US President Joe Biden’s visit can be described as a very, very warm one. Upon his arrival in Israel on Wednesday, Biden remarked to President Isaac Herzog that he felt at home, and all of his subsequent remarks emphasized the strength of his and America’s connection to Israel.
In one of his trademark folksy comments, Biden went off-script during a statement to the press with Prime Minister Yair Lapid to say: “Like it or not, we’re with you. There’s no way out.”
“My love for Israel is deep rooted,” Biden said at the President’s Residence. “As long as we’re the United States, you will never, ever be alone.”
"My love for Israel is deep-rooted."US President Joe Biden
And the love went both ways, with Lapid calling Biden one of the best friends Israel has ever had, among myriad statements of gratitude for the close ties between the US and Israel.
But, love-fest aside, a look at the statements made showed the distance between the two sides’ priorities and views on the visit.
Ahead of the trip, senior Israeli officials emphasized that Iran is top of the agenda for meetings with the president.
Though they only made brief remarks on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion airport on Wednesday, Lapid and Herzog made sure to mention the threat from the Islamic Republic. Lapid called for a “global coalition to stop the Iranian nuclear program” and Herzog said “Iran and its proxies [are] threatening Israel and its neighbors and endangering our region.”
Biden did not say the word Iran at all.
In response to a question in an interview aired on Channel 12 News that night, Biden said yes, there is a military threat on the table, but only “as a last resort.”
The next day, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel – where he met Lapid since the Prime Minister’s Residence is still under renovation – Biden shifted and did mention Iran.
The Jerusalem Declaration of the US-Israel Strategic Partnership that he and Lapid signed includes both countries’ opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and regional aggression and states that they will “use all elements of national power” – which would include military – to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
Yet Biden did not seem to want to entertain talk about the last-resort military option, though Lapid implored him to do so.
“The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force,” Lapid said. “The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table…It should not be a bluff but the real thing. The Iranian regime must know that if they continue to deceive the world, they will pay a heavy price.”
Behind the scenes, Lapid also called on Biden to set an end date for talks to return to the 2015 Iran Deal, and said that snapback sanctions should be invoked by the UN Security Council.
Biden, for his part promised that the US was committed to ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, calling it a vital security interest for Israel, the US and the whole world.
However, he added that he believes “diplomacy is the best way to achieve that outcome.”
When asked at the end of the press conference about the differences in the sides’ views on Iran, Lapid and Biden tried to wave them away – somewhat.
Biden said he meant what he said: Iran has a chance to accept the 2015 Iran Deal, and that he is serious that the US will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Lapid said there is no daylight between the sides about the end that they are trying to achieve.
But the differences were still laid bare in their public remarks.
The other issue where the differences were apparent, but nuanced, was the Palestinians.
In that case, it was Lapid who kept mostly mum at Ben-Gurion, showing the matter is not high on his list of priorities, only to bring it up in his prepared remarks on Thursday.
“We send with you, to all the nations of the region — including, of course, the Palestinians — a message of peace,” Lapid said. “Israel wants peace and believes in peace. We will never yield an inch of our security. We are obligated to be cautious at every step. But to any country, any nation that wants peace and normalization with us, we say, ‘Ahlan wa sahlan. Shalom. Welcome.’”
When asked directly in the press conference, Lapid confirmed: “I haven’t changed my position. A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.”
“I haven’t changed my position. A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.”Prime Minister Yair Lapid
Biden, however, pushed for a two-state solution from the get-go.
“Israel must remain an independent, democratic, Jewish state — the ultimate guarantee and guarantor of security of the Jewish people not only in Israel but the entire world. I believe that to my core,” Biden said.
“And the best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution for two people, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side-by-side in peace and security. Both states fully respect the equal rights of their citizens; both people enjoying equal measures of freedom.”
In his planned remarks, Lapid did not quite get into what his vision for peace would be without being asked directly – though Yesh Atid’s platform always includes a two-state solution – while saying “we will never yield an inch of our security,” which seems like a reference to land – though, again, Yesh Atid’s platform calls for the evacuation of settlements outside the major blocs.
That formulation reflects the political reality in Israel. While Lapid doesn’t have to worry about his coalition falling apart, because that already happened, he’s still head of an interim government, half of whose ministers oppose a Palestinian state, that would face legal obstacles to taking major steps leading toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Plus, looking ahead to the November election Lapid needs to appeal to his usual voters, while also not looking too left-wing to alienate those who lean a bit to the Right.
None of these differences mean that the love Israel and America’s leaders are showing isn’t genuine. But it does say that the reality of Biden’s visit is not just smiles, pats on the back for funding Iron Dome and well-trod stories about Golda Meir saying we have nowhere else to go.