Loyal Joe

Yoav Karny

It will have surprised many Israelis to find out how deep US President Joe Biden's feelings for Israel run.

Israelis, particularly those on the right of the political spectrum, would probably want to know what they missed in their assessment of US President Joe Biden during months of attacks on his policies and on him personally, mocking of his mental state, and prayers for the return of Donald Trump.

What did they miss? Perhaps they missed what was in the US president’s heart of hearts, while they kept being tempted by the noisy display of his predecessor. What would Donald Trump have done this week? We don’t know. All we do know is that Trump’s career, in both business and politics, is strewn with acts of disloyalty to partners and allies. Perhaps he would have been loyal to Israel, and perhaps he would not, but how fortunate that we do not have to hold our breath to find out, because Joe was there.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, this week, Joe Biden engraved his name in letters of gold on the heart of Israel. Not because he declaimed a text from the teleprompter, but because the strength of his friendship and his genuine concern for Israel’s well-being were obvious on his face and heard in his voice.

A glow suffused his face when he spoke of Israel’s tribulations, clearly a result of the spotlights in the official dining room of the White House, but perhaps not just because of them. In the course of the eleven minutes of his speech yesterday, he gave the impression that his feelings had overcome his politics, although of course it always pays American politicians to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

In the eyes of the Israeli right, the Biden of the past few months has been part of the anti-judicial overhaul protest movement, a hostile subverter trying to topple Israel’s legitimate government. Indeed, he did not spare the rod as far as the prime minister and his ministers were concerned. He exuded coldness. He pulled the red carpet from under Benjamin Netanyahu’s feet. But now, after he stood before the cameras and said, "We stand with Israel. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack," we can apply to him King Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs: "Faithful are the wounds of a friend."

Biden is a rough diamond, known for inelegant tongue-lashings, even foul-mouthed, sometimes when the microphones are switched on. As a senator, he would berate senior government figures who turned up for hearings. In the rhetorical climate of the Knesset, that’s a triviality, but not in the US Senate, known for respect and good manners.

Biden is also a bad speaker. He always was. At least to some extent, that is to do with the severe stutter of his childhood and early youth. A neighbor of his family related how he would play catch with young Joe, who would evade him and shout "You ca-ca-can’t get me."

According to one of his biographers, Jules Witcover, the nuns who taught at the Catholic school that he attended mocked his stammer. On one occasion, one of them called him "Mister Bu-bu-bu-Biden."

Biden later wrote of the burning sense of insult and anger that overcame him. He got up and walked out of the school.

"Let’s go to the wedding"

The story of Biden’s relations with the Jews is best understood in the main context in which US politics can generally be understood: the local context. Getting to know the Jews in the small state of Delaware, where he first stood for public office, was a formative experience for him.

He decided to run for the Senate in Washington at age 29, one of the youngest ever candidates (the constitution stipulates 30 as the youngest age for being elected; he was elected just a few days after his 30th birthday). He didn’t know anyone in the wealthy and influential Jewish community of Wilmington, the largest city in Delaware, about halfway between Washington and New York.

Through a mutual acquaintance, he managed to persuade Milton Shapp, the first Jewish governor of the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, to speak at a meeting with Jews in a local hotel. The turnout was disappointing.

Biden explained to Shapp that most of the Jews had been invited to a large wedding reception at a well-known social club outside the city. Shapp didn’t hesitate. "Let’s go," he said. And they went. The Jews at the wedding weren’t bowled over by Biden, but they were very excited at the presence of Governor Shapp, a cable television equipment millionaire who even toyed with the idea of running for president.

Biden won most of the Jewish vote, which helped him to beat by a very small margin a veteran, influential Republican senator more than twice his age.

Thus the seeds were sown. Eventually, in Congress, in Barack Obama’s White House, and in his own presidency, Jews were and are his closest aides. One of them inherited his Senate seat, although only for a short time, after he was made vice president. Another was his first chief of staff as president. After he left, another Jew was appointed to the post.

It has to be said that having many Jewish aides has been fairly routine for Democratic presidents over the past 90 years. Democratic presidents appointed Jews to the cabinet, to the courts (thanks to which, until recently, one third of the justices of the Supreme Court were Jewish), as ambassadors, and so on.

The Jews of America vote en masse for the Democratic Party. There are no completely accurate data, because voters in the US do not identify themselves by religion, but exit polls have repeatedly shown that between two-thirds and four fifths of Jewish voters support Democratic candidates for the presidency, even when these candidates lose heavily.

The Democratic Party is the Jews’ natural home, generally for internal reasons: Jews are more liberal in outlook than most Americans; they are more sensitive to social issues; and they identify with other minorities. Israel does not occupy an important place in their considerations, but up to now Jews have not had reason to consider it.

The Democratic Party has also been the traditionally pro-Israel party. The biggest breakthroughs in relations between Israel and the US were achieved under Democratic presidents: the first important arms deal; defense cooperation; regular military aid; and support in the UN. This balance tipped somewhat under Trump, with the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights.

The sympathy of the Democrats for Israel has ceased to become something to be taken for granted in recent years. A Gallup poll in March this year showed, for the first time ever, that more Democrats (49%) favored the Palestinians over Israel (31%). Two years ago, there was an even balance. Ten years ago, Israel had an advantage of 60% to 20%.

A question of age

US public opinion as a whole favors Israel by a considerable margin, 54% to 31%, thanks to a huge advantage among Republicans. But the general margin, for the first time, is less than 2:1.

Other recent polls have shown a similar trend. A Pew Research Center poll showed that most young people in the US favor the Palestinians. Sympathy for Israel is highest among those aged 65 and over.

Joe Biden is of course in the latter age group. I wrote earlier this week that he belongs to the generation in which Israel was idealized and romanticized by the moderate left, in the US and elsewhere.

The president’s generation came of age, biologically and politically, at the height of the cold war between East and West, when the US led the free world in the struggle, which sometimes looked like a rearguard action against dictatorships. Israel was the only country in the Middle East, and one of the few outside Europe, that remained faithful to democratic principles even in the most testing times.

It was therefore a natural ally, worthy not only of rhetorical support, but of physical, material support as well. Republican president Richard Nixon put the nuclear forces of the US on alert in 1973, when there was an impression that the Soviet Union might intervene on behalf of Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War.

It’s hard to know how long Israel can continue to rely on ageing, and necessarily diminishing, segments of the US population. It will be interesting to see the first public opinion surveys in the wake of the mass murder in the settlements bordering the Gaza Strip. One is inclined to think that the bloodbath will remind Americans of their own calamities in this generation, and tilt the public towards Israel.

It will also be interesting to see what impact Biden’s assertiveness this week will have on his political standing. Recent polls have not favored him. His personal popularity plumbed unprecedented depths. There is growing doubt about his chances of being reelected.

Similarly, it will be interesting to see what the Israelis think of him. Donald Trump’s popularity ratings in Israel were among the highest in the world, to the extent that Israel was dubbed a "red state". Red, for some reason, is the color of the Republican Party, even though internationally it is associated with the left. The Democratic Party’s color is blue. We’ll see whether red Israel turns blue.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 11, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

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