Joe Biden wins over new fans after standing by Israel in war with Hamas

Joe Biden wins over new fans after standing by Israel in war with Hamas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Fred Zeidman is a longtime Republican Jewish Committee leader who has been deeply critical of Joe Biden. He is backing Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, in her bid to unseat him.

So it was uncharacteristic when he praised a speech Biden gave before flying to Israel this week.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to say one thing bad about this guy,’” Zeidman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think this is probably the most genuine impassioned speech I have ever heard from a sitting American president.”

Zeidman was far from the only right-wing Jew to be won over by Biden during the last two weeks, as the president has delivered unqualified support for Israel’s war against Hamas, launched in response to the terror group’s deadly invasion on Oct. 7.

“While I have been, and remain, deeply critical of the Biden Administration, the moral, tactical, diplomatic and military support that it has provided Israel over the past few days has been exceptional,” David Friedman, Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

In Israel, where Trump was popular, Biden’s approval rating has shot up. A commentator on Israel’s Channel 14, a right-wing outlet that has lacerated Biden since his election, addressed him directly four days after the attack.

For those who have long been on Biden’s side, his support for Israel comes as little surprise. His diplomatic ties to the country are longstanding, his affection frequently expressed.

“He gets the DNA of Zionism,” David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was a staffer in the Obama administration working on Israeli-Palestinian peace. “He just gets the idea of Israel. He has said no Jew is safe if there’s no Israel and basically, that’s what Zionism says, which is that stateless Jews are defenseless.”

Yet in a polarized political climate, even Biden’s pro-Israel bona fides have been dismissed by many on the right. The pro-Israel community in the United States and Israeli officials disdained the Middle East policy of President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president; in particular, they felt that Obama’s deal with Iran put Israel at risk. Many Republicans have mocked Biden’s age and foibles, saying they are evidence of his inability to serve at 80. And even those who might not have quarreled with Biden himself have worried that the Democratic Party is coming under the sway of progressives who are deeply critical of Israel.

Biden’s actions since Oct. 7 appear to have put all of those concerns to rest. Immediately after the attack, he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned Israel’s enemies not to exploit its vulnerability. Two days later, he draped the White House in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag, saying “this is not some distant tragedy.” The next day, he addressed the nation, calling the attack “pure, unadulterated evil”.

Biden instructed his Jewish liaisons to brief the Jewish community, including on the measures he was taking to protect American Jews. He personally dropped by a White House briefing for Jewish leaders and said he was doing everything he could to release hostages.

Biden and Blinken

He sent his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on an extended Middle East tour to show support for Israel and garner backing from regional allies. He also ordered two aircraft carriers to the region.

“My message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago: Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said on Wednesday.

The comment came during Biden’s lightning trip to Israel, where in less than 24 hours he sat in on a government meeting, met with and hugged survivors of the attack and delivered a searing speech in which he described the stages of Jewish mourning.

The visit came amid surging calls for Israel to cease bombing Gaza in its effort to quash Hamas. Seth Mandel, writing in the conservative Commentary magazine, praised Biden for resisting those calls from within his own party. “Everything in Biden’s speech today and his general demeanor …  suggest he takes the inevitability of a ground incursion for granted and is uninterested in saving Hamas,” Mandel said.

Rejecting widespread criticism of Israel, Biden said upon his arrival in Tel Aviv that he believed Israeli claims that an explosion at a Gaza City hospital was the fault of Islamist terrorists.

He repeated that insistence during his Oval Office address on Thursday night, a rare step signifying special concern. “I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of Palestinian life, including the explosion at a hospital in Gaza — which was not done by the Israelis,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with United States President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

In his speech, he said attacks on Israel (and Ukraine) amounted to an attack on democracy and appealed to Congress for billions in additional defense assistance for Israel.

“He has absolutely come through in the clutch,” Zeidman said.

A photo of Biden’s face, with the massive caption, “Thank you, Mr. President,” newly graces a billboard overlooking Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway.  Moshe Lion, the mayor of Jerusalem and a member of the right-wing Likud Party, draped Jerusalem monuments with coupled Israeli and US flags, and in a statement said the display was to honor Biden’s visit, although the president did not come to Jerusalem.

“From the beginning of the conflict, the president has stood with us firmly, assisting Israel and providing a powerful and meaningful voice against the terrible acts that have occurred in the South and against the threats from our enemies in the North,” Lion said. (Israeli troops are exchanging fire with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group that, like Hamas, is backed by Iran.)

The Israeli satirical show “Eretz Nehederet” aired a joke similar to the comments that crop up among Israelis on social media: Israelis need a leader, and it is Biden, not Netanyahu.

Biden’s lightning visit, his vivid empathy in his departure speech, and his visits with victims and heroes of the Oct. 7 attacks filled a leadership gap in Israel, said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political journalist who is closely watching the 2024 US presidential election.

“People are in such shock, but they were heartwarmed and they felt embraced and many people said to me, ‘This is the first time that we see a leader,’ because since the war began… they did not hear anything with empathy, “ she said.

“The government here, it seems like they don’t really care,” she said, referring to widespread dissatisfaction with Netanyahu, and the perception that in addition to failing to prevent the attack, he has been absent since it occurred.  “People thought that this is our father, you know, what I mean?” she said of Biden. “He came to the rescue, with all the American might.”

The display has rehabilitated Biden’s image in the country, according to Amir Tibon, a journalist for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz whose father rescued his family on Oct. 7 and who was among the Israelis to meet with the US president this week.

“Most Israelis heard over the last few years derogatory things about Biden due to his advanced age,” Tibon wrote in Haaretz. “Those who had the honor of meeting him Wednesday afternoon saw his age from another perspective, one of life experience and wisdom.” Tibon called Biden “the most important Zionist leader in the world.”

At home, too, the perception of Biden among many of his critics has shifted.

“In a world that pretends Israel has no right to exist, much less defend itself, Biden has shown tremendous moral courage at a key moment, despite criticism from his own party,” said a statement from Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer,  the chairman of the Rabbinic Circle of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a right-wing Orthodox group that has also consistently criticized Democratic policies.

“The president’s actions since the massacre reflect the American people’s steadfast support for the Jewish state and underscore the shared Western values that serve as the foundation for the US-Israel relationship,” Shari Dollinger, the co-executive director of Christians United for Israel, a group consistently critical of Democratic policies, said in a text message.

And a rabbi from the Orthodox community in Woodmere, New York, a redoubt of Jewish Trump supporters, solicited and delivered 18,000 letters of thanks to Biden.

Non-Jewish right-wing voices have also been won over by Biden. “I think It may be remembered as one of the best, if not the best, speeches of his presidency,” Brit Hume, a commentator on Fox News, said after the Oval Office speech. “He was as strong as he has been, particularly in recent days — before he went to Israel and while he was over there.”

Some Republicans remain skeptical if not hostile. Trump continues to say that he would do better than Biden at protecting Israel (although he alienated Israelis by praising Hezbollah and blaming Israel’s leadership for the Hamas incursion). Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, citing differences of policy with the Biden administration over humanitarian funding for the Palestinians, and an aid-for-hostages deal with Iran, accused Biden of helming the “most consistently and virulently anti-Israel administration America has ever seen.”

And even those Jewish conservatives praising Biden in the moment, including Zeidman, Friedman and Mandel, remain in a watchful wait-and-see mode. Zeidman said he wants Biden to more directly identify Iran as a hostile actor behind the attack.

“If there’s one thing that might have concerned me just a little bit, he has yet to mention Iran,” he said. (Biden’s aides have said that Iran bears some blame to the extent that it funds and trains Hamas, but they have yet to see direct evidence that Iran was involved in the Hamas invasion.)

Republicans have in the past sought fodder to attack Biden on Israel-related policy. One story that persistently crops up describes his encounter with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. According to the story, penned by a Begin confidante just after the former prime minister’s death in 1992, a decade after the fact, Biden had yelled at Begin, and threatened to cut aid to Israel if Begin did not stop settlement building.

“Don’t threaten us with slashing aid,” Begin said in their 1982 meeting in a room in the U.S, Capitol, according to that account. “Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.”

Except, according to someone in the meeting, that’s not quite how it happened: Biden, who was solidly pro-Israel, asked Begin how he planned to explain controversial Israeli policies. The senator was not criticizing the policies, but Begin, famously prickly, took it as criticism, said Mike Kraft, who at the time was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“It wasn’t a hostile or critical thing, but Begin just kind of let loose on him,”  Kraft recalled in an interview this week.

“We’re just like, pretty neutral question,” Kraft said of the people in the room. “And Begin fired back, and I remember a couple other staff who were looking around saying what’s going on?” He chuckled at the recollection.

The Republican Jewish Coalition over the years deployed the purported Begin encounter against Biden, including in a Facebook post in 2019, just after Biden announced his intention to unseat Donald Trump.

Yet last week, its CEO, Matt Brooks, was praising Biden to the New York Times — just two weeks before all the major Republican presidential candidates will speak to RJC donors at its annual conference in Las Vegas.

“This will sound surprising, but by and large, the president has shown tremendous support, unwavering support, for Israel at a critical time,” Brooks told the Times.  “Can we quibble on aspects of policy differences, over Iran’s complicity, for instance? Sure. But by and large, the American people and the international community have seen a president who has stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel.” (Brooks declined to comment to JTA, instead referring to his Times interview.)

And then there’s Biden’s famous Golda Meir story. When Joe Biden spoke to an Israeli embassy Independence Day bash in 2015, he knew the anecdote was old hat — he’d been telling versions of it for 42 years — but he wanted to tell it anyway.

“I’ll conclude — and my friends kid me and I imagine Ron does as well,” the then-Vice President said, glancing at the then-Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer. “I’ll tell you the story about my meeting with Golda Meir.”

There was knowing laughter on the balmy April evening in the cavernous Andrew Mellon auditorium across from the National Mall: Jewish media reporters, who had for years covered Biden, glanced at each other and knocked back a little wine. Biden recalling Golda had become a drinking game.

The parameters of the story were familiar: He was a neophyte Delaware senator in the fall of 1973, barely 30 years old. She was the wizened, chain-smoking prime minister. He conveyed to her his sense that Israel’s enemies were about to launch a war. She seemed pessimistic too. (The Yom Kippur War would surprise Israel within days.) She asked him if he wanted to pose for a photograph. They stepped outside of her office.

“She said, ‘Senator, you look so worried,’” he said. “I said, ‘Well, my God, Madame Prime Minister,’ and I turned to look at her. I said, ‘The picture you paint.’ She said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We have’ — I thought she only said this to me. She said, ‘We have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs. You see, we have no place else to go.’”

The 2015 speech was aimed at assuaging tensions between his boss, President Barack Obama, and Dermer’s boss, Netanyahu, over the Iran nuclear deal Obama was brokering that year. That tension was what led the coverage of the speech.

But buried toward the end of the speech was a prophecy, made by a vice president and fulfilled by the same man once he became president: America would bring its military night to bear on Israel’s behalf, if it came to that.

“The most admirable thing about you is you’ve never asked us to fight for you,” he said in 2015.  “But I promise you, if you were attacked and overwhelmed, we would fight for you.”

Biden has repeated the Golda story — now 50 years in the telling — more than once since Oct. 7. And now, the quote he attributes to Meir is emblazoned on a cafe wall in Tel Aviv, with his signature and Meir’s.

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