President Biden, Equivocator-in-Chief
Marking the third anniversary of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently celebrated that gift by expressing his gratitude to the American president and posting a copy of the proclamation in the cabinet room. It joins President Harry Truman’s recognition of the fledgling Jewish state, moments after it declared independence, as one of the most generous gifts from the United States to Israel. Liberal American Jews may be delighted to join the majority of voters who cast their presidential votes for Joe Biden, but the departing president will surely be missed by appreciative Israelis who know a presidential friend when they see one.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem was only part of his generosity. It also included recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, crucial to Israel’s defense of its northern border, and 30% of Judea and Samaria (formerly Jordan’s “West Bank”), where 120 Jewish settlements are located. To secure Israel’s recent normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates, Trump backed off from approving settlement annexation. Nonetheless, a massive Israeli tunnel construction plan is currently underway to link settlement communities to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other locations within Israel’s recognized borders, assuring their permanence. There was no objection from the White House. Little wonder that in anticipation of the recent presidential election Israelis preferred Trump to Biden by a 2:1 margin.
President Joe Biden will surely follow Barack Obama, his mentor and model, not Donald Trump. Biden’s approach to Israel during his Senate years might best be described as waffling. In 1982 he threatened to cut off aid unless Israel halted settlement construction. He was sharply rebuked by Prime Minister Menachem Begin: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. … No one came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. … And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.” Biden was quieted.
Biden’s vice presidency under the president least friendly to Israel had its impact. In 2014, he bluntly told Netanyahu, “I don’t agree with a damn thing you say.” Two years later he persuaded Ukraine to vote in favor of a UN Security Council Resolution ruling that even the Western Wall is in “occupied Palestinian territories.”
Like Obama, Biden frequently made clear his opposition to settlements. In a 2016 speech to J Street he stated: “I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years — the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures — are moving Israel in the wrong direction.” He added: “We have an obligation to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution — a two-state solution.” But what is in Israel’s “gut” may not be what Biden imagines.
Not long before the end of the Obama administration, Biden admonished Israel “to stop the threats of annexation and stop settlement activity because it will choke off any hope of peace” — overlooking the historical reality that Palestinians have long rejected any peace terms. UN Security Council Resolution 2334, adopted one month before the Obama presidency ended, stated (falsely) that Israel’s settlement activity constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law and has “no legal validity.” It called on all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” According to the Resolution, even the Western Wall and Temple Mount are in occupied territory. President Obama and Vice President Biden acquiesced.
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to take steps necessary to preserve “the prospect of a two-state outcome.” He urged Israelis to “stop the expansion of West Bank settlements and talk of annexation that would make two states impossible to achieve.” He evidently forgot Menachem Begin’s sharp reminder that Israel could not “annex” its Biblical homeland — and ignored the repetitive refusal of the Palestinian Authority to accept peace with Israel under any terms.
Perhaps Biden’s presidency may help him to finally resolve his waffling about Israel. More likely, given his past record of equivocation, it may not.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.