Biden - The Irishman with the Jewish 'neshama'

Biden is among one of those rare breeds of politicians who is larger than his office, even if that office is the vice presidency of the United States.

By
March 11, 2016 15:34
VP Joe Biden

VP Joe Biden departure from Israel. March 10, 2016. (photo credit: MATTY STERN, US EMBASSY TEL AVIV)

You could just feel the love.

It radiated from the moment US Vice President Joe Biden landed in Israel on Tuesday and until he left on Thursday.

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“Israel has part of my soul,” Biden told former president Shimon Peres as they stood on a red carpet in the hallway of the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa within an hour of the vice president’s arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport.

As he spoke, the tall white-haired veteran politician held on to Peres’s arm with one hand. With the other he pounded his heart for emphasis.

Forget the handshake and the stiff smile.

Biden is the kind of politician who hugs.

The warmth between the two men was immediate. The moment Peres saw him, his face broke into a big smile. Theirs was not a fly-by-night relationship. Biden entered the Senate, Peres recalled, exactly the same year that he and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin were elected to the government.



“We were at war and you were our friend,” Peres said.

More than a friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told him when the two met on Wednesday morning.

“You’re part of our mishpaha,” the prime minister said, deliberately using the Hebrew word for family to underscore the message that this American politician is one of us at a soul level.

It goes deeper than the shared Irish-Jewish traits of the gift of the gab and the love of a good yarn.

Jews, their history and their state, are intractably intertwined into Biden’s own personal narrative. The shared Judeo-Christian values of human rights have been the ethical blueprint of his life.

Although he is Irish Catholic, his biography is similar to that of many liberal American Jews and as such he knows how to hit all the right emotional notes.

Growing up, his father, who he describes as a “righteous Gentile” told him stories of the Holocaust at the dinner table and underscored Israel’s importance to the survival of the Jewish people.

“As my children and grandchildren approach the age of 15, the first place I’ve taken them is in Europe, to Dachau, the second place is to Israel,” he told Netanyahu.

Two of his son Beau’s children, were on this trip, he said, explaining that their maternal grandmother was Jewish. Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015.

When he was younger, Biden fought for civil rights for African-Americans, traveled to the former Soviet Union to argue for the release for the refuseniks and worked to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

The vice president has been to Israel so many times that he boasts he has met every president and prime minister since 1972.

He recalled for Netanyahu the moment when he “first met with [prime minister] Golda Meir, and her assistant, a fellow named Rabin. I sat across the desk for an hour as she flipped those maps up and down, chain smoking, telling me about the Six Day War.”

Although Biden was a young politician and new to the region, he already had a warning for the Israelis.

“I had just come from Egypt,” he said, “and I was one of the few people allowed to go to the Suez Canal, I’m still not sure why. And all this activity was occurring in the desert, they kept telling me it was sand storms. And I came back and I said to the prime minister [Meir], I think there’s going to be another war. I think they’re getting ready to go to war again.

“Well, several months later the Yom Kippur War occurred. I was just a rookie. I had no idea what it was. But I’ll never forget from that moment on, that the intensity of the relationship has grown,” Biden told Netanyahu.

It has been Biden’s role in the Obama administration to continue to be the harbinger of unheeded warnings to the Israelis, whom he believes would avert disaster if only they would listen to him.

His newest warning to Netanyahu is that he should finalize a 10-year military aid deal with US President Barack Obama, because it is too risky to wait for the next administration that might not be as supportive when it comes to helping Israel defend itself.

But as he noted, he and Netanyahu go back a long time. So it was already clear to him, even before he met with the prime minister that he had little change of changing his mind.

His first public words to Netanyahu when he walked into his office on Wednesday was about how they have always agreed to disagree.

It was as if he knew what the script would be even before it was played out.

The two men first met in a parking lot outside of a restaurant in the US, where Biden had gone to meet with some American- Jewish leaders.

“We became close friends and I later signed a picture for you on which, I wrote as a joke: Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,” he recalled.

“And the joke was, I would have been a member of the Labor Party, not the Likud Party. We were joking about what party we’d be in.”

In spite of this, Biden said, “We’ve been friends.”

More than that, he added, “Our families have been friends.”

They have remained friends. What was clear back then on a joking level, has become all too true now.

That Netanyahu can do no right with Obama and no wrong with Biden, speaks of the difference between the alliances of nations and the binding ties between people.

Ultimately, it is who a person is and not just what they represent that matters.

So it was that Biden flew in and out of Israel unscathed by the latest twists in the continual diplomatic spats between Netanyahu and Obama marking his trip at both ends.

The vice president arrived amid reports that the prime minister had canceled a meeting with Obama that he himself requested. The publicly stated reason was that Netanyahu, who had no problem hosting Republican politician Mitt Romney at the height of his race for the White House in 2012, now feared that if he visited Washington he might be viewed as interfering in the American election.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, from Netanyahu’s own party, dismissed that claim, noting simply that the prime minister didn’t want to visit Washington while negotiations were ongoing with regard to the 10-year military aid package.

Netanyahu and Obama do not need much to generate headlines. Given that the drama between these two men has almost been elevated to the level of a television series, with everyone waiting for the next installment, little good could come from a Washington meeting that occurs amid their latest policy disagreement over the details of the aid package.

When Biden left Israel for Jordan, the news led with a report about the sparks that flew between Netanyahu and Obama during a past meeting.

According to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic monthly, Obama once stopped what he perceived to be a condescending lecture by Netanyahu to state: “I’m the African-American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States.

You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.”

The yin and yang of the White House on Israel is not a deliberate good and bad cop routine.

Biden came to Israel in what is likely his last trip as vice president. He has done so, only twice before while holding that office.

In so doing, Biden represented the US, Israel’s oldest, most powerful and best ally bar none. He spoke on behalf of Obama about his administration’s strong support for Israel, particularly on the military front.

There are politicians for whom what matters most is the office they hold. It elevates them and then releases them into obscurity after they leave the political arena.

It’s a testament to Biden himself and his relationship to the Jewish people, that both his office and the country he represents almost seem inconsequential to who he is.

He is among one of those rare breeds of politicians who is larger than his office, even if that office is the US vice presidency.

To the Israelis he met with, he was first and foremost their friend: “Joe.”

No, more than that, he was family. And not just a distant relative, but a very close one, a member of the mishpaha.


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