JERUSALEM — If President Biden’s arrival in Israel on Wednesday for his first trip here since taking office could be summed up in two words, they might be: Donald who?
A year and a half after Donald J. Trump’s departure from the White House, Israeli leaders have welcomed his successor into a delighted embrace, as if to prove that their love affair with the former president will not stand in the way of a relationship closely with the new President. As for Mr. Biden, he seemed equally determined to prove that he gave way to no one by supporting Israel.
During a red carpet ceremony at the airport, filled with flattery from both sides, Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president, called his American counterpart “our brother Joseph”, declaring that “you really are family”. The country’s acting prime minister, Yair Lapid, called Mr Biden “a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known”. For his part, Mr Biden claimed that “our relationship is deeper in my opinion than it has ever been” and told an Israeli interviewer that returning to the Holy Land was “like coming home”.
Home, in fact, isn’t quite like that these days for Mr. Biden, who rarely gets unvarnished praise or loving hugs in America, where his poll numbers have plummeted and even most Democrats don’t. don’t want him to run for another term.
The friendly, smiling, retrospective welcome he received on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport may have been something of a balm. Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was so infatuated with Mr Trump that he named a settlement after him, greeted Mr Biden with a warm and extended handshake.
“Every chance to return to this great country where the ancient roots of the Jewish people go back to biblical times is a blessing, because the bond between the Israeli people and the American people is deep, deep,” Biden said. said during the ceremony at Ben Gurion. “Generation after generation, this connection grows.”
In the process, Israel has become more of a partisan issue in the United States, with Republicans giving it strong support as a litmus test and Democrats becoming increasingly critical of the country’s policy towards the Palestinians.
But Mr Biden has signaled he wants to restore traditional Democratic support for Israel even as he hopes to resume the US role of honest broker with the Palestinians. In an interview on Israeli television, he dismissed Democrats who denounced Israel as an apartheid state.
“There are a few,” he told Channel 12 presenter Yonit Levi during a session taped at the White House on Tuesday and broadcast Wednesday evening. “I think they are wrong. I think they are making a mistake. Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend. And I don’t think I apologize.
The mutual show of bonhomie, however, has obscured fundamental differences, notably over Iran and the Palestinians. Mr. Biden’s efforts to restore the 2015 deal with Iran, which Mr. Trump abandoned, has drawn anger from many Israeli leaders who doubt Tehran will stick to the limits of a deal on its nuclear program. And the president will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in the West Bank in the first high-level contact since 2017.
In his Israeli television interview, Mr Biden reassured Israelis that any deal with Iran would not sacrifice their security. “The only thing worse than Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons, and if we can get back to the deal, we can hold them tight,” he said. “I think it was a huge mistake for the last president to pull out of the deal. They’re closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before.
Negotiations have yet to produce an agreement, and one of the missions of the trip will be to ensure that the United States is on the same page with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran if they fail. But Mr. Biden remained hopeful that the talks could still succeed. “We put it on the table, we made the deal, we offered it, and now it’s up to Iran to decide,” he said.
He again rejected Iran’s insistence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the list of foreign terrorists as part of any deal, even if sticking to that position meant killing the OK. When asked if he would use force against Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, he replied: “If it was the last resort, yes.
Mr. Biden has a long history with Israel. He first arrived almost half a century ago, in 1973, as a newly elected senator, and met Golda Meir, the famous Israeli prime minister. He has met every prime minister since.
On the first day of his 10th visit to Israel, Mr Biden chose two symbolic statements as he received a briefing on Israel’s last defense against rocket attacks and visited the country’s iconic Yad Vashem memorial to the victims. of the Holocaust.
Among the weapons on display for him at the airport was a prototype of a new laser defense system that Israeli leaders have described as a strategic game-changer.
The weapon, known as the Iron Beam, an add-on to the Iron Dome missile interceptor system, is the result of two decades of research and experimentation. And although there are still a few years to go before its deployment, officials have said the laser will be capable of downing rockets, mortar shells, drones and anti-tank missiles.
Mr. Biden’s emphasis on joint work between Israel and the United States on Iron Dome and Iron Beam was as important strategically as it was symbolically. Iron Dome has been remarkably effective in protecting Israel from rocket attacks, and Iron Beam provides the ability to blind a drone aimed at civilians.
But for Mr. Biden, it was also a way to engage the Israeli government in important work with the United States. This effort has been ongoing since President George W. Bush led Israel and the United States in a joint effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with a cyber-weapon called ‘Stuxnet’, helping to forge a closer relationship between the American and Israeli cyber engineers.
At Yad Vashem, one of the touchstones of Israeli society, Mr Biden met two Holocaust survivors, Rena Quint and Giselle Cycowicz, who were interned in concentration camps and, after the war, emigrated in the USA.
With the two women seated in chairs, Mr Biden knelt down to their level, spoke to them for several minutes, joined their hands and kissed their cheeks in an emotional scene broadcast on national television.
Afterwards, Ms Cycowicz, 95, said: “When I came to America, I didn’t know anyone there. And I met so many friends. And now I’ve been invited to meet the most important person in the world.
Adding his name to the memorial’s guestbook, the president wrote: “We must never, ever forget, because hate is never defeated, it only hides.
But Mr. Biden’s meeting with the two Holocaust survivors also undermined what appeared to be an effort by the White House to justify avoiding a politically damaging moment later in the trip. From Israel, the president will fly to Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, considered the mastermind of the brutal assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mr. Biden’s team, knowing that footage of the president shaking hands with the crown prince would be embarrassing, had hinted to reporters that the president might forgo all handshakes in the Middle East because of the new undercurrent. virulent variant of Covid-19.
The President only followed the program for a few minutes. When he disembarked from Air Force One, he refrained from shaking hands with Mr. Lapid and other Israeli leaders, offering fist bumps instead. But he barely avoided close contact as he happily patted their arms, gave them partial hugs, and pulled them close without a mask in sight.
When he was tricked into posing with parliamentary leaders, he forgot the no-handshake rule entirely, grabbing Mr Netanyahu’s hand for a particularly prolonged and seemingly friendly greeting.
By the time he arrived at Yad Vashem, he was clearly done with the idea of keeping his distance. The survivors had received the memo, even though he was no longer following it. “He asked permission to kiss me and he kept holding my hand,” said Ms Quint, 86, “and we were told not to touch him.”
David E. Sanger contributed report.