How can we interpret Biden's Israel comments on CNN? - analysis

People have interpreted Biden's comments on Israel and Netanyahu based on the views they hold.

 U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on his deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to raise the United States' debt ceiling at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 28, 2023 (photo credit: REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on his deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to raise the United States' debt ceiling at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 28, 2023
(photo credit: REUTERS/Julia Nikhinson)

US President Joe Biden sat down on Sunday for a 20-minute, 3,100-word interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. Approximately 400 words, or 13% of the interview, dealt with Israel.

The rest of the time was spent on Russia, Ukraine, NATO, China, and Biden’s age.

Judging by both the media and political responses in Israel, however, Biden’s entire interview dealt with the world’s only Jewish state. Then, depending on one’s political leanings, interpretations of his words varied wildly.

While some saw this interview as an indication that US-Israel relations were at a new all-time low, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to blame, others saw it as Biden displaying animus toward Israel and arrogantly treating it, as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir remarked afterward, as the 51st star on the US flag.

In other words, these 400 words in Biden’s interview resembled a Rorschach inkblot test, revealing more about the person interpreting the president’s words than providing startling new insights into the president’s thinking.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in 2016 when Biden was US vice-president. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, in 2016 when Biden was US vice-president. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Those who hate Netanyahu, and think he is destroying the country, found support for their positions in Biden’s words and believe his words demonstrate that US-Israeli ties are in a nosedive. On the other hand, those who love Netanyahu believe Biden’s comments just reveal an ingrained animosity toward the prime minister and Israel. Everybody can find in these words what fits their preconceived notions.

It’s instructive, therefore, to look at these 400 words and examine what they do and do not contain.

First, what do the words contain?

They do contain explicit criticism of the current government as being extreme.

“I think this is one of the most extreme members of cabinets that I’ve seen,” Biden said, “and I go all the way back to Golda Meir, and, you know, not that she was extreme, but I go back to that era.”

Whether Biden meant that this was the most extreme cabinet since Meir’s tenure some 50 years ago or that it is a cabinet with some of the most extreme members since then, at least half of the country would probably agree with his assessment. The government itself proudly presents itself as a “full-on right-wing government,” and it is objectively the most right-wing, religious government the country has ever had.

"This is one of the most extreme members of cabinets that I’ve seen."

US President Joe Biden

Biden’s words also contain, for the umpteenth time, his pledge of allegiance to the idea of a two-state solution: “I’m one of those who believe Israel’s ultimate security rests in a two-state solution.” That the US president believes in a two-state solution and that Netanyahu and this government do not is something that was well known beforehand.

The words contain criticism of Israeli policy in the West Bank, but they also include an equal measure of criticism for the Palestinian Authority’s actions there. Alongside saying that Israel is “part of the problem [in the West Bank], and particularly those individuals in the cabinet who say they [the Palestinians] have no right, we could settle anywhere we want, they have no right to be here, etc.,” he also had critical words for the PA.

Biden said the PA had lost its “credibility,” not because of anything Israel has done, and also that “it created a vacuum for extremism among the Palestinians. They are – there are some very extreme elements. So it’s not all Israel now in the West Bank, all Israel’s problem.”

And, finally, the words also do contain criticism of the judicial overhaul plan: “We’re talking with them regularly, trying to tamp down what is going on, and hopefully Bibi will continue to move toward moderation in changing the court.”

These words, too, were uttered in the past.

While none of these statements are overly egregious, some questioned why Biden needed to voice them in public in the first place. One of the big differences between his administration and the administration Biden served in as vice president under former president Barack Obama is that while Obama thought it beneficial to publicly highlight the differences between Israel and the US, Biden – up until recently – preferred to keep the criticism and disagreements private.

That Biden is making that criticism public now indicates his frustration with the Netanyahu government and also bespeaks of domestic political motivations, both Israeli and American.

Regarding Israel’s domestic scene, there are currently two givens: The first is that about half the country is unhappy with the current government and would like to see it fade away; and the second is that Biden would also much prefer a Yair Lapid- or Benny Gantz-led government than a Netanyahu one. So if Biden could give a little extra backwind to those elements trying to bring down the government, why not?

This, however, is a dangerous game. Because while half the country might like to see the government gone, another half voted for it, and among them are many who don’t want to see the prime minister dissed by the US president.

Biden’s calculation may be that if the Israeli people need to pick between their prime minister and a healthy working relationship with the US administration, they will choose the healthy relationship with the US administration. But, as shown by Israeli support for Netanyahu even during the rocky years of the Obama administration – Netanyahu won three elections while Obama was president, and US-Israeli ties were often stormy – this is not necessarily the case.

There also may be a US domestic political angle to Biden’s snub of Netanyahu: He once again made it clear in this interview that there are no immediate plans to invite Netanyahu to the White House.

First of all, as the US presidential campaign approaches, Biden needs to keep his party behind him and placate the progressive wing of his party. Snubbing Netanyahu, in this regard, is low-hanging fruit.

Secondly, while in the past, a snub of the Israeli prime minister may have cost a president support among US Jews – most importantly, among US Jewish donors – Biden is certainly hearing from at least some of his US Jewish supporters that they don’t want him to invite Netanyahu to the White House because it would be seen as something that might strengthen Netanyahu, which for many of them is the last thing they want to see.

Now regarding what was not in Biden’s comments

Contrary to claims by some, Biden’s comments do not suggest a historic rupture with Israel. His sidestepping of the question about when Netanyahu will receive an invitation to the White House is telling.

“Mr. President,” asked Zakaria, “what will it take for Bibi Netanyahu to get an invitation to the White House?”

“Well, first of all, the Israeli president is going to be coming; we have other contacts,” Biden said, highlighting President Isaac Herzog’s scheduled visit to Washington next week to mark Israel’s 75th birthday, where he will meet Biden and address a joint meeting of Congress.

The red carpet for Herzog, and the snub of Netanyahu, conveys the message that while the US cherishes its relationship with Israel, it is not fond of the current Netanyahu government. And this has both positive and negative implications for Israel.

The positive is that the relationship is deeper and broader than one prime minister or one president. The administration can like Israel but not be enamored of the prime minister or government leading it, just as the Israeli government can like the US but not be enamored of the president leading it – think Obama during the Netanyahu years or George H.W. Bush when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister.

Herzog is the symbolic head of the state, so when he is feted in Washington – as he will be – Israel will be feted. That is positive and promising.

Less positive – in fact, negative – is that Herzog meeting Biden is not the same as Netanyahu meeting Biden. There are numerous strategic issues – first and foremost having to do with Iran and its proxies – that can only be thrashed out between the leaders of the governments, and Herzog is not empowered to do that.

Likewise, the absence of a Biden-Netanyahu meeting is perceived abroad as a weakening of ties between Jerusalem and Washington. Israel’s international clout and a component of its national security deterrence rest on a perception of rock-solid relations between the two countries.

Though Herzog’s reception should be interpreted as an indication of unwavering ties between the two states, the Netanyahu snub is seen as indicative of the less-than-ideal relations existing now between the two governments, and that perception is something that does Israel no good.