Analysis: Not all VP visits are significant, but this one is

Washington wants to ensure that Israel and the US remain on the same page regarding how to deal with Iran.

March 8, 2010 02:12
4 minute read.
US Vice President Joe Biden.

biden 311. (photo credit: AP)

For at least the last 35 years, US vice presidents, with the sole exception of Dan Quayle, have visited Israel.

Jimmy Carter sent his veep Walter Mondale to represent the US at the state’s 30th anniversary celebration in 1978; Ronald Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, came here on a regional trip 10 years later; Al Gore represented the US in 1998 at the Jubilee celebration; and Dick Cheney came here twice – once for 24 hours in 2002, just six months after 9/11 – and again in 2008, in the twilight of President George W. Bush’s term.

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The importance of the vice presidential visit depends on the reason for the trip – whether it’s to represent the US at a ceremony or conduct defined diplomatic business – as well as the strength of the vice president.

As such, on the scale of past vice presidential visits, the scheduled arrival Monday of Vice President Joe Biden is one of the more significant ones. First, he is not coming merely to represent the US at some ceremony, and second, he is a strong vice president.

Indeed, a New York Times magazine article on him in November was titled “Joe Biden – Second-Most Powerful Vice President in History? After Cheney.”

Despite the fact that he is prone to rhetorical slips and often portrayed by late-night TV comics as a “windbag” – his loquaciousness is often the subject of jokes – he has emerged as one of US President Barack Obama’s more important, if not most important, foreign policy advisers.

As the Times article reported, “On foreign policy, Biden has largely realized his wish to be the president’s all-purpose adviser and sage.”

He attends the president’s daily briefing with National Security Adviser James Jones, has a weekly private lunch with the president and attends all of Obama’s top foreign policy meetings.

Furthermore, he is well acquainted with the situation in the Middle East, telling a group of Israeli journalists at a dinner here a few years back that he has known every Israeli prime minister for the last 40 years.

Or, as one source in Jerusalem put it, he is a “very serious, very strong vice president. He doesn’t call the shots, but is an important part of the team. Biden is as close to Obama as you can get.”

The decision to send Biden, the source said, was obviously an effort to have a more “weighty” administration visit than “merely” another trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was last here in November, or one of the routine visits by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

The Biden trip, as it is being assessed is Jerusalem, is two-pronged: to signal to Israelis that the US cares about the country and is actively engaged in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians while mindful of Israeli security concerns, and to give even more clout to a message that a relative cavalcade of US officials have brought to the country over the last two months – that Israel continue its policy of restraint regarding Iran.

With the US due to withdraw hundreds of thousands of troops from Iraq in August, it is keen on ensuring that Israel does not throw a spanner in the works. Or, as Sen. John Kerry said here last week, the purpose of these visits is to ensure that Israel and the US remain on the same page regarding how to deal with Iran.

As to the peace process, Biden is sure to promote it while expressing strong US support for Israeli security needs, knowing full well that the Israeli public’s willingness to take “risks for peace” is dependent on how strong it views American support.

If the US is so keen on showing Israeli its support, critics ask, why send Biden? Why not send the president to articulate it himself – especially, they add, since Obama has already visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

There was much criticism, after Obama visited those countries to promote dialogue with the Arab and Muslim world, that he was not reaching out to Israel.

However, anyone who looks at the A-list of US officials who have come here over the last few weeks cannot honestly blame the administration for a lack of engagement with Jerusalem.

In the last two months alone, the following visitors have passed through: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen; CIA Director Leon Panetta; Jones; Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton; special presidential assistant Dennis Ross; deputy secretaries of state Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew; and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Kerry.

Obama, according to one school of thought, learned from his visit to the Muslim countries. He delivered a dramatic, though from an Israeli perspective problematic speech, in Cairo; and asked for gestures toward Israel from the Saudi king – and in each case he got nothing. He went, he delivered, and he came back pretty much empty-handed.

The concern in Washington seems to be that a visit here by the president at this time would render similar results – that he would come, speak, and return without any dramatic movement on the diplomatic process.

An Obama visit to Jerusalem, one source said, will come when he is certain it will yield a dramatic result. And right now that certainty is a long way off.

Absent any prospect of a dramatic breakthrough, the other chance for an Obama visit might be in September or October. At that time, just weeks away from the US mid-term congressional elections, Obama might feel it politically expedient to demonstrate support for Israel with a quick visit.

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