Joe Biden Versus the Israeli People

By Jonathan Tobin

Commentary Magazine

April 19, 2016


President Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden to address a J Street dinner last night and the message delivered to the left-wing lobby wasn’t subtle. After a diatribe blasting the government of Israel, Biden praised a young left-wing member of the Knesset in attendance at the event. Turning to Labor MK Stav Shaffir, Biden compared her to a young version of himself and then expressed the following wish:

May your views begin to once again become the majority opinion in the Knesset.

While it is a curious thing for one government of a democratic nation to express an opinion about the verdict of the people in another democratic nation, it was nevertheless a rare moment of honesty from the Obama administration about Israel. As much as the problems between Washington and Jerusalem have been hyped as the product of the dysfunctional relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the truth is that the disconnect between the two governments isn’t really about two men that don’t like each other. The administration’s problem isn’t so much with Netanyahu as it is with the Israeli people who continue to reject their advice about policy and who should run their country.

To be fair, these criticisms were couched in terms that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israeli security and the maintenance of the alliance between the two nations. But when coupled with the sort of even-handed approach to the Middle East conflict that Biden — who has traded on his claims of decades of friendship with Israel in order to bolster Obama’s criticisms of Netanyahu — it’s easy to see what really bothers Washington about the situation.

According to Biden, the problem in the region is that “there is no will for peace” among Israelis or Palestinians. His argument was that both the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority were equally responsible for the lack of progress. Their actions, he said, meant, “the trust that is necessary for peace is fractured on both sides.”

Feeding the liberal J Street audience what they wanted to hear, Biden excoriated settlements in the West Bank as “counterproductive” and a threat to Israel’s continuance as both a Jewish and democratic state.

The wisdom of placing some settlements in heavily Arab areas in the West Bank is one on which Israelis are divided. But the notion that the settlements as a whole or any building going on inside them are the real obstacles to peace is a myth. Even the Obama administration has made it clear that it expects that the bulk of the settlement population located in blocs near the ’67 lines and, in Jerusalem, will remain inside Israel in any theoretical peace agreement. Almost all of the “new settlements” construction that Washington deplores is going on inside those areas, making population growth there as irrelevant to an accord as building in Arab towns about which nobody cares.

The problem with Biden’s thinking and that of his J Street cheering section is that the reason why there is no peace has nothing to do with settlements and everything to do with the Palestinians’ refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Three times in the last 16 years, Israel offered the Palestinians a state that would include almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. Three times they turned it down. Even the Netanyahu government that Biden and Obama deplore, agreed to a two-state solution and offered to pull back from the West Bank in the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry (who was also at the J Street dinner). But PA leader Mahmoud Abbas refused to negotiate seriously and then blew up the talks by making a unity pact with Hamas and seeking to evade the U.S.-led talks by going to the United Nations to get recognition without first making peace with Israel.

Of course, Biden is right that there is a “lack of will” on the part of the overwhelming majority of Israelis to do as Obama demands and to withdraw from the West Bank without the Palestinians declaring an end to the conflict for all time. But it is not because they want peace any less than Biden or the liberal American Jews who support J Street. It’s because, unlike Biden and J Street, they have been paying attention to what has happened in the last 23 years since the Oslo Accords initiated the peace process.

The Israeli people know their governments have taken the risks for peace that Obama urges on them and about which Biden claims to feel “overwhelming frustration.” But instead of trading land for peace, they bartered territory for terror. It’s not just the fact that Yasir Arafat answered Ehud Barak’s first two offers of statehood with a terrorist war of attrition and that Abbas rejected a similar offer from Ehud Olmert in 2008. Rather, the precedent that looms over every Israeli discussion about the Palestinians is that of Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Sharon did what every critic of Israel has always urged the Jewish state to do. He pulled every soldier, settler, and settlement out of Gaza and handed it all over to the Palestinians. But instead of becoming an incubator of peace and development (aided by the purchase of Israeli greenhouses by American philanthropists), Gaza descended into chaos and was soon taken over by Hamas. It is now an independent Palestinian state in all but name and one that is dedicated to one proposition only: continuing the war against Israeli “occupation.” In this case “occupation would seem to be meaningless since the Israelis left Gaza but what Hamas wants is to end the “occupation” of not just the West Bank but that of pre-1967 Israel. As surveys of Palestinian opinion have shown, the majority of West Bank residents shares the same goal and agrees that bloody terror attacks on Jews, whether settlers or cosmopolitan Tel Aviv city-dwellers are justifiable and laudable.

If Israelis don’t trust the Palestinians, it is because of that precedent and the fact that the moderates of the PA, upon whom Jewish leftists and the likes of Biden regularly fawn, also applaud and encourage terror. During Biden’s recent visit to the region, a non-Jewish American army veteran was murdered during a rampage by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa not far away from where the vice president was dining. But not even that was enough to force Abbas to issue a condemnation of the attack. To the contrary, the PA and its official media continue to foment violence by lauding terrorists and spreading canards about Israel seeking to harm the mosques on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

As Biden ought to know, there were majorities in the Knesset for concessions to the Palestinians in the past. Indeed, the Israeli people supported the Oslo Accords and would probably embrace any new agreement if it indicated that the Palestinians were offering real peace. But those majorities evaporated after the second intifada and the disastrous retreat from Gaza. The latest intifada and Abbas’s support for terror have marginalized the views embraced by Biden and J Street within Israeli politics. Indeed, even the head of the Labor Party opposition in the Knesset — the leader of Shaffir’s party — has indicated that the two-state solution is impossible for the foreseeable future because there is no Palestinian partner for peace.

Why can’t J Street and the administration see what the overwhelming majority of Israelis see? Perhaps they are too blinded by political bias and by their illusions about the Palestinians. Perhaps they are also too ideologically committed to their critique of Netanyahu to be able to realize that his three consecutive election victories is the consequence of Palestinian choices — which were illustrated yesterday by a bus bombing in Jerusalem and the discovery of a new terror tunnel that reached into Israel from Gaza — about which Israelis have no control. Israelis understand that until a sea change in Palestinian political culture occurs, there is nothing to do but to manage the conflict, and many Americans can’t seem to be able to forgive them for this realistic attitude or to understand that the verdict of Israeli democracy deserves as much respect as U.S. elections.

As Biden’s speech indicated, U.S. policy and the views of people like Bernie Sanders and J Street are out of touch with the reality of the Middle East when it comes to their critique of Netanyahu. More importantly, they are angry with Israelis for preferring common sense to the advice of American liberals who have the hubristic notion that they can save Israel from itself. Until these liberals sober up and accept reality, Israelis will have to live with their disdain.