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The Biden approach to Israel

US President Joe Biden joins Israel's Prime Minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. US President Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023 as Middle East anger flared after hundreds were killed when a rocket struck a hospital in war-torn Gaza, with Israel and the Palestinians quick to trade blame. (Photo by Miriam Alster / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MIRIAM ALSTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden joins Israel's Prime Minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. US President Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023 as Middle East anger flared after hundreds were killed when a rocket struck a hospital in war-torn Gaza, with Israel and the Palestinians quick to trade blame. (Photo by Miriam Alster / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MIRIAM ALSTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden has fully supported Israel since the war began.

“During the crisis, he became the father figure for most Israelis, the kind of father figure that we don’t have domestically,” Nimrod Novak says.

Biden has been consistent on his tight embrace of Israel.

When he was vice president, he advised President Obama that’s best way to get concessions out of Israel. Obama disagreed.

Is the Biden method paying off today?

“Although the jury is still out midway through the crisis, it seems that President Biden has been wiser than President Obama in handling the Israeli arena,” Novick adds.

But lately, many American voters are loudly criticizing Biden. And those who know him think it may be time for a course correction.

“I would give him an A plus in managing the relationship with Israel,” David Hale says. “I would question whether the level of messaging on the conduct of the war is really going to leave us where we want to be.”

Today, On Point: The Biden approach to Israel.

Guests

Nimrod Novick, former senior policy advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Israel fellow at The Israel Policy Forum (IPF), an American Jewish bipartisan organization.

Amb. David Hale, former undersecretary of state, special envoy for Middle East Peace, deputy assistant secretary of state. Former ambassador to Jordan and Lebanon. Fellow at the Wilson Center. Author of the forthcoming “American Diplomacy Toward Lebanon.”

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Days after Hamas fighters invaded Israel on October 7th, and as Israelis were still in shock, grieving over the carnage and cruelty, President Joe Biden flew to Tel Aviv with a simple message.

The United States, as always, is on Israel’s side.

PRES. JOE BIDEN: For decades, we’ve ensured Israel’s qualitative military edge. And later this week, I’m going to ask the United States Congress for unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense. We’re going to keep Iron Dome fully supplied so we can continue standing sentinel over Israeli skies, saving Israeli lives. We’ve moved U.S. military assets to the region, including positioning the USS Ford carrier strike group in the eastern Mediterranean with USS Eisenhower on the way.

CHAKRABARTI: He also issued this warning to Israel’s neighbors.

BIDEN: My message to any state or any other hostile actor, thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

CHAKRABARTI: This has always been the Joe Biden way through his decades in the Senate and now as President of the United States.

He always has said the best way to influence Israel is to keep Israel as a steadfast, close ally, able to rely on U.S. support. At least publicly. But lately there’s been a change in tone from his administration, hints of frustration that the Biden bear hug isn’t working. In the last few days, secretary of state Anthony Blinken, secretary of defense Lloyd Austin, and vice president Kamala Harris, have all cautioned Israel publicly.

Here’s Harris.

KAMALA HARRIS: As Israel defends itself, it matters how. The United States is unequivocal. International humanitarian law must be respected. Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating.

CHAKRABARTI: So today, we’ll scrutinize President Biden’s years of ironclad public support for Israel, and how he’s deployed that support during the Israel Hamas war.

We’ll also ask whether it’s been effective at helping Israel itself and whether it’s time now that Biden rethink his approach. So joining us today is Nimrod Novick. He’s in Tel Aviv. He’s a former senior policy advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres and is the Israel Fellow of the American Jewish Bipartisan Organization, the Israel Policy Forum.

Mr. Novick, welcome to On Point.

NIMROD NOVICK: Thank you, Meghna, for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Also with us today is David Hale. He’s with us from Washington. He’s former Undersecretary of State, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and former Ambassador to Jordan and Lebanon. He’s currently a fellow at the Wilson Center, and author of the forthcoming book “American Diplomacy Toward Lebanon.”

Ambassador Hale, welcome to you.

DAVID HALE: Thank you very much, Meghna, and please call me David.

CHAKRABARTI: I shall do that. Thank you for the permission. Let me ask you both first. And Nimrod Novick, let me start with you. Let’s just reflect for a moment on those clips that we heard during President Biden’s visit to Israel in just the first days after the terrible attack on October 7th.

What did you think of his specific language that he used that day when speaking to not just Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the press in the world at large?

NOVICK: I looked at it naturally from an Israeli parochial perspective, and there was no doubt that the chord that he hit struck deeply in Israeli hearts.

He gave Israelis the father figure that they don’t have, that we don’t have domestically. He embraced us. It was the ultimate expression of his long self-identification as a non-Jewish Zionist.

CHAKRABARTI: And that was a familiar tone to Israeli ears coming from Biden from many years, would you say that?

NOVICK: Absolutely. Only this time it was reinforced with very powerful action. As you mentioned, the dispatch of the area, the carrier task forces, the nuclear submarine, the warning to third parties, the support package in Congress, the airlift, munitions that Israel is using today, arrived from the U.S. two, three, four days ago.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Familiar and steadfast language, but also followed by almost immediate action. Point well taken, Mr. Novick. And Ambassador Hale, I promise I will call you David eventually. But Ambassador Hale, same question to you. Because political language is always exquisitely important, but perhaps no more so than after devastating event like this, there was a lot on the line regarding what the president said on that trip to Israel.

How would you also analyze the particular language that he used in expressing his support for Israel?

HALE: I thought it was absolutely essential that he do what he did, and I think it’s very much characteristic of, as you described, his philosophy toward the relationship. Although I would say that I think almost I can’t conceive of an American president, after the wake of what happened on October 7, not saying, taking a similar approach of absolutely stalwart support for Israel at a time of enormous emotional and security stress.

Glad it was done, and I think, as Nimrod pointed out, actions also are very important. And one of the things that the administration focused on, really from day one, was our role in messaging in the region against escalation. And again, if the president had not taken a strong rhetorical stand, he did take, and if he had not committed the military actions that we took, you would have had a crisis in the relationship with Israel. And you would have had Israel wondering who had its back and what was going to happen in the region, and then you had the risk of an escalatory cycle.

Now, Iran and its proxies were doing precisely that and have continued to escalate, but it could have been much worse if we had not conducted that early messaging through all channels and through actions.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So this is a really important point David, and I’m glad you brought it up, and that is, this was in the immediate aftermath of that terrible day on October 7th, so nothing short of very strong, supportive language would have been likely to come from any president of the United States.

But the other thing that interests me is at that time, that time being like just two months ago, in fact, two months ago to the day, the entire administration definitely fell in line behind President Biden and his approach to taking a close embrace of Israel. The fact is that seems to have changed in the subsequent two months.

And we’re going to talk about that a little bit later in the show. But Nimrod Novick, I do want to spend a few minutes going back in time and discussing a little bit about where Biden’s seemingly unwavering support for Israel that he has publicly declared over the past many decades, where some of its origins might be.

And I understand that one of them, and in fact this is because Biden himself has talked about it quite a great deal, comes from a 1973 meeting that then Senator Biden, I think he was just in his 30s, a meeting that he had with former, now late, Prime Minister Golda Meir. Do you know about what happened at that meeting, Nimrod, and why it’s so important to Biden himself?

NOVICK: It’s almost impossible not to know, when President Biden likes to repeat the story on every occasion, including during his various meetings in Israel when he was here recently. And yes, the story is told, or the way he recalls it, is that after the ’73 war, he asked Prime Minister Meir, what’s the source of strength of this small country in such a hostile huge neighborhood?

And reportedly, Golda Meir responded, “The source of our strength is a single fact. We have nowhere else to go.”

CHAKRABARTI: That seemed to have had a powerful impact on young Senator Biden. Which is not, it doesn’t seem to have changed at all, regardless of the various conflicts and the evolution or the change in the state and government of Israel and the subsequent many decades, Nimrod?

NOVICK: Yeah, he, I don’t want to say claims, because I trust that’s the story. He says that his commitment to Israel was born at his father’s, at his parents’ home. The education, the way he was brought up was to believe in the right of the Jewish people for self-determination and that the main superpower of democracy and freedom should support it. But yes, his relationship with Israel as a senator, his record is impeccable in terms of voting record of everything that is supportive of Israel.

As vice president, he even surprised some of us. Because there was an incident when he landed here as vice president and was welcomed by the then, still, Netanyahu, announcing the government announcing major settlement construction at the time that this was an anathema to the Obama-Biden administration.

He was furious. He went back home, flew back and in the deliberation, from what we heard from the deliberation in the White House, he was the one who suggested the soft approach, whereas the president and others thought that Netanyahu should be taught a lesson. That’s not how you welcome the vice president of the United States.

So we’re going to talk more about that division or the rift between then Vice President Biden and then President Obama. But David Hale, we’ve just got about 30 seconds before we have to take our first break. Do you see that same resonance that Nimrod was talking about from Biden’s early, that early meeting in his career with Golda Meir?

HALE: Oh, sure. I think that it shows the value of travel by senators and congressmen. Because they are often in office for a very long time, and they build these relationships that are very personal. But It’s not all about personality. I think we also have to bear in mind, we have very important interest at stake in this relationship and the president knows that well.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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