U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016
Joe Biden has been in a love affair with Israel for decades. In this article first published in August 2019, when the candidate field was crowded, we laid out evidence that a Biden presidency would prove only marginally better than Trump’s in terms of justice for Palestinians.
by Kathryn Shihadah (August 2019)
At the moment, Joe Biden is one of the top Democratic frontrunners in a very crowded field. He has a lot going for him – name recognition as Vice President under Barack Obama for eight years, and friendly face that happens to be white. Biden has run for president twice before, but has said that this will be his last race.
Biden credits his father for making him aware as a child of the need for a Jewish safe haven, and for instilling in him “never again.” He stated in 2006 that Democratic support for Israel “comes from our gut, moves through our heart, and ends up in our head. It’s almost genetic.”
Jacobin magazine perhaps best sums up his career vis-a-vis Israel:
Biden had an important function in the pro-Israel ecosystem. He and other liberal Israel hawks served as the reasonable, “good cop” alternatives to more fervent, right-wing voices, helping to sell Israel’s demands to those in power.
He has talked tough on occasion, but his efforts to curb Israeli enthusiasm in its colonial enterprise have accomplished exactly nothing – so far.
If enough constituents let Joe Biden know that they care about Palestinian justice, he might take the issue seriously for the first time in his 49-year political career.
Let’s take a look at his background, find out where he stopped believing in justice for all people including Palestinians, and consider how we might compel him to change.
Biden and Israeli settlements
The Jerusalem Post describes a 1982 incident that may have helped shape Biden’s Israel paradigm. He confronted Israeli PM Menachem Begin about his hardline settlement policy, warning him that US support was at risk if building continued; Begin’s reply was unforgettable:
Don’t threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the U.S. lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.
(President George H. W. Bush had taken a similar stand in 1991, to be similarly chastised by Begin.)
A lesser politician would have “learned his lesson” then and there, but Biden has returned at times to his stance on settlements.
In 2004 he declared at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “We all know that any viable peace agreement will have a few key components. Israel will have to abandon most of the settlements on the West Bank and the Palestinians will not be able to exercise the right of return to Palestine.”
While Biden was on a vice presidential trip to Israel in 2010, Israel indicated its disinterest in his opinion by announcing plans to build 1,600 settler housing units in Palestinian East Jerusalem – in contravention of international law.
Even the President himself was brushed off: in 2011, Obama gave a frank speech about Middle East policy in which he scolded Israel for continuing settlement activity and called for a return, more or less, to the 1967 borders. As Obama spoke, Israel was in the process of approving the construction of another 1,500 new settler homes in East Jerusalem.
In Netanyahu’s response to Obama’s criticism, he pointed out that the 1967 lines didn’t take into account “demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years” – referring of course to the settlements that Biden had opposed since 1982.
Clearly, in 2011 Begin’s “give us money and leave us alone” policy was still in place.
In 2016, Biden’s speech to AIPAC continued to peddle the same toothless rhetoric:
To be frank, Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts and seizing land is eroding, in my view, the prospect of a two-state solution…trends in the ground, at least for the time being, are moving in the opposite direction toward a one-state reality, which is a reality that is dangerous.
What voters should tell Joe Biden about settlements:
Biden needs to be reminded that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.
Amnesty International, one of many NGOs that condemn the settlements, says
ALL Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are illegal.
Israel’s long-running policy of settling civilians in occupied territory is considered a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Biden and the United Nations
- America’s 2009 opposition to the Goldstone Report, a UN-mandated brief on acts committed by both Israel and the Palestinians during the Israeli invasion into Gaza in the winter of 2008-09 (the conflict resulted in the killing of over 1,400 Palestinians and 9 Israelis).
- America’s 2010 statements in defense of Israel when it ordered commandos to board a ship in international waters in order to stop it from bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza. Ten international activists were killed. Biden himself spoke out at the time in order to emphasize that “Israel had the right – had the right – to impose that blockade.”
- America’s 2012 vote against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements.
It is noteworthy that as one of the final acts of the Obama/Biden Administration in 2017, Barack Obama directed his UN ambassador, Samantha Powers, to abstain in a Security Council vote sanctioning Israel’s settlement policy.
In eight years, this was the only time Obama didn’t veto a Security Council resolution critical of Israel. Israel partisans protested his “abandonment” and claimed he had broken “decades of US policy of protecting Israel at the UN.” In reality, as the New York Times pointed out, “since 1967, every other American president allowed, or even had America vote for, Security Council resolutions taking Israel to task for actions and policies toward the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors.”
What voters should tell Joe Biden about America at the UN
Biden’s attempts to suppress the truth about Israeli war crimes in 2009, defend the deadly Gaza flotilla raid in 2010, and oppose fact-finding in 2012 are examples of politicizing justice.
Justice stands above politics. Justice stands above “special relationships.”
Any country that is flouting international law needs to be called out.
The blockade of Gaza, now in its 12th year, is a form of collective punishment, and is illegal under international law, specifically the Hague Conventions on the laws of war, as well as Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) states:
The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. Under international humanitarian law, Israel must ensure that the basic needs of Gazans, including adequate health care, are met.
Biden on aid to Israel
Apparently, Joe Biden has never forgotten Menachem Begin’s words in 1982: “Do you think that because the U.S. lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do?”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee head Charles Percy (R-IL) said of the program, ”It’s one of the most extraordinary proposals I have heard…The first time in the history of the United States. It makes the American taxpayer responsible for all Israeli debts and all future debts.”
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported that, because Israel has been unable to keep up with debt repayment,
[B]etween 1974 and 1989, $16.4 billion in U.S. military loans were converted to grants and that this was the understanding from the beginning. Indeed, all past U.S. loans to Israel have eventually been forgiven by Congress.
Biden has supported the “no daylight” policy toward Israel and every aid package over the decades.
In November 2010, he told the General Assembly (GA) of Jewish Federations of North America, “This government will stand with Israel. It’s in our own self-interest, beyond it being an absolute moral necessity.”
In 2015, as Netanyahu was “requesting” roughly $50 billion in a ten-year aid package, Biden flew to Israel to reassure him that, although the US would not go that high, Israel’s needs would be taken care of. He confided, “In the past we’ve known how to make adjustments to agreements after they’ve been signed.”
In 2016, Obama signed a Memorandum of Understanding valued at $3.8 billion a year for ten years – the largest aid package in history. The previous package had been $3.1 billion. (In reality, US aid is worth far more than $3.8 billion.)
In the words of Rania Khalek of Electronic Intifada, the Obama/Biden administration
doomed Palestinians to an extra decade of suffocating repression, ethnic cleansing and periodic slaughter at the hands of a government increasingly made up of racists, fascists and genocide enthusiasts whose demagoguery rivals that of Donald Trump.
What voters should tell Joe Biden about aid to Israel
Joe Biden must be familiar with the Leahy Laws, which prohibit the US government from funding units of foreign armies that are known to commit gross violations of human rights (GVHR). Although human rights orgs have documented many GVHRs in Israel, the Leahy Laws have never been applied to the Jewish State. That makes the United States complicit in GVHRs.
Tell Biden that American values do not include funding gross violation of human rights, and he should hold Israel accountable by cutting off military aid. He should reject the Begin policy of giving Israel aid with no strings attached. Our money is being used to imprison, torture, starve, and kill Palestinians.
Odds and ends from Biden
In 1982, Biden supported Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, specifically including the killing of women and children.
In the 2000s, Israel began a widespread policy of assassinations (or “targeted prevention”); Israel’s Supreme Court condoned the practice. So did Joe Biden – in spite of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee the right to life and the presumption of innocence.
In a March 2007, Biden explained away the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to find peace:
Israel’s a democracy and they make mistakes. But the notion that somehow if Israel just did the right thing, [the peace process] would work … give me a break…The responsibility rests on those who will not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, will not play fair, will not deal, will not renounce terror.
In 2014, just months after an Israeli incursion into Gaza that killed 2,250 Palestinians (500 of them children) and 73 Israelis, Joe Biden remarked at an American/Israeli leadership conference, “Send a message to Bibi. I love him.”
Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts and seizing land is eroding, in my view, the prospect of a two-state solution…[T]rends in the ground, at least for the time being, are moving in the opposite direction toward a one-state reality, which is a reality that is dangerous. And folks, that’s in direct conflict with the goal we all share of assuring Israel’s future as a secure Jewish and democratic state at peace with its neighbors.
In that speech, he called for a “fundamentally different future” for Israelis and Palestinians, but disregarded the First Amendment when he declared,
We will continue to push back against the calls…for people to boycott, disinvest, or sanction Israel. I know it’s not popular to say, but it’s wrong.
In a June 2019 address to the American Jewish Conference, Biden endorsed truth-telling and policy-criticizing, but then did neither. Instead, he faulted the Palestinians for the lack of progress in peace talks:
[F]riends, we also have to tell each other the truth, and that includes offering criticism on policies that are counterproductive to peace. We have to be ready to help the Palestinians return to the peace table, but they have to be ready to negotiate; they have to be ready to recognize a two-state solution as the only way forward.
In that same speech, he offered excellent advice about the fight against anti-Semitism: “Silence is complicity…Speak up!”
What else voters should tell Joe Biden
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies just as much to Israel’s enemies as to Israel itself.
The BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) Movement is a non-violent call for justice, based on the model that ultimately helped to bring down the apartheid government in South Africa. To deny its implementation is to deny Americans their First Amendment rights.
Silence about Palestinian suffering is complicity. Speak up against the occupation, settlement expansion, and blockade.
If you want a fundamentally different future, you must do things in a fundamentally different way. Demand an end to the 52 years of illegal occupation and settlement expansion, and the 12 years of illegal blockade. Withhold the huge sums of aid that Israel expects. Instead of hollow charges against settlement expansions, with no expectation of change, make real promises to withhold aid
And remember that Palestinians have the right, under international law, to resist occupation – even armed resistance is a guaranteed right. Instead of faulting Palestinians for exercising that right, tell Israel it’s time to end the occupation – and mean it.
The pursuit of justice requires that we acknowledge the illegality and brutality of Israel’s occupation (go here to see the numbers of Palestinian vs. Israeli fatalities) – and the comparative impotence of Palestinian resistance. Although “rockets from Gaza” get great notoriety, they are relatively harmless (read about them here).
A Joe Biden presidency could accomplish great things, but it will take great courage to go beyond lip-service.
Kathryn Shihadah is a staff writer for If Americans Knew. She blogs at Palestine Home.