Biden, battered at home, basks in undisguised praise in Israel


JERUSALEM — If President Biden’s arrival in Israel on Wednesday for his first trip here since taking office could be summed up in just two words, it might be: Donald who?

A year and a half after Donald J. Trump left the White House, Israeli leaders welcomed his successor with a lavish embrace, as if to prove that their love affair with the former president would not stand in the way of a close relationship with the new president. president. As for Mr. Biden, he seemed equally determined to prove that he was behind no one in supporting Israel.

Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, called his American counterpart “our brother Joseph” in an airport red carpet ceremony, equating with fawning on both sides, declaring that “you really are among the family.” The country’s interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, called Biden “a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known.” For his part, Mr Biden claimed that “our relationship is deeper than ever in my opinion” and told an Israeli interviewer that returning to the Holy Land was “like going home”.

In fact, his home today is not like that for Mr. Biden, who rarely gets such unvarnished praise or loving hugs back in America, where his polls have plummeted and even most Democrats don’t want him running for another term.

The friendly, grinning, backfiring reception he received on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport was perhaps something of a balm. Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was so enamored with Trump that he named a settlement after him, greeted Biden with a warm, long-lasting handshake.

“Any chance to return to this amazing land where the ancient roots of the Jewish people go back to biblical times is a blessing, because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep, bone deep,” said Mr. Biden. said during the ceremony in Ben Gurion. “Generation after generation, that connection grows.”

In the process, Israel became more of a partisan issue in the United States, with Republicans putting it to a litmus test and Democrats becoming increasingly critical of the country’s policies toward Palestinians.

But Mr Biden indicated that he wanted to restore traditional democratic support for Israel, even as he hoped to resume the US role of honest mediator with the Palestinians. In an interview with Israeli television, he rejected Democrats who have denounced Israel as an apartheid state.

“There are a few,” he told Channel 12 presenter Yonit Levi in ​​a session taped at the White House on Tuesday and broadcast Wednesday night. “I think they’re wrong. I think they are making a mistake. Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend. And I don’t think I apologize.”

However, the mutual token of bonhomie masked fundamental differences, particularly about Iran and the Palestinians. Biden’s efforts to reinstate Trump’s 2015 deal with Iran have killed many Israeli leaders who question Tehran’s adherence to the restrictions of an agreement regarding its nuclear program. And the president will meet in the West Bank on Friday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the first high-level contact since 2017.

In his Israeli television interview, Biden assured Israelis that a deal with Iran would not sacrifice their security. “The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons, and if we can get back to the deal, we can hold them tight,” he said. “I think it was a huge mistake for the last president to step out of the deal. They are now closer to a nuclear weapon than before.”

Negotiations have yet to produce a deal, and one of the missions of the trip will be to ensure that the United States aligns with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran if they fail. But Mr Biden hoped the talks could still succeed. “We put it on the table, we made the deal, we offered it, and now it’s up to Iran,” he said.

He again rejected Iran’s insistence to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the list of foreign terrorists as part of an agreement, even if holding on to that position meant the deal was halted. When asked if he would use force against Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he replied: “If that was the last resort, yes.”

Mr Biden has a long history with Israel. He first came as a newly elected senator nearly half a century ago, in 1973, and met Golda Meir, the famous Israeli prime minister. Since then, he has met every prime minister.

For the first day of his 10th visit to Israel, Mr. Biden chose two symbolic statements by receiving a briefing on Israel’s latest defense against rocket attacks and by visiting the iconic Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims.

Among the weapons on display for him at the airport was a prototype new laser defense system that Israeli leaders have described as a strategic game changer.

The weapon, known as the Iron Beam, an addition to the Iron Dome missile interception system, is the culmination of two decades of research and experimentation. And while it may still be a few years away from deployment, officials said the laser will be capable of bringing down missiles, mortar rounds, drones and anti-tank missiles.

Biden’s focus on the joint work between Israel and the United States on Iron Dome and Iron Beam was both strategically and symbolically important. Iron Dome has been remarkably effective at protecting Israel from rocket attacks, and Iron Beam offers the chance to blind a drone targeting civilians.

But for Mr. Biden, it was also a way to involve the Israeli government in important work with the United States. That effort has been ongoing since President George W. Bush led Israel and the United States to join a joint effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with a cyber weapon called “Stuxnet,” which helped forge a closer relationship. between American and Israeli cyber engineers.

In Yad Vashem, one of the touchstones of Israeli society, Mr. Biden met two Holocaust survivors, Rena Quint and Giselle Cycowicz, who were interned in concentration camps and immigrated to the United States after the war.

As the two women sat on chairs, Mr. Biden knelt on their level, spoke to them for several minutes, folded their hands and kissed their cheeks in an emotional scene that aired on national television.

Afterwards, Mrs. Cycowicz, 95, said: “When I came to America, I didn’t know a soul there. And I’ve met so many friends. And now I am invited to meet the most important person in the world.”

The president added his name to the memorial’s visitor’s book, writing, “We must never, ever forget, because hate is never defeated, it only hides.”

But Biden’s meeting with the two Holocaust survivors also undermined what appeared to be an attempt by the White House to build a justification for avoiding a politically damaging moment later in the journey. From Israel, the president will fly to Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to be the mastermind behind the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.

Mr. Biden’s team, knowing images of the president shaking hands with the crown prince would be embarrassing, had hinted to reporters that the president would waive all handshakes in the Middle East due to the virulent new Covid-19 virus. sub variant.

The president only went along with the program for a few minutes. When he got out of Air Force One, he refrained from shaking hands with Mr. Lapid and other Israeli leaders, instead offering them fist bumps. But he barely avoided close contact as he gleefully patted their arms, hugged them partially, and pulled them toward him with no masks in sight.

When he was transferred to pose with parliamentary leaders, he waived the no-handshake rule and grabbed Mr Netanyahu’s hand for a particularly lengthy and apparently friendly greeting.

By the time he got to Yad Vashem, he was clearly done with the idea of ​​keeping his distance. The survivors had been given the memo, even though he no longer followed it. “He asked permission to kiss me, and he continued to hold my hand,” said Mrs. Quint, 86, “and we were told not to touch him.”

David E. Sanger reporting contributed.

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