May 18, 2020 In The News

The Times of Israel: In contrast to Obama, aide says Biden would keep disputes with Israel private

While he opposes annexation and seeks to renew efforts toward a two-state solution, former vice president Joe Biden would keep disagreements with the Israeli government mostly private if elected, a senior aide to the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee said Monday.

That would mark a departure from the approach of former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served, who often publicly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval of settlement projects. Those two leaders also had a bitter public dispute over the Iran nuclear deal, which the Israeli premier lobbied against in an address to a joint session of Congress.

“Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences — to the greatest extent possible — between friends and behind doors,” said Antony Blinken, one of Biden’s senior foreign policy advisers, in a call organized by the Democratic Majority for Israel.

Blinken, who worked as Biden’s national security adviser in the Obama administration, emphasized that the Scranton native believed in having vigorous arguments when necessary but “maintaining as little daylight as possible in public.”

“You don’t want to put people in a corner when it comes to your friends and partners in public,” he continued. “You’re much more effective, when you have differences in opinion, when you have disagreements on a policy matter, dealing with it in private.”

The former national security official reiterated Biden’s opposition to Netanyahu’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank, but did not comment on what Biden’s response would be if the Israeli government carried out.

In Washington, Democrats and liberal pro-Israel advocates have been debating how harsh the US reaction under a new administration should be, as the move — backed in principle by the Trump administration — is widely considered a red line that would severely weaken the possibility of an eventual two-state outcome.

Some former Obama officials have proposed slashing some aid to Jerusalem as a consequence, while others have said the United States should refuse to shield Israel from international censure. More than 30 Obama national security alums urged the Democratic National Committee to take a strong stance on annexation in the 2020 party platform.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee released a statement last week that sought to convince elected officials not to push for any changes to US-Israel policy if Israel extends sovereignty to the West Bank settlements.

“He’s been clear in his opposition to annexation,” Blinken said. “Any unilateral action by either side that makes what is already a very difficult prospect even more difficult is something he opposes. Annexation is exactly that kind of unilateral action.”

Blinken cited Biden’s long history of supporting Israel in the US Senate, where he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009, which he argued would enable him to be an effective behind-the-scenes influencer in Jerusalem.

Blinken, who was a staff director for Biden when he headed the Senate’s foreign relations panel, told a story of Biden visiting Netanyahu after the Second Intifada. Netanyahu, who was finance minister at the time, had a signed photograph of him with Joe Biden in his office.

“Bibi, you’re wrong about everything, but I love you,” Biden wrote to him, referring to the Israeli premier’s nickname.

“That’s the nature of the relationship,” Blinken said Monday. “That makes a huge difference when it comes to working closely together to get things done, to resolving differences, to move things forward.”

At the same time, Blinken said that Biden’s policy toward Israel and the Middle East would be different from US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of actions seen to favor Israel, like unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there and cutting aid to the Palestinians.

Biden has said previously that he would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv if elected.

Blinken added Monday that Biden would resume support for the Palestinian Authority and reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, but specified that it would remain “consistent with the Taylor Force Act,” referring to a law that withholds certain humanitarian and security assistance unless the PA ceases to issue payments to the families of terrorists.

He would also maintain military and intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel and oppose boycott efforts against Israel.

Blinken noted that close security collaboration was a feature of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, including its striking a historic $38 billion memorandum of understanding with Netanyahu’s government in 2016.