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‘The good cop’: Joe Biden and Israel during the Obama years

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30.10.2020

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Talk to the folks who handled the Israel file and who were close to Joe Biden between 2009 and 2017, and his boss, Barack Obama, more often than not comes up, even if not by name.

Biden was the guy Israelis looked to for support, they say, implying that Obama was… less supportive. Biden was the guy who bridged differences created by the mutual distrust between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency spoke with half a dozen people who saw the Biden-Israel relationship up close during the years that Biden served under Obama as vice president. What emerges is a picture of a man who did little to innovate policy but who was a loyal lieutenant to Obama and remained a friend to Israel — and he was often left to use the negotiating skills he honed through decades in the Senate to bridge the divide.

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“If the kishkes question haunted Obama right through his presidency, Biden passed by flying colors,” said Shalom Lipner, who worked in the prime minister’s office throughout the Obama-Biden years, using the Yiddish word for “guts” that kept coming up in interviews, including, joltingly, with non-Jews. The term, dating at least back to the Clinton presidency, is used to describe politicians who have a visceral understanding of Israel.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say Obama was the bad cop — but Biden was the good cop,” Lipner said. “The people in the Biden universe you could reach out to because there was history there, but most of the Obama people were new. You didn’t have that history.”

The single overarching difference between Obama and Biden when it comes to Israel was Biden’s preference for keeping differences behind closed doors.

“I think the difference is that Biden reserved his most strident criticism for Netanyahu for behind the scenes,” said someone close to Biden who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their relationship with the former vice president. “There was a lot less public drama involving Biden.”

Biden vividly described the difference between Netanyahu, the seasoned politician, and Obama, the relative neophyte, to Michael Oren, the former US ambassador to Israel. “One comes with baggage and the other without bags,” Oren recalled Biden saying in his book describing his 2009-2013 ambassadorship, “Ally.”

An interlocutor who was close to Obama, Biden, and Netanyahu put it bluntly.

“Barack Obama is correct and Spockish,” said this person, who asked not to be named in order not to offend any party, and who was referring to the Star Trek character famous for his wisdom and for keeping his emotions in check. “Biden can talk to people and he will remember their families and where they live.”

The fact that Netanyahu could trust Biden was critical, said Dennis Ross, a top Middle East adviser to Obama in his first term. Netanyahu “understood that Biden would disagree with him on a lot of things but never questioned Biden’s basic friendship,” said Ross, who is now counsel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “And as a result, there were things he would do with Biden that he would not have done with someone that he didn’t trust.”

Biden’s relationship with Israel dates back to 1973, when as a freshman senator from Delaware he visited the country on the eve of the Yom Kippur war.

“There’s hardly anyone out there........

© The Times of Israel


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