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President Joe Biden arrives at the US Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in New London, Connecticut, on May 19.
Andrew Harnik/AP

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Why isn’t Biden pushing Israel harder?

To understand Biden’s Israel policy now, you have to look at his past.

There’s a story Joe Biden likes to tell any time he speaks to an audience about Israel.

It’s 1948, a matter of days before Israel’s founding and three years after the end of World War II. Six-year-old Joey Biden is at the dinner table with his family, listening to his Catholic father wonder aloud why some people wouldn’t want to recognize the state of Israel. That’s when his father uttered the words “never again,” making clear to young Joey that the existence of Israel was crucial to preventing another Holocaust.

It’s a story that helps explain why, even in the face of mounting pressure from human rights groups and progressives within his own party, Biden has stood firmly by Israel over the last 10 days as it has relentlessly bombed Gaza, killing more than 200 people, including children.

While his party has moved to the left on Israel policy, with even pro-Israel Democrats more willing to criticize the country, Biden has stayed put. He has yet to directly call for a ceasefire in the conflict, preferring instead to repeat the mantra that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” (A Republican, Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, beat him to the punch on calling for a ceasefire, though he later backtracked.) His administration has also blocked three resolutions at the UN Security Council that would have backed a ceasefire.

Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (left) conveys to President Biden her dissatisfaction with the US response to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Detroit on May 18.
Evan Vucci/AP

Meanwhile, Israel — which has seen more than 10 people, including children, killed by Hamas rockets — continues to bomb Gaza and wreak devastation.

Part of the reason for his current stance, US officials say, is that Biden would prefer to focus on passing trillions in economic packages at home while competing with China abroad. Wading into another Middle East conflict — one with political tripwires at every turn — just isn’t appealing. Plus, they seem to believe Israel probably wouldn’t respond to open calls for a ceasefire anyway.

But that plan won’t do much to end the suffering disproportionately felt by Palestinians. “The right position for the US is to be on the side of ending the conflict, which is where we have traditionally been in the Middle East, and doing so on the basis of our very considerable leverage over Israel,” said Thomas Pickering, the former American ambassador to Israel and the United Nations.

It’s not that Biden or his team is indifferent. The administration has discussed the plight of the Palestinians and said it’s been involved in a “quiet,” behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort to end the conflict. Biden also told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he’d support a ceasefire if one was struck and pressed him more forcefully to wind down the conflict during private conversations.

And according to the White House on Wednesday, Biden told his Israeli counterpart on their fourth call in recent days that he expects “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

Palestinians inspect a destroyed house that was hit by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip on May 19.
Yousef Masoud/AP

Biden’s unwillingness to do more can’t be separated from his past Israel stances. “His position on Israel-Palestine is a relic of a different era,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, who added that the president’s famed stubbornness makes “it hard to dislodge him from his own premises.”

To understand where Biden is now requires you to understand where he’s been. And a look at his record makes it clear he’s always been side-by-side with Israel, saving his harshest rebukes for private.

The Senate’s Israel defender

That dinner table moment in 1948 wasn’t the only formative early experience Biden had concerning Israel.

During his first overseas trip as a senator from Delaware in 1973, the 30-year-old Biden met with then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. In their hour-long encounter, she chain-smoked while describing all the security threats her nation faced, using maps as aids, and detailed the devastation of the Six-Day War.

“She painted a bleak, bleak picture — scared the hell out of me, quite frankly, about the odds,” Biden recounted over 40 years later as vice president. He continued:

She said, “Senator, you look so worried.” I said, “Well, my God, Madam Prime Minister,” and I turned to look at her. I said, “The picture you paint.” She said, “Oh, don’t worry...we have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs. You see, we have no place else to go.”

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir talks with acting US Secretary of State Kenneth Rush in 1973 in Washington, DC. Biden met Meir the same year.
Harvey Georges/AP

The Arab-Israeli war started that same year. More than 2,500 Israelis were killed and another 7,500 were injured in the three-week fight that drew the US in to defend its ally.

Biden would go on to say that talking with Meir was “one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life.”

With the words of his father and Meir echoing in his ears, Biden turned into a pro-Israel force in the Senate.

During the Reagan administration, Biden firmly opposed the sale of advanced weapons like F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia, arguing it would undercut Israel’s military advantage in the region. “The Israeli Government now has recognized that Israel’s military superiority and military-technology edge would be dangerously eroded by the arms package and could not be offset by any likely compensatory measures,” he wrote in a 1981 New York Times op-ed.

Then, in June 1982, Biden joined other senators for what the New York Times described as “a highly emotional confrontation” with then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Israel had just invaded Lebanon — a maneuver known as “Operation Peace for Galilee” — to root out Palestinian guerrillas who attacked Israel from the country. American lawmakers weren’t happy about it and aimed to tell Begin off.

Except one senator. Biden said he wasn’t critical of the Lebanon policy, with Begin later telling Israeli journalists the Delaware senator had “delivered a very impassioned speech ... and he actually supported Operation Peace for the Galilee.”

Smoke billows from buildings in Beirut after being shelled by Israeli forces during “Operation Peace for Galilee” in 1982.
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Per Begin, and as recounted by the Times of Israel last year, Biden “said he would go even further than Israel, adding that he’d forcefully fend off anyone who sought to invade his country, even if that meant killing women or children.” The Israeli premier added, “I disassociated myself from these remarks ... According to our values, it is forbidden to hurt women and children, even in war.”

Nearly 18,000 people were killed and another 30,000 wounded in the invasion.

Biden did push back against Begin about one thing, though: settlements. The young lawmaker said if Israel continued to allow Israeli Jews to dispossess Palestinians of their homes, rancor in the US toward Israel was likely to grow.

This would be a theme Biden returned to often in his career. Despite his rock-ribbed views on Israel’s security, he felt settlements made the prospects of peace less likely, ruined Israel’s image abroad, and harmed Palestinians.

The issue of arms sales to Arab states in the Middle East came up again in 1986, reigniting debates about whether or not to block it so Israel could remain the predominant military regional force. Biden, with a stern look and an impassioned voice, came to Israel’s defense on the Senate floor.

“It’s about time we stop apologizing for our support for Israel, there’s no apology to be made. It is the best $3 billion investment we make,” he said of the annual aid package to the country. “Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”

Biden’s support continued. In the fall of 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush sought to put conditions on $10 billion in loan guarantees the US was giving Israel to help the country welcome an influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union. To get the money, Israel would have to agree to end its settlements in Palestinian territories. Biden didn’t like the idea and co-sponsored a bill to make the assistance unconditional.

The following year, he gave a speech at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — a powerful pro-Israel group — to say that the US shouldn’t pressure Israel to make peace with Palestinians or other neighboring nations.

“We are now at the ‘peace table,’ quote unquote, with unclean hands, because there is a feeling abroad in this administration, among some in Congress, that somehow we owe an obligation to our Arab brethren to have Israel, quote, ‘be reasonable,’” he said, claiming it was an “absurd notion that publicly vilifying Israel will somehow change its policy.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. Biden’s Israel support throughout his career was so fierce that he’s said on more than one occasion: “I am a Zionist.” He believes you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist — the ideology that holds that Judaism is a nationality as well as a religion, and that Jews deserve their own state in their ancestral homeland, Israel.

In fairness, Brookings’s Hamid said, Biden was a lawmaker at a time “when support for Israel just kind of went without saying.” Judging his past stances now, when Democrats have clearly moved to the left, needs to take into account the political environment of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

But it’s also true that there were few voices in Congress during Biden’s many decades there who were more ardently pro-Israel than he was. The question was whether he’d bring that same gusto to the White House.

The Obama White House’s Israel “good cop”

Biden tempered his outright support for Israel while serving as President Barack Obama’s vice president.

Experts told me that had less to do with an evolution in his thinking and more to do with the need to defer to his boss’s policy preferences. Obama wasn’t anti-Israel by any means, but he often was willing to take positions that irked the country’s government — especially Prime Minister Netanyahu — including seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu vehemently opposed.

That was awkward for Biden, who by then had a decades-long relationship with the Israeli premier. He often got caught in the middle as the president and Netanyahu jousted, but he still came away with the reputation of being “the good cop” to Obama’s “bad cop” on Israel.

It got tough for Biden almost right from the start.

Biden visited Israel on March 9, 2010, to reassure the country it still had a partner in the US and try to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a joint address, Netanyahu told the vice president that Israel had planted a circle of trees in Jerusalem as a “tribute” to Biden’s mother, alongside a grove of trees planted by foreign leaders to symbolize their friendship with Israel. Biden was touched. “My love for your country was watered by this Irish lady who was proudest of me when I was working with and for the security of Israel, so it’s a great honor,” Biden said.

Then-Vice President Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.
David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

But the trip soon turned sour when, just a few hours later, the Israeli government announced the construction of 1,600 new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem.

In 1948, Jerusalem — which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital — was divided, with Israel controlling the western half and Jordan the eastern. But in 1967, Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem and since then has worked to evict the Arabs living there and establish a Jewish presence.

The international community doesn’t accept East Jerusalem as part of Israel, though, and views this settlement activity as detrimental to peace efforts. That was also the US position at the time.

So the Israeli government announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem while Biden was in the country, in part to try to restart peace talks, seemed like a slap in the face to the US.

Netanyahu later claimed he knew nothing of the announcement, which was made by his Interior Ministry, but Biden had already taken offense. “He was humiliated,” Bruce Jentleson, a State Department official at the time, told CNN this week. “It was really in-your-face.”

Biden released a statement expressing his displeasure that same day. “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” he said. “The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”

“Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues,” he continued.

Biden’s aides recommended that he skip a dinner with Netanyahu, but the vice president said it was better he attend and discuss the matter delicately and privately with the Israeli premier.

That became a recurring theme during Biden’s first stint in the White House. “Biden reserved his most strident criticism for Netanyahu for behind the scenes,” an unnamed source close to Biden told the Times of Israel last year. “There was a lot less public drama involving Biden.”

But some disagreements played out in the open.

In late 2014, Obama was trying to sell the Iran nuclear deal — where Iran would accept constraints on its nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief — not only to members of Congress, but also to Israel. The president dispatched Biden to do it.

During a December speech at the Brookings Institution’s Israel-friendly Saban Forum that year, Biden made his Iran-deal pitch. He spoke of “the uncommon courage” displayed by Israelis in the face of Iranian threats and why an agreement would ease their worries.

“A diplomatic solution that puts significant and verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program represents the best and most sustainable chance to ensure that America, Israel, the entire Middle East will never be menaced by a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said.

Three months later, congressional Republicans invited Netanyahu to make an address in the Capitol to rail against the deal and essentially rebuke everything Biden had just advocated.

“Why would anyone make this deal?” the Israeli prime minister told US lawmakers. “A deal that’s supposed to prevent nuclear proliferation would instead spark a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the planet.”

Still, through it all, Biden’s support for Israel rarely wavered.

He proved instrumental in helping to send Iron Dome missiles to Israel during its 2014 war against Hamas to defend against incoming rockets. “Get it done,” a former Pentagon official recalls the vice president demanding. In 2016, the Obama administration finalized a $38 billion, 10-year military aid package to Israel — a deal experts said Biden was helpful in pushing through.

Biden even broke with Obama at the end of that year. The US made the then-controversial decision to abstain from a UN vote calling on Israel to end the settlements. Usually, the US blocks such measures and defends Israel at the global body — and had blocked a similar measure in 2011 — but for Obama, Netanyahu’s government had gone too far.

Even though Biden had long railed against the settlements, he still advised Obama against the abstention, for fear members of Congress and Israel itself would get angry.

The vice president’s firm commitment to Israel, despite serving a president who was more skeptical of consistently backing the country, kept him in Netanyahu’s good graces. “I hope you feel at home here in Israel because the people of Israel consider the Biden family part of our family,” Netanyahu told Biden on his 2016 visit to Israel. “You’re part of our mishpucha,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “family.”

The vice president responded with another story he tells often. Years after he and the Israeli leader became friends, Biden sent him a signed picture that jokingly reads: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”

Biden’s old Israel playbook is limited

When I mentioned this history to experts, some parts of which they weren’t aware of, they said it makes two things clear about Biden’s current handling of the Israel-Gaza crisis.

The first is that Biden is unlikely to back away from defending Israel when it’s faced with a security threat. Thousands of rockets incoming from Hamas certainly count as one of those times, even if the country’s powerful Iron Dome defense system intercepts most (but not all) of those rockets.

“The US shares a lot of the same common interests with Israel, like dealing with a group like Hamas,” said Mairav Zonszein, an Israel-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Biden is likely aligned with Israel that if they can destroy more Hamas infrastructure, then they should.”

The second is that if Biden disagrees with his friend Netanyahu — even fiercely — he’s not necessarily going to say so publicly. Instead, he’ll likely save his harshest words for a private conversation.

This seems to be the case so far with the current conflict. Biden’s public statements have been tepid at best, and mainly pro-Israel because they’ve ignored Palestinian deaths and grievances.

But the New York Times on Tuesday reported that Biden had struck “a somewhat sharper private tone” in a conversation with Netanyahu on Monday, telling the Israeli leader that he (Biden) could only fend off criticisms of Israel’s strikes on Gaza for so long.

Recent Israeli airstrikes have destroyed high-rise buildings, cratered roads, and turned homes and apartments to rubble in Gaza.
Khalil Hamra/AP

Similarly, the reason the US blocked three separate UN statements that called for a ceasefire, some people surmise, may have been in service of not embarrassing Israel publicly.

But experts point out that Biden’s approach hasn’t yet stopped the war, despite hopes for a ceasefire to come soon. “This is not a successful strategy,” said Logan Bayroff, the spokesperson for the progressive pro-Israel group J Street.

The US hasn’t placed enough pressure on Israel, publicly or privately, to make it stop bombing Gaza. And there are options available to Biden that he simply hasn’t taken, including placing conditions on the $3.8 billion in annual aid the US gives Israel.

But Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign strongly rejected an idea like this last May. “He would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions that it makes. Period. Full stop,” said Antony Blinken, then a campaign aide and now secretary of state.

Brookings’s Hamid told me that’s not the most noteworthy thing, though. “The bigger issue is Biden isn’t even willing to consider much less than [conditions] and push Israel to seriously consider a ceasefire and find a way to halt its bombing campaign,” he told me.

Based on Biden’s history, a stronger push on Israel was never likely.

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