Biden’s Defense of Israel Is Rooted in a Long Career


Mr. Biden did not evince the same empathy for the Palestinians early in his career. “There was very little public appetite in the U.S. for pro-Palestinian sentiments — or even a relatively balanced approach,” recalled Mr. Blank, the former aide. “That’s changed: Recognizing the humanity of Palestinians is no longer political suicide.”

Even so, he has long supported a separate state for the Palestinians and at times pressed Israeli contacts to do more to make peace. Even in that much-celebrated meeting with Ms. Meir, he warned against “creeping annexation” and urged unilateral withdrawal from some occupied land, according to a classified Israeli summary that came to light in 2020.

“He used to call me a lot at the embassy whenever he thought there was something I should know,” recalled Zalman Shoval, who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington twice during the 1990s. Among other issues, Mr. Biden would object to settlement expansion in the West Bank. “He wanted us to know he was not happy when something was going on in that respect.”

Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who served on the Foreign Relations Committee with Mr. Biden and traveled with him to Israel a couple of times, said the future president always favored an equitable resolution for the Palestinians.

“He didn’t just automatically give carte blanche to the Israelis,” said Mr. Hagel, who later served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama when Mr. Biden was vice president. “I’ve never seen him equivocate in his fairness about the Palestinian situation, the two-state solution, although he’s been very clear that he’s a strong supporter of Israel.”

Mr. Biden’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, though, has been particularly complicated. The president likes to say that they have been friends for 40 years despite their ideological disagreements, and some advisers say that is not as much political puffery as it sounds.

Former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, a longtime aide to Mr. Biden and close friend, said the future president and prime minister genuinely bonded because Mr. Netanyahu grew up in Philadelphia, not far from Mr. Biden. “From the beginning, it was like meeting a kindred spirit,” Mr. Kaufman said. “He’s had a very good relationship with Bibi for a long, long time. He talks our language.”

Indeed, Mr. Biden has at times been more forgiving of Mr. Netanyahu than other Democrats. The Israeli government announced a new housing project in East Jerusalem in 2010 while Mr. Biden was in Israel, embarrassing the American administration, which had pushed for a moratorium. Mr. Obama was livid and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a tongue lashing to Mr. Netanyahu over the phone, even though Mr. Biden wanted to avoid a public spat.

Indeed, it was Mr. Biden who sprang into action four years later when Israel came under attack from Hamas rockets in Gaza and needed to replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system. The Israeli ambassador came to the White House on a Thursday night pleading for help, as Mr. Blinken recalled, and Mr. Obama the next day assigned Mr. Biden to get the money.

“He was on the phone all weekend calling the relevant members of Congress, and by Tuesday morning, we had a quarter of a billion dollars,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Biden and the Israeli prime minister have been more at odds since Mr. Netanyahu returned to office last December and tried to curb the power of Israeli courts. Mr. Biden publicly chastised him for undermining democracy and refused to invite him to the White House for months.

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has bristled at Mr. Biden’s efforts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Iran, seeing it as foolhardy. Some Republicans in the United States have gone so far as to blame the Hamas attack on Mr. Biden, saying that he has coddled Iran, the group’s patron.

But any friction between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu was put to the side after Oct. 7. From that moment, Mr. Biden was all in. He took in the shock and devastation of some of those close to him who are Jewish, including Mr. Blinken, whose stepfather survived the Holocaust, and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, who has helped lead the administration’s antisemitism efforts.

A few days after the attack, Mr. Biden marched into the State Dining Room of the White House with Mr. Blinken and Ms. Harris behind him and delivered a speech expressing outrage on Israel’s behalf with more fury than perhaps any American president had ever delivered.

“He worked on that very deliberately and spent real time on it,” said Mr. Blinken. “But in terms of how he delivered it, his investment in what he was saying, that’s not something you write or practice. It really is all him. And that’s, I think, very much of the moment.”


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