When Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the emergency government during his visit to Israel, the US president said, “I don’t think you have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist”.
A US official familiar with the statements made in a closed meeting said that the politicians and generals who met in a hall in a Tel Aviv hotel nodded their heads in agreement.
This wasn’t though first time though, Joe Biden said that, as he several times made statements, since he was a senator.
This coincided with Israel’s bombing of Gaza in response to an attack launched Hamas on Israeli towns, and it also came with preparations to launch a ground invasion.
Biden, who is of Irish Catholic descent, has used similar words in the past to express his connection to Israel.
But this unprecedented moment illustrates how he appears to be drawing on his decades in US politics as one of Israel’s key friends during the turbulent crisis of his presidency.
The statements also highlight the challenges facing Biden in achieving a balance between continuing to provide support to Israel, convincing Netanyahu to avoid more civilian deaths, preventing a collapse in the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and avoiding complicating the release of more American hostages.
“Biden’s connection to Israel is deeply rooted in his political DNA,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who worked with six US secretaries of state during the terms of Democratic and Republican presidents.
“Whether he likes it or not, he’s in the middle of a crisis that he will have to manage”.
A second US official familiar with the talks said that during their private meeting in the presence of their aides on Wednesday, Biden and Netanyahu didn’t show any of the tension that sometimes marred their meetings.
The US official went on to say that Biden nevertheless asked Netanyahu difficult questions about the upcoming attack, such as asking him, “Have you thought carefully about what will happen the next day and the day after that? American and regional sources expressed doubts that Israel, which pledged to destroy Hamas, would reach a plan to end this conflict in its favor”.
Biden’s alliance with the right-wing leader risks losing some progressives in his Democratic Party as he seeks re-election as president in 2024, amid growing international condemnation of Israeli methods that also places some blame on the United States.
This has also led many Palestinians and others in the Arab world to consider Biden too biased in favor of Israel, making him unsuitable for the role of fair peace mediator.
Biden partly attributed his pro-Israel worldview to his father, who insisted in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust that there was no doubt about the justice of Israel’s establishment as a Jewish homeland in 1948.
A former US official said that Biden’s acknowledgment of the centuries-old persecution of Jews and his knowledge of the record high number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States last year could also help explain why this month’s Hamas attack on Israel alarmed the 80-year-old president.
After entering US politics in 1973, Biden spent the next five decades formulating his political positions, strongly supportive of Israel’s security but in parallel with supporting steps towards establishing a Palestinian state, until he became a senator, then vice president, Barack Obama, and then president.
His career was marked by deep involvement in the Israeli-Arab conflict, including a frequently recounted meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir, who, as a young lawmaker in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War, told him that Israel’s secret weapon was that “we have nowhere else to go”.
During his 36 years as a senator, Biden was the largest recipient of donations from pro-Israel groups in the history of the Senate.
According to the Open Secrets database, Biden received $4.2 million.
When he was vice president, Biden frequently mediated the tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.
Dennis Ross, a Middle East adviser during Obama’s first term, pointed to Biden’s intervention to prevent retaliation against Netanyahu for a disdainful diplomatic stance during a 2010 visit.
Ross said that Obama wanted to strongly criticize Israel’s announcement of expanding housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem.
“Whenever things got out of hand with Israel, Biden was the bridge… His commitment to Israel was that strong, and that’s the instinct we’re seeing now,” said Ross, who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Although Biden and Netanyahu admit that they have been friends for a long time, their relationship has become strained in recent months with the White House’s support for those opposed to Netanyahu’s plans to limit the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court.
The two now find themselves in an uneasy alliance that could be tested by an Israeli ground attack.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in an interview with Reuters, expressed confidence that the “sequence of events” in Biden and Netanyahu’s relationship will enable them to work together.
But Graham, who spent years as Biden’s colleague in the Senate, said in a veiled criticism that it was necessary for him to set red lines to keep Iran, which supports Hamas, out of the conflict.
Biden warned Iran against interfering, but did not explain the consequences.
Hamas militants killed 1,400 people and took about 200 hostages, including Americans, when they invaded Israeli towns.
Since then, Israel has imposed a comprehensive blockade on Gaza.
Officials in the Strip said that at least 4,385 Palestinians were killed.
While Republicans showed near unanimity in supporting any action taken by Israel, Biden faces opposition from a faction of progressives who demand that Israel exercise restraint and ceasefire.
Rashida Tlaib, the only congresswoman of Palestinian origin, addressed Biden in front of her supporters, saying, “Not all of America is with you on this matter, and you have to wake up and understand… We are literally watching people committing genocide”.
But experts say that Biden can win the support of independent voters who share his affinity with Israel.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Monday showed that American public sympathy for Israel is stronger than it was in the past, with support for Israel reaching its highest level among Republicans at 54%, compared to a support rate of 37% among Democrats.
Younger Americans showed a lower level of support for Israel than older Americans.
Biden, who faces low approval ratings, and some of his Democratic colleagues are also expected to be wary of facing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobby with influence in US elections.
But the crisis also raises criticism of Biden for not devoting enough attention to the plight of the Palestinians, whose hopes of establishing a state have diminished under Israeli occupation.
American officials said that the time was not appropriate to resume the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.