Keeping a line of communication open with Biden's aide

I spoke with Barack Obama about Israel when he was in office, and now I speak with President Joe Biden's aide.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden speaks with an aide at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on Monday. (photo credit: ERIN SCHAFF/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden speaks with an aide at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on Monday.
(photo credit: ERIN SCHAFF/REUTERS)

I was on the phone last week with an aide to US President Joe Biden. The adviser is familiar with the Middle East and has briefed me periodically on administration discussions that involve Israel and regional affairs. He is also Jewish.

Suddenly, in our most recent conversation, he asked me about the weekly Torah portion. It was Chayei Sarah, which begins with Sarah’s death in ”Kiryat Arba which is Hebron” and Abraham’s purchase of land to bury his wife in the “Cave of Machpela,” as it is referred to in the Bible.

These days, Jews pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, traditionally marking the location of the burial of not only Sarah, but also Abraham himself, as well as Issac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

In particular, Jews descend upon this location in massive numbers on the Shabbat when we read Chayei Sarah, in other words, this past Shabbat. Ahead of the occasion, the Biden aide and I entered into a conversation about the Jewish connection to Hebron.

He noted to me that Muslims also pray at this location. “Abraham is also their forefather,” he pointed out.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference in the G20 leaders' summit in Rome, Italy October 31, 2021. (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference in the G20 leaders' summit in Rome, Italy October 31, 2021. (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

“A point made among those involved in the Abraham Accords,” I countered, “is that these agreements bring home the Abrahamic connection between Jews and Muslims but in a peaceful way, as opposed to using it as a point of contention.”

“The Biden administration, and the president himself, has stated that we would encourage the development of these agreements,” he answered.

I am not at liberty – at this stage – to report in greater detail on the comments of the White House aide regarding the future of the Abraham Accords, as well as where the Palestinian process might be headed, but I said to him that “if you see what Hebron means to many Jews, you can certainly understand why there are strong feelings when it comes to reinstating a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem.”

“I know about Jerusalem,” he retorted.

Indeed I have found him far more knowledgeable about Jewish and Israeli matters than an aide in the Obama White House with whom I had dozens of conversations during the course of nearly the full eight years of that presidency.

My history of maintaining informal ties with White House aides began, in fact, just a number of months into Barack Obama’s first term when a senior figure in a US Jewish organization spoke to me of the tough times already brewing between the US president and Benjamin Netanyahu, who was returning to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009. 

“David, this is going to be tough. Perhaps I can set you up with someone in the administration, and you can just chat with him from time to time without using anything on-the-record in your reporting. Just talk to him about your life in Israel and your expertise on Israel,” said the Jewish figure.

And so I did. Just before Obama’s second term concluded, I had the opportunity to speak with the president himself.

When Donald Trump entered the White House, the American Jewish official said to me: “We don’t need you now.”

Exactly a year ago, when Biden won the presidency, an Israeli journalist said to me that she was sure my old Obama contact, if we’re still in touch, could set me up with a similar senior aide in the Biden administration.

We were still periodically in touch. I took up the colleague’s advice and a new relationship was established. 

The conversations, even when dealing with the weightiest of subjects, have been harmonious. I knew right away that the Biden aide was sympathetic because back in early February, just a couple of weeks into the new presidential term, he asked me to speak to a few US senators who were “on the fence” about keeping the US embassy in Jerusalem ahead of a vote on an amendment dealing with the issue.

I did not discuss politics with the senators; I discussed Jewish history.

There was already overwhelming support in the Senate to keep the embassy where it is, even without my briefing, but the three senators did then vote in favor of the amendment, making the backing that much closer to unanimity, 97-3.

The only senators who ultimately voted against were Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carper. In that spirit, the Biden aide has since told me of the pressures that the president sometimes feels from the progressives on various subjects including Israel.

Just as in the days of my contacts with the Obama aide, I have been asked not to reveal too much information about my discussions, including the names of people involved in my encounters, because they would gain “too much exposure” from my doing so.

However, after Obama left office on January 20, 2017, he agreed to have me release details of my conversation with him. As already reported in The Jerusalem Post, the president told me of an idea that he was floating to introduce a UN Security Council resolution that would set parameters for a final resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a timetable to reach a final status agreement.

The parameters would be a Palestinian state based on the pre-Six Day War lines and the timeline would be up to two years to complete the negotiations. I told the president that I was not sure even left-wing Israeli political parties would support such a resolution because although they could back the parameters, they would prefer a deal worked out directly with the Palestinians, perhaps with US facilitation but not by international dictate. 

I was subsequently told that the US Embassy in Israel later conducted a survey of political parties and found that, in fact, there was widespread opposition and therefore Obama dropped the idea. 

I have spoken directly to Biden but it was on the occasion of Remembrance Day, before Independence Day, in April and was a courtesy and ceremonial, not dealing with substance. 

I don’t overstate what I am accomplishing with these conversations. I do, however, consider it a privilege to have been put in this position and hope I’m using the discussions to show a face of Israel that US officials, no matter how familiar they may be with the Jewish state, have never been exposed to before.

The writer is op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.