Not-So-Sleepy Joe and the Jews

NEXT WEEK, JOE BIDEN will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. While the hopes of many of the world’s Jews are with him, he faces an uphill struggle to repair his country after the chaos of the last four years.

At an age when the politically aware quietly leave it to the next generation to sort out the world’s problems, Biden came out of retirement when he saw a disciplined, torch-lit parade of young men in Charlottesville in 2017. He described the marchers as “baring the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile, heard across Europe in the 1930s”.

Trump’s infamous declaration of equivalence between racists and anti-racists did not dent his support in the country. The marchers’ chant of “Jews will not replace us” did not shock 74 million people who went on to vote for him. It did not give them cause to think about what was happening to their beloved country.

Joe Biden came of age in the aftermath of the Shoah and the rise of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel. His first overseas visit in 1973 as a young senator was to Israel where he met Golda Meir. Over time, he came to be regarded as a politician who was genuinely committed to Israel and not one who merely uttered the words, required of him. His Jewish staffers were impressed at his knowledge of Israel which often surpassed their own.

He also understood the diverse make-up of US Jewry. In September 2008, he commented that “despite any claims to the contrary, AIPAC does not speak for Israel in the US”.

His independence has therefore worried a succession of right-wing Israeli prime ministers from Begin to Netanyahu because he differentiates between support for the state and support for the government.

Zalman Shoval, a Likud stalwart and twice Israeli Ambassador to the US, indicated such irritation in August 2008 when he commented that “while Biden is a friend, he is one of those who sometimes believes he knows what is best for Israel even if he contradicts the decisions of the elected Israeli officials”.

At the outset of the disastrous Lebanon war in June 1982, Menachem Begin visited the White House to explain the raison d’être for Israel’s invasion. He also held a private, but stormy, meeting with the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

It turned into the worst encounter that the senators had experienced with a foreign leader. Begin refused to budge an inch — and these were dedicated friends of Israel. The most bitter exchange was between Begin and Joe Biden.

One factor in this confrontation was the increasing settlement drive on the West Bank during Begin’s tenure. Over the last 50 years, Biden has never shied away from stating his opposition to settling the territories conquered in the Six Day War. In 1980 he told US Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, that the Carter White House seriously underestimated “the resentment of the American people over new settlements…but a free, strong and unintimidated Israel is a strategic asset of the US”.

During the recent election campaign, he attacked the Trump Administration’s stand that it no longer regarded the West Bank settlements as illegal and in May 2020 voiced his opposition to any annexation of part of Area C by Netanyahu.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Biden opposed the plans of successive US administrations, both Democrat and Republican, to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. This included F-16 fighter bombers, Maverick and Sidewinder missiles, AWACs (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) – and even berated Jewish organisations for sitting on the sidelines.

Despite the oil leverage of Saudi Arabia, he pointed out that thousands of the kingdom’s troops were ready to fight with the Syrians during the Yom Kippur war and that Egyptian pilots were allowed to train on their warships – purchased from the United States.

Biden appreciated Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 and attacked the Reagan administration for not taking the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons seriously.

In essence, his broad approach was to support the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine — and to condemn their rejectionists. In February 1995, he supported President Clinton’s Counterterrorism Act. This froze the US assets not only of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah but also those of Kach and Kahane Chai – Rabbi Meir Kahane’s political legacy in Israel.

He tried very hard to support Mahmoud Abbas as a counterpoint to Arafat’s devious unpredictability and the Palestinian Authority against Hamas, but with limited success.

While the President was delegitimised as Barack “Hussein” Obama, Biden played the role of the “good cop” in terms of Netanyahu’s fractious relations with the White House.

At the beginning of 2010, Biden visited Israel in an attempt to persuade Netanyahu to refrain from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet during his visit, plans for building 1,600 housing units at Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem were published. An angry Biden turned up hours late for a dinner with Netanyahu to show his disapproval — and Netanyahu apologised for “the slip-up”.

Yet this did not prevent similar episodes — plans for settlements coinciding with meetings with senior Obama representatives — from taking place in the future.

During Biden’s time in the White House, the US funded the production of the successful Iron Dome system, which has warded off missiles from Gaza. He also ensured collaboration on longer range missile defence systems, David’s Sling and the Arrow system. In all, the Obama White House authorised $US38 billion in security aid over ten years to Israel.

There was also co-operation in forging the Stuxnet malware which send centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility spinning out of control. In parallel, Biden has always sought to locate a diplomatic solution to the possibility of weaponisation of Iran’s domestic nuclear industry.

Obama and Biden famously agreed the JCPOA agreement with the ayatollahs to curtail the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons — an agreement which the Trump White House equally famously withdrew from. Biden has signalled that he wishes to reopen negotiations with Iran — and the increase in enriching uranium to 20% recently is the Iranian opening move in such negotiations.

Even so, Biden now has to seek a way to halt Iranian adventurism. Israel rightly fears Iranian bases on its doorstep in Syria.

At the same time, like many Diaspora Jews, Joe Biden has not appreciated the bending of the rule of law in Israel and attacks on its judiciary, press and academia by successive Netanyahu administrations. While strongly opposing BDS, he criticised the barring of its advocates, Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from entering Israel. He commented that “no democracy should deny entry to visitors, based on the content of their ideas — even ideas they strongly object to”.

Biden is a straight-talker and doesn’t mince his words. He termed President Bush’s address to the Knesset in 2008 as “bullshit” while his aides would have preferred his more convivial Irish “malarkey”. In 2012, Republicans characterised him as “a clod, guilty of dopey pandering”. In 2020, Trump labelled him as “Sleepy Joe”. And still he won both elections.

The storming of the Capitol Building by the supporters of the defeated president indicates the huge task ahead of Biden. This episode overshadowed the election of a Black pastor and a Jewish investigative journalist in Georgia which now allows Biden not only to control the House of Representatives but crucially, also the Senate.

With a fair wind in his sails and a reasonable modicum of political luck, he may yet surprise all of us in these dark times.

Plus61j 12 January 2021

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