After Congressional Democrats warned President Barack Obama and the administration, their harsh rhetoric towards Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would cost the Democrats votes in the 2016 elections, Obama has been trying to placate and improve relations especially with the American Jewish community and calm their concerns about the administration’s position on Israel. The latest such foray was Vice President Joe Biden’s speech and appearance at the Israeli embassy hosted 67th Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day celebration reception in Washington at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Thursday, April 23, 2015 where a 1000 were in attendance. The Obama White House’s recent campaign to improve relations with the Jewish community about Israel however, does not extend to Netanyahu.
In his Yom Ha’atzmaut speech, Biden tried to calm American Jewry about the administration’s positions on Israel, downplaying any rift over the Iran nuclear weapons deal. Biden also defended Obama’s record on Israel as being consistent with his predecessors. Biden did however, made clear that Obama supports a two-state solution, although Netanyahu had expressed prior to Israel’s elections in March that he would not allow a Palestinian state under his watch, but later backtracked that does not mean he does support the two-state solution in principle. Biden also mentioned again that the US would keep its commitment of supplying Israel with F-35 jet fighters.
The Vice President acknowledged the two countries’ differences, but wanted to make it seem as if as it was like to two family members disagreeing rather than the animosity it appeared as in the press. Biden expressed, “It’s only natural for two democracies like ours. We’re like family. We have a lot to say to one another. Sometimes we drive each other crazy, but we love each other – and we protect each other.” Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer seconded the sentiment, saying, “We are family, mishpachah. All families have disagreements, but what unites us is far more important than what divides us.”
Biden emphasized President Obama’s strong record and commitment to Israel, “You protect our interests like we protect yours, so let’s get something straight in this moment of some disagreement, occasionally, between our two governments. No president has ever done more to protect Israel’s security than President Barack Obama.” Continuing the Vice President pointed the strong bond between the two countries, “Much has changed [since 1948] but two things have remained absolutely the same, the courage of your people and the commitment of mine.” Biden reiterated, “My commitment to protect Israel’s security is personal. Its personal for me and its personal for the president.”
Biden also extensively discussed the greatest cause of the tension between the two countries, the Iran nuclear weapons deal framework agreement reached at the beginning of April between Iran and P5+1 world powers. The Vice President looked to debunk some myths and calm concerns that the deal is detrimental to Israel’s security. Netanyahu has and continues to be a vocal opponent of the deal as is the rest Israel’s politicians including the left Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. Biden assured that Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon remain a year for at least 10 years of the agreement, and “A final deal must include phased sanctions relief – if it doesn’t – no deal.” Biden reassured, “This isn’t a grand bargain between the United States and Iran… It’s based on hard-hitting, hard-headed compromises and assessments.”
President Obama has been making some compromises towards Israel in the last month. Last week he met on Monday, April 13 with Jewish community leaders and Jewish Democratic donors at the White House seeking their support and calming their concerns about the Iran nuclear weapons deal. There were two meetings; first, he met with 15 Jewish community leaders for 90-minutes in a meeting where he made according to The Hill “emphatic and passionate” plea for them to support the Iran deal. One leader in attendance recounted, “Concerns were raised and there was a fair amount of back and forth. There were some folks walking in who support and favor the deal and there were some who have deep, deep concerns about the deal. I don’t think anyone’s fundamental view was changed by the conversation.” The second meeting was with Democratic donors.
Obama’s meeting comes at the heels of his Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Jewish community leaders on Wednesday, April 8. Kerry and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, who heads the Iran talks met with representatives of the “American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative” denominations. A community official present recounted “Both the secretary and the undersecretary articulated with depth, rigor and passion the deal and explained it. There was an opportunity for real engagement. Secretary Kerry was reaching out to those who need more engagement and convincing.” The meeting at the State Department lasted for two hours with Kerry present for the first one.
Obama is also now open to allowing Congress to pass their bill to review the Iran nuclear deal, saying he would sign the revised bill. The president opposed the original bill, and he had been intent on vetoing it; the change is definitely a compromise. The bill authored by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was revised by Corker and Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) making it more acceptable to Democrats and the president. The new bill will allow Congress 52 days to review the deal, but unlike the original with its 60-day review, there will be no hold on lifting sanctions during that time-period. The bill unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a vote of 19 to 0 on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. Congress’ Iran oversight bill has staunch support of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee; Obama’s approval of the bill finds favor with the lobby.
Although, Obama is trying to show he is being softer towards Israel and more accommodating about the Iran deal all in the name of gaining approval for what would be a foreign policy victory, he is not letting up on Israeli PM Netanyahu. Obama is still refusing to meet with Netanyahu, and will not do so until after Iran nuclear weapons deal is finalized after its June 30 deadline. The White House is conveniently using the excuse that they are waiting for Netanyahu to complete forming his government. Obama does not want to meet with Netanyahu before the Iran deal is complete, as the president is afraid that because of their drastically different views on the nuclear deal, that after any meeting with Israeli leader would express his disagreements about the deal to the press. Until then Obama will only will only speak to Netanyahu by phone, showing that although there may be a convenient “thaw” for public relations purposes but “cold war” is hardly over.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.