Joe Biden’s latest charm offensive

The vice president is spearheading a mission aimed at easing tensions between the U.S. and Israeli governments.

By | 4/30/15

The White House is testing out a new ambassador to Israel. His name is Joe Biden.

As the Obama administration tries to mend fences with Israeli leaders upset about the nuclear talks with Iran, the vice president has become the grinning, folksy face of a broader U.S. attempt at rapprochement with Israel after a winter of bitter arguments over Iran and Israel’s election.

Biden has become central to the administration’s outreach to pro-Israel activists, joining meetings with Jewish groups at the White House. Just last week, the vice president appeared at the 67th Annual Israeli Independence Day Celebration in Washington, D.C., where he began his speech by declaring, “My name is Joe Biden, and everybody knows I love Israel.”

And on Thursday night, the vice president restated the administration’s commitment to Israel — while also defending the Iran talks — when he spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Soref Symposium Gala Dinner. The institute, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, focuses heavily on Israel’s security.

“We have Israel’s back,” the vice president said in a speech that acknowledged a war with Iran “is a risk we may yet have to take.”

Biden’s charm offensive marks a reversal for the Obama administration after a period of open hostility with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which included angry allegations from the White House that Netanyahu had made racially charged statements about Arabs to win re-election last month. But the realization that Netanyahu is not going anywhere — along with pressure from Jewish-Americans and pro-Israel Democrats — has Obama working to repair what both sides call a vital relationship.

Picking Biden to lead the charge is something of a gamble, since the voluble vice president has a history of making cringeworthy gaffes and speaking out-of-school. Still, former officials and experts say that in many ways the vice president is an obvious choice for this goodwill mission.

The 72-year-old former senator spent decades in Congress and has a much longer history of dealing with Israeli leaders than President Barack Obama. Biden has a better personal relationship with Netanyahu than does Obama, who suffers from lingering suspicion in many pro-Israeli quarters that he is not fully committed to protecting the Jewish state.

Biden is “a known quantity in Israel and a trusted quantity in Israel,” said Robert Wexler, a former congressman and current president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

It’s not that Biden is offering a different policy toward Israel. He supports Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran, which Netanyahu says will lead to “a very bad deal,” insisting a nuclear pact with the Islamic Republic will make Israel safer. He also has repeatedly defended Obama’s pro-Israeli bona fides. (“No president has ever done more to support Israel’s security than President Barack Obama,” Biden said at last week’s independence day event.)

The vice president’s relationship with the Israelis hasn’t lacked road bumps, either. On a visit to Israel in 2010, the country’s Interior Ministry blindsided him by announcing plans to build hundreds of new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, which the U.S. opposes. Biden was furious, saying it “undermines the trust we need right now.”

Now, as he defends the Iran deal to skeptical audiences, Biden brings a familiarity and charm that puts many Israelis at ease.

In his speech at the independence day celebration, for instance, Biden noted that two of his three children married Jewish spouses, and said the United States and Israel are “like family.”

”Sometimes we drive each other crazy,” he said. “But we love each other. And we protect each other.” Days later, he would make similar comments at the Washington Institute dinner.

The White House has not relied solely on Biden to make its case on Iran, whose Islamist government many Israelis consider an existential threat.

Secretary of State John Kerry has also reached out to pro-Israeli activists and American Jewish leaders; he was invited to speak at Thursday night’s Washington Institute dinner but declined because he is traveling, a State Department official confirmed.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, a lead negotiator in the Iran talks, spoke earlier this week at a gathering of Reform Jewish leaders, and she recalled her time attending a Jewish congregation in Baltimore as a child. The president himself has also met with Jewish leaders to make his case on the Iran deal and reiterate his support for Israel.

Biden, however, hasn’t been as closely tied to the nuclear talks the way that Kerry, Sherman and Obama have, at least not publicly, which gives him a bit more room to maneuver. On Thursday, even as he laid out a strong defense of the Iran negotiations, he also stressed he empathized with Israeli worries.

“The criticism that Israel is too concerned I find preposterous,” Biden said. “They have reason to be concerned. I think we should get beyond the notion that there’s anything remotely acceptable about Israel not being concerned.”

The vice president dismissed as naive the argument that military strikes could easily stop Iran’s nuclear advances, and he stressed diplomacy must be given a chance.

“There’s nothing simple, minimal or predictable about a war with Iran,” he said. Still, he added: “If required, it will happen. It’s a risk we may yet have to take should Iran race to a bomb.”

It’s not clear how much success Biden is having at changing the mind of the one Israeli whose opinion carries the most weight: Netanyahu.

The Israeli premier has been an implacable foe of the Iran talks, and there’s no sign he’s ready to back down. In early March, he delivered a speech to Congress attacking the Iran deal; the speech was scheduled without the usual notice to the White House, infuriating the Obama team. Biden skipped the speech; his aides noted that he had an already planned trip, but it was one of several signals from an angry White House.

In what appeared to be a veiled shot at Netanyahu, Biden told the Washington Institute crowd Thursday: “Those who say the deal paves a way to Iran getting a bomb, respectfully, they’re wrong.”

Despite the divisions he sowed through his March 3 speech, including among American Jews, Netanyahu’s party won the Israeli elections two weeks later. The Israeli leader’s concerns about the negotiations with Iran also appeared to have an effect on U.S. lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, who have since been moving forward on a bill that effectively gives Congress a say in the deal with Tehran.

The White House has taken note. After an unsuccessful concerted push by the administration to stop the bill in Congress (a push that was interwoven with the outreach to the American Jewish leaders) the president has said he’d be willing to sign a compromise version still wending its way through the legislature.

In another sign that the White House is trying to deescalate tensions, Obama appears to be moving slowly — if at all — on threats to pressure Israel through action at the United Nations.

Diplomatic sources say that U.S. officials have asked allies to hold off on a Security Council measure aimed at re-energizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, at least while negotiators are still hammering out the nuclear deal with Tehran. That agreement, which would lift economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbing its nuclear program, is due by June 30.

After Netanyahu’s speech, the White House signaled that it might reconsider its longstanding opposition to resolutions criticizing Israeli settlement activity and outlining the parameters of a possible peace agreement. Now, experts and diplomats question whether the U.S. actually intends to follow through on that front.

For now, the signs are that the White House sees no gain in an extended fight with Israel.

“There’s no benefit to continuing in this way for the United States,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official who specialized in the Middle East. He added: “And I don’t think there’s much benefit to continuing in this way for Israel.”

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