IN EARLY DECEMBER, in a small town in northeastern Iowa, Joe Biden addressed a subject that hasn’t come up much in the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign: the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The former vice president derided Bernie Sanders’s call to condition military aid to the Jewish state as “bizarre.” To explain, he offered an analogy: “It’s like saying to France, ‘Because you don’t agree with us, we’re going to kick you out of NATO.’” Before anyone could query the comparison—is requiring that Israel not use its almost $4 billion per year in US taxpayers’ money to, for instance, detain Palestinian children, really like undoing the Western alliance?—Biden had moved on to the Palestinians. Yes, he acknowledged, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves criticism for proposing to annex parts of the West Bank. But he was “tired of everybody giving the Palestinian Authority a pass.”
A pass? While Biden was vice president, Congress repeatedly withheld US aid to the PA—which totaled roughly one-sixth of the aid earmarked for Israel—as a means of pressuring the Palestinians not to pursue statehood at the United Nations or to charge Israel with human rights violations at the International Criminal Court. Since then, the Trump administration has eliminated that aid entirely. It has also closed the Washington office of the PA’s sister institution, the Palestine Liberation Organization, expelled the PLO ambassador and his family, and denied visas to nonviolent Palestinian activists wishing to visit the United States.
Biden’s comments offer a glimpse into opinions that have received scant attention, in part because during the Obama presidency they were expressed largely behind closed doors. The nature of those opinions became clear during interviews I conducted with 15 former Obama administration officials. The officials quoted below asked for anonymity in order to disclose internal government conversations. What they reveal is that during a critical period early in the Obama administration, when the White House contemplated exerting real pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to keep the possibility of a Palestinian state alive, Biden did more than any other cabinet-level official to shield Netanyahu from that pressure.
If Democrats nominate Biden for president, they won’t only be repudiating the positions of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg—all of whom have expressed an openness to conditioning US aid to Israel. They will, to a significant extent, be repudiating the efforts of Barack Obama. In recent years, Democrats have moved, slowly and haltingly, toward a recognition that defending Israeli democracy and Palestinian rights requires publicly challenging the Israeli government. A Biden presidency would undo that progress almost entirely.
UNDERSTANDING the very different sensibilities that Biden and Obama brought to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict requires going back to the start of Obama’s presidency. The new president considered a push for Palestinian statehood crucial to restoring the US’s tattered reputation in the Arab and Muslim world. And he cared more than most of his predecessors about Palestinian rights. “He clearly has instinctively, innately, a concern for the suffering of the Palestinians,” a Washington insider close to Obama told me in 2011. “If you compare [him to past presidents]—I don’t remember any of them expressing that kind of sensitivity, with the exception of Jimmy Carter.”
But the conditions for meaningful negotiations were grim. Three weeks after Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Israel held elections that resulted in Netanyahu’s return to the prime minister’s office. Netanyahu refused to begin talks where his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, had left off. And, unlike Olmert, he openly opposed a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu faced a Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, weakened by his corruption and his failure to deliver a state for his people. Having paid a political price for negotiating with Olmert in late 2008 even as Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip in Operation Cast Lead, Abbas feared being further discredited by negotiating with a new prime minister who was openly hostile to ceding land. Abbas was particularly bitter that Israel had never fulfilled the conditions in George W. Bush’s 2003 “Road Map For Peace,” which required it to freeze the growth of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.
Thus, PA officials told Obama’s diplomats they wouldn’t enter into talks with Netanyahu absent a settlement freeze. If Abbas “goes to negotiate he is finished. I am finished,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told US officials in late February 2009. “We will negotiate but on the basis of the Road Map.” So the White House—unable to convince Netanyahu to resume Olmert’s talks—asked him to freeze settlement growth instead. When Netanyahu resisted, it set off a struggle that lasted more than a year, in which Biden undermined Obama’s position again and again.
The White House openly broadcast its frustration with Netanyahu’s opposition to a settlement freeze. That was part of its strategy. During the campaign, Obama had promised “to hold up a mirror and tell the truth and say if Israel is building settlements without any regard to the effects that this has on the peace process.” Now the White House wanted to send a message to ordinary Israelis that by refusing Washington’s demand, their prime minister was imperiling relations with Israel’s superpower patron. It was not lost on Obama’s advisors that two Israeli prime ministers—Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s and Netanyahu himself later that decade—had lost power after high-profile disagreements with a US president.
If the White House felt that open disagreement gave it leverage, establishment American Jewish organizations moved to take that leverage away. In May, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gathered signatures for a congressional letter that urged Obama to work “privately . . . on areas of disagreement” with the Israeli government. At a White House meeting in July, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, urged Obama to allow “no daylight” between the two governments, to which Obama replied acidly that during George W. Bush’s administration there had been “no daylight and no progress.”
Biden took Hoenlein’s side. In Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, Michael Oren’s memoir of his time as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, he quotes Biden as telling him, “We must have no daylight between us”—which contradicted Obama’s position. Biden had entered the White House with a much closer relationship to establishment American Jewish groups than Obama had. In Chicago, Obama’s closest Jewish allies had been progressives like David Axelrod, Newton Minow, Bettylu Saltzman, and Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, all of whom felt alienated by Israel’s policies. By contrast, an AIPAC activist, Michael Adler, had served as national finance chairman of Biden’s 2008 campaign. (In a 2011 speech to a Jewish audience in Detroit, Biden boasted, “I’ve raised more money from AIPAC than some of you have.”)
Biden also leaned heavily on Dennis Ross, the National Security Council senior director for the central region, who had come to the Obama administration from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by former AIPAC donors and staff. On Israel policy, one former State Department official told me, Biden “viewed Dennis as his north star.” Ross’s policy guidance—which was generally to avoid public conflict with Netanyahu—coincided with the vice president’s political interests. Biden, argues one former administration official, “viewed most foreign policy issues fundamentally as political issues.” He “believed that the Palestinians were never going to give us what we needed and Israelis would make us pay politically so there was no reason to take a hard line with them.”
When it came to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Oren notes in his memoir, Biden sometimes employed an uncomfortable analogy: “Never crucify yourself on a small cross.” The message: The Palestinians aren’t pliable or important enough to be worth the trouble, given the political cost domestically.
THIS DIVERGENCE OF OPINION between the president and vice president grew clearer as the settlement freeze struggle dragged on. In November 2009, the Obama and Netanyahu administrations reached a compromise: Israel would freeze settlements, but only for ten months, not in East Jerusalem, not for “public buildings,” and not for buildings where foundations had already been laid.
Palestinian negotiators were unimpressed. Erekat predicted that the announcement would result in “more construction in 2010 than 2009.” To cajole the Palestinians into entering negotiations despite their disappointment, US diplomats tried to convince Israel to quietly hold off on construction in East Jerusalem, where the PA hoped to establish its future capital. But that proved difficult. Eight days before the freeze began, Israel announced new construction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. In December, it announced yet more building in East Jerusalem. In early March came an announcement of new building in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev.
Nonetheless, on Monday, March 8th, 2010, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, announced that the Palestinians had agreed to enter indirect negotiations with Israel. He asked both sides to “to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.” The administration dispatched Biden to the region to give the talks a high-profile boost.
The very next day, Biden began his trip by again contradicting Obama’s strategy of public pressure. At a midday press conference with Netanyahu, the vice president declared that “progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel.” The significance of Biden’s view became clearer later that day, when, during his visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, his aides received word that Israel’s Interior Ministry had announced a major settlement expansion in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
Biden and the aides traveling with him—Ross, National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro, and Anthony Blinken, the vice president’s national security advisor—returned to their hotel to check in with Washington before Biden’s planned dinner with Netanyahu that night. Officials back home—outraged by what they saw as the snubbing of Biden, and conscious that Israel’s move created perhaps the final opportunity to stop Netanyahu from continuing to sabotage peace talks—suggested a dramatic response: canceling Biden’s dinner with Netanyahu or even canceling his trip entirely.
Biden and his team on the ground pushed back. The vice president’s view, according to an official close to him, was that “public daylight” would be “counterproductive to our interests and our relationship.” Ross resisted even using the word “condemn”—which he believed should be reserved for acts of terrorism—in Washington’s statement on the Ramat Shlomo expansion. Biden, according to another official, preferred to avoid the term as well. But he didn’t press the point, and “condemn” made it into the official US response. The vice president arrived 90 minutes late to his dinner with Netanyahu, where he harangued the prime minister about the settlement announcement in private.
Netanyahu apologized for the timing and agreed not to begin construction in Ramat Shlomo for at least two years. But he did not pledge to halt settlement growth in East Jerusalem, let alone to support a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines, as Olmert had. Nonetheless, Biden and his staff were content. In a conciliatory speech that Thursday at Tel Aviv University, the vice president said he “appreciate[d]” that Israel “is putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of events like the Ramat Shlomo announcement and “that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years.” He devoted virtually the entire rest of the speech to lauding the US–Israel partnership. As Ross later recalled in his book Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, “We thought the issue was largely behind us.” Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar was appalled. By declaring himself satisfied with “Netanyahu’s assertion that actual construction in Ramat Shlomo would begin only in another several years,” Biden had given “an American green light for approving even more building plans in East Jerusalem.” To “wipe the spit off his face,” Eldar wrote, “Biden had to say it was only rain.”
But Obama had not given up on using Ramat Shlomo to pressure Netanyahu. At breakfast on Friday morning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they agreed that she would call the Israeli prime minister and insist he take dramatic measures to show that he was serious about peace talks. In his book, Oren says Clinton demanded a complete settlement freeze—not only in the West Bank, but in East Jerusalem too. CNN reported that Clinton told Netanyahu—who resisted discussing the contours of a Palestinian state—that negotiations must include borders, settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. In other words, they must constitute a serious effort at ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. According to one administration official, the White House drew up a set of punishments in case Netanyahu refused. These included banning contributions by US citizens to Israeli settlements, supporting the condemnation of settlements at the UN, declaring Israel’s ambassador persona non grata, or even limiting further military aid. Clinton gave Netanyahu 24 hours to respond. It was a singular moment, the closest the Obama administration came to wielding the US’s massive military and diplomatic leverage to try to force a change in Israeli policy.
At this crucial juncture, Biden undercut Obama again. After Clinton’s ultimatum, the vice president—who was still traveling in the Middle East—contacted Netanyahu himself. In their book Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance, Dana Allin and Steve Simon describe Biden’s discussion with the Israeli prime minister as “a conciliatory call” that had the effect of “undercutting Clinton and reinforcing Israel’s generally dismissive approach to the administration’s periodically tough messaging.” An administration official remembers being “astonished” upon seeing the transcript of the conversation: “Biden completely undercut the secretary of state and gave Bibi a strong indication that whatever was being planned in Washington was hotheadedness and he could defuse it when he got back.” When Clinton saw the transcript, the official recalls, she “realized she’d been thrown under the bus.”
The 24 hours passed, and Israel responded with what the administration official calls a “nonresponse.” It was “all lawyered—‘we will try to address your concerns without doing anything specific.’”
Netanyahu was emboldened. The prime minister realized, according to a senior Israeli official quoted in Ben Caspit’s book, The Netanyahu Years, that he had “entered the lion’s den and came out in one piece. He began to understand that Obama’s bark is much worse than his bite, that there is no reason to fear him.”
Biden doesn’t bear all the blame for the Obama administration’s failure. The president himself was skittish about imposing real penalties on Israel for destroying the two-state solution. And powerful Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans, made imposing such penalties difficult. As Oren recalls in his memoir, at the height of the Ramat Shlomo standoff, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York called him and advised, “Don’t give an inch.”
Still, rather than bolstering Obama in his confrontation with Netanyahu, Biden weakened him. Two weeks after Biden’s call, the Israeli prime minister returned to Washington, where he told the AIPAC Policy Conference he would never sign a peace agreement in which Israeli troops left the West Bank. He also boasted that “the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” adding, “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.” When Netanyahu’s delegation arrived at the White House, Biden draped an arm around Israel’s national security advisor, Uzi Arad. “Just remember,” Arad recalls the vice president saying, “that I am your best fucking friend here.”
AFTER THE SETTLEMENTS DEFEAT, Obama never expressed the same enthusiasm for a US push to create a Palestinian state. External events, however, did occasionally force the administration to respond. And in these moments, Biden’s counsel remained the same: No public pressure on Israel, no matter what.
With negotiations dead, in early 2011 Abbas focused his energy on a resolution at the UN Security Council, which, shrewdly, cut and pasted the Obama administration’s own criticisms of settlements into a document the Palestinians knew Washington would find hard to veto. By then, the Arab Spring had brought demonstrators into the streets across the Middle East. And at a White House meeting on the UN resolution, Clinton brought along her assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, who argued that vetoing the settlements resolution might turn those demonstrators against the US. Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed, as did UN Ambassador Susan Rice. But Ross argued strenuously for a veto, and Biden backed him up. At the last minute, Obama followed their advice. Every other member of the Security Council supported the measure. The vote was 14 to one.
In Obama’s second term, Secretary of State John Kerry tried feverishly to revive the peace process. (Obama himself, according to a former senior national security official, advised Kerry not to let the effort consume him, since the prospects of success were low.) But by 2016, even Kerry realized there would be no Palestinian state on the Obama administration’s watch. The only thing left to debate was whether Obama should send a message on his way out. The US, Kerry argued, should outline the parameters for a two-state deal and get it approved by the UN Security Council, thus laying down a marker for future administrations. Biden, according to the former senior national security official, disagreed. He argued that in the heat of an election campaign, Hillary Clinton might feel compelled to disavow Obama’s parameters, making it harder for her to pursue a two-state solution as president.
But after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, Biden came up with another justification for doing nothing. The United Kingdom, Egypt, and New Zealand were pushing a new UN resolution criticizing settlements—once again carefully worded to make it hard for an administration ostensibly opposed to settlements to veto. On December 21st, 2016, Obama called in from Hawaii, where he was on vacation, to discuss the US response with his national security team. This time, virtually all of his advisors argued for abstaining, which would allow the resolution to pass. According to multiple former administration officials, only two people on the call supported a veto: Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Biden. Biden argued that the UN, because of its reputation for anti-Israel bias, was the wrong place to publicly confront Netanyahu—although Biden had also opposed publicly confronting him elsewhere. Biden also claimed an abstention could provoke a counterreaction from the president-elect—as if Trump, who was already being advised by pro-Netanyahu hawks like Jared Kushner, David Friedman, and Sheldon Adelson, needed an excuse to do Netanyahu’s bidding.
The US abstained. After vocally opposing settlements for his entire presidency, Obama could not bear shielding them from criticism in one of his final acts in office. For months, as his presidency wound down, he had been privately predicting that the US wouldn’t be able to protect Israel forever. Sooner or later, a former White House official remembers Obama warning, Israel would pay a price for its policies.
THE DAY Obama envisioned has not come. Israel has not paid a price for its policies because the United States, under President Trump, has continued to protect it. President Joe Biden likely would, too. He’s already said he won’t undo Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. And he’s called conditioning aid to Israel “absolutely outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.”
This year, Democratic primary voters face the most dramatic divergence of views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in a generation. The 2020 race pits Biden, whose positions roughly align with AIPAC’s, against both Sanders, whose call for conditioning military aid has placed him to the left of J Street, and Elizabeth Warren, who has said she would “apply pressure and create consequences for problematic [Israeli as well as Palestinian] behavior.”
The polling is clear: Most ordinary Democrats want to end US complicity in the denial of Palestinian human rights. At stake in the 2020 presidential primary is whether Democrats finally choose a leader who does too.
Peter Beinart is editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.