On the eve of Joe Biden’s very first Senate victory in 1972, a former member of his campaign came forward with a damaging story. According to this individual, Biden had months earlier at a staff meeting asked for his personal views to be left out of a Middle East position paper — like the view that Israel should return the land it had conquered five years earlier in the Six-Day War (land it still occupies to this day), and that Jerusalem should be internationalized. Biden felt making those views public would have meant “political suicide,” the individual recalled.
The candidate and his staff all denied the story, with Biden calling the man “stupid, emotionally mixed up, or a downright liar.” But then, they sort of didn’t.
They’d been “brainstorming” that day, one of his top staffers said, and all sorts of ideas had been thrown around. He had just been playing “devil’s advocate,” Biden insisted. And yeah, he admitted, he might’ve said “something like” what the man additionally accused him of saying: that the Israeli leadership were the world’s biggest arm-twisters, and that Jews were way too emotional about Israel. But “all great national leaders” were arm-twisters, he said! And of course Jews were too emotional about Israel — “so are the Irish too emotional about Ireland”!
The news didn’t stop him from winning. And from the moment Biden set foot in the Senate, he made “defending and promoting Israel a central component of his foreign policy vision and positions,” as the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill accurately described in the excellent “Empire Politician” series. Biden spent the next five decades as one of Israel’s most aggressive and loyal henchmen in Congress, to the point of taking extreme positions even some Republicans wouldn’t countenance. In return, he was showered with monetary rewards from Washington’s pro-Israel lobby in the form of campaign donations and speaking fees.
This isn’t just anti-Biden polemic. Most everyone already knew who Joe Biden was when they voted to make him president, even those who decided around April 2020 that their professional interests lay in pretending they didn’t, and his history was entirely irrelevant to why they voted for him.
The point is that Joe Biden, like many in Washington, is a deeply unprincipled politician. The same thing he did in 1972 on Israel — suppressing his own personal beliefs on an issue to instead regurgitate whatever position would most benefit him politically — is what he would do on a host of issues in the decades ahead, from government spending and war, to drugs and violent crime. It’s how he survived in Washington long enough to become president, probably the only guiding principle throughout his career he wouldn’t bend on. And if achieving it meant supporting or being directly responsible for horrendous human suffering, whether via mass incarceration or this week’s litany of Israeli atrocities, he’s been happy to pay that price.
This is how to read his administration’s response to Israel’s recent actions, which are only getting more and more violent and outrageous. It’s fair to say Biden hasn’t taken much interest in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict since becoming president. He early on accepted Donald Trump’s inflammatory move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and unlike the last three presidents, including Trump, he hasn’t even bothered with the token gesture of appointing a Middle East peace envoy.
His statements so far defending Israel have been absurd. “Israel has the right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” he said earlier this week, after expressing his hope “that we’ll see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later.” Yesterday, he offered that “there has not been a significant overreaction” from Israel.
Biden is not just talking about a conflict where, at the time of writing, Israel has killed 113 people to Hamas’s 7, including 31 kids, indiscriminately pounding Gaza with airstrikes and leveling whole apartment blocks, killing children and pregnant women. He’s talking about a conflict where Hamas rockets only started coming after, and in response to, Israel ramping up theft of Palestinian land and brutalizing Palestinians at their own religious sites during the holiest month in Islam.
And despite Biden’s attempt to cast this as something he has no control over — and the media framing of a “hands-off” approach by his administration to the conflict — he’s immensely responsible for what’s happening to Palestinians right now. Biden, after all, is giving Israel military aid to the tune of $3.3 billion, which he refuses to put conditions on or use as leverage to change the country’s behavior, and his secretary of defense has told his Israeli counterpart the administration has “ironclad support” for Israel’s current actions.
Biden and his team know this is morally wrong. But as with his 1972 campaign and his committed work for Israel since, he continues to see that his political interests lie in keeping Israel and its powerful political backers at home happy. Specifically, he needs Israel to not derail the Iran deal he’s nominally trying to revive, and he doesn’t want Israel-Palestine to overshadow his domestic agenda.
Yet there is also hope in this for those who want US policy toward Israel to finally start shifting. At this point, Biden probably does personally hold some genuine but vague pro-Israel commitments. But if the country’s ongoing crimes against Palestinians and his support for them become such a headache domestically that it’s clear he’d be better off not treating Israel with kid gloves for once, there’s little doubt he’d do the Biden special and kick those commitments to the curb like they were a date lighting a cigarette.
Just look at what happened with the refugee cap. Only a few weeks ago, Biden — never much of a friend to migrants to begin with and now being relentlessly attacked by Republicans over the dysfunctional southern border — personally intervened to reverse his own policy and keep Trump’s record-low number of refugee admissions in place. Facing pleas from his own secretary of state to up the number, Biden responded with an attitude the New York Times described as, “Why are you bothering me with this?” A few weeks later, he reversed himself again, after suffering an even harsher backlash from liberals and the Left.
Biden doesn’t care about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians because they’re not Americans and, more importantly, they’re not Joe Biden. The task for anyone who wants anything remotely resembling a sane US policy to Israel is to make his backing of the country’s crimes a serious political liability. And that in turn means showing everyone you can that the US government’s reflexive position of “pro-Israel, right or wrong” is good for neither the United States’ standing in the world nor Americans themselves.