Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, is a self-avowed Zionist. As he explained to an American Jewish TV station last year, you don’t have to be Jewish to be Zionist. Of course, this discovery is not uniquely his. It is shared by the likes of John Hagee of the Christian Zionists, whose power is courted by Israel but whose views are decidedly anti-Semitic. Hagee believes, for example, that in the Second Coming all Jews will perish except 144,000 who will convert to Christianity. John McCain courted Hagee until some of his outrageous comments became too public.
Biden is no Hagee. Rather, he’s the kind of Zionist whose support for Israel is “almost genetic” as he put it. He says the United States needs to be a “smart” rather than an “honest broker.” He says that Middle East progress comes only when the Arabs know there is “no daylight between us and Israel.”
He’s wrong, of course, according to history: The biggest peace coup from Israel’s perspective was the treaty with Egypt facilitated by former president Jimmy Carter. Yet Carter was an honest broker and showed plenty of daylight between the United States and Israel when he made Israel withdraw from Lebanon after its 1978 invasion.
From an Arab perspective one of the most worrying aspects of a Vice President Biden is his stand on Jerusalem. The region is still smarting from Obama’s declaration that Jerusalem must remain Israel’s “undivided” capital (even though he has since issued a clarification). Now Arabs must contend with the fact that Biden was a co-sponsor of the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. It was a popular bill, adopted by 93-5 in the Senate and 374-37 in the House and becoming Public Law 104-45. It not only calls for Jerusalem to be undivided and recognized as the capital of Israel but also for the U.S. embassy to be moved there.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have suspended implementation of this proviso arguing that it interferes with the president’s constitutional authority. The truth is it would inflame Arab and Muslim sentiment around the world, and would translate into real threats to U.S. interests - something an Obama White House must consider to say nothing of how it would shred international law. These are the aspects of Biden’s record that send shivers down Arab spines.
But the Biden choice means some shivers for Israelis too. For one thing, he is knowledgeable about the region. And his knowledge is rooted in some field experience: The Bush administration asked him to co-lead the official U.S. observer delegation to the 2005 Palestinian presidential elections. For another, he has frequently argued with Israelis about their settlement policy, a view shared by Barack Obama.
Most worrying for Israelis and for American Jewish conservatives is Biden’s stand on Iran. While he is against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and favors tougher sanctions, he has also said force is a “bad option”: It would bring retaliation against the United States, including in Iraq, rally Iranians around their leaders; besides, it would not stop Iran’s nuclear program, and perhaps lead to war.
Such rationality is unwelcome to Israel and its U.S. supporters like AIPAC. They are so stridently determined to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities that Bush administration officials military and civilian have gone out of their way not only to warn against such a step, but also to ensure that their private warnings have become public knowledge.
In this respect, Biden actually contributes to “a little daylight” between the United States and Israel. It will be interesting to see if the McCain camp tries to scoop up disgruntled supporters of Israel’s military posture and it will also be interesting to see if Israel itself tries to influence the 2008 elections through its U.S. supporters.
In the light of this detailed glimpse, Joe Biden’s balance sheet on Israel-Palestine is a little more nuanced than first meets the eye. But a lot more nuance will be needed if an Obama White House really plans to engage early and get results.
It would need to go beyond criticizing Israel’s fast-growing settlement enterprise, and get tough the way Carter did back in 1978. Otherwise an Obama administration would simply carry on the tradition of the Bush administration, which has bleated so ineffectively about settlements while their construction has doubled since 2007.
Meanwhile the Middle East deteriorates and the risk of conflict escalates.Nadia Hijab is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Copyright © 2008 Nadia Hijab distributed by Agence Global.