some Democrats don’t mind appeasing America’s enemies such as Iran, Biden said it is “bulls***. This is malarkey. This is outrageous. Outrageous for the president of the United States to go to a foreign country, sit in the Knesset … and make this kind of ridiculous statement.”
“As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided,’ ” said Bush as Israel was celebrating its 60th anniversary. “We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Biden later told Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room” that he regretted cursing.
When asked by CNN in 2009 if Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, Biden responded, “I think [Israel] would be ill-advised to do that. And so my level of concern is no different than it was a year ago.”
In front of AIPAC in 2016, Biden defended the Iran nuclear deal made the previous year, saying that it was working and promising that “if Iran violates the deal, the United States will act.”
However, Iran repeatedly violated the deal (and continues to do so), and the Obama administration did not act accordingly.
“It’ll be impossible for the next president not to honor it. Neither are we giving Iran any slack in the non-nuclear threats they continue to stir up,” added Biden. “Their support for terrorism and violent proxies, their violation of human rights, their ballistic missile activities, those sanctions remain in place and we’re enforcing them vigorously.”
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the deal in May 2018 after the parties in the 2015 agreement refused to comply with administration demands to fix it.
On settlements in Judea and Samaria
From the Senate to the White House, Biden opposed Israel building neighborhoods in Judea and Samaria, repeatedly remarking that they’re an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
“We all know that any viable peace agreement will have a few key components,” he said at a 2004 Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “Israel will have to abandon most of the settlements on the West Bank and the Palestinians will not be able to exercise the right of return but to Palestine. That, it seems to me, is the core of the bargain.”
Visiting Israel in 2010, he denounced the Israeli government’s plans to build 1,600 housing units in eastern Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab.
“I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” said Biden, labeling it “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”
“We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them,” he added.
At AIPAC in 2016, Biden slammed Netanyahu, saying that “Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts and seizing land is eroding, in my view, the prospect of a two-state solution.”
On relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem
Biden voted for the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and required the president to relocate the embassy there from Tel Aviv, although the law permitted the president to waive the move every six months for national security reasons.
Like his predecessors, Obama promised on the campaign trail to relocate the U.S. embassy, but did not follow through on that pledge.
Biden did not respond either to Trump’s relocation of the embassy in May 2018 or his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital the previous December.
On Jonathan Pollard: ‘Over my dead body’
Biden vehemently opposed the idea of Obama giving clemency to Jonathan Pollard, who was jailed for spying for Israel (He was released with parole conditions in November 2015).
“President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time,’ ” Biden told a group of rabbis in Florida in 2011, reported The New York Times. “If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”
While Biden may be the most electable candidate in the 2020 Democratic field, he faces questions over some of his past actions, whether he is capable of sizable fundraising and whether or not he can appeal to the party’s more progressive contingent.