Driving the Convo

Will Biden shift his Mideast policy to appeal to Sanders supporters?

Jack Rosen: 'Joe Biden has a long standing bond with Israel. I don’t think that alters'

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is reportedly moving to embrace some foreign policy positions championed by his former chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as he seeks to unify the party ahead of the general election campaign. According to a report by Foreign Policy, a group of advisors from the Biden campaign has been in contact with Sanders advisors to discuss a unified foreign policy platform. Jewish Insider’s Jacob Kornbluh spoke with several pro-Israel Democrats and Sanders supporters about their expectations from Biden when it comes to the Middle East. 

Natural shift: Joel Rubin, who served as director for Jewish outreach for the Sanders campaign, told JI his personal backing of Biden was natural given his track record of inclusion and adapting to new circumstances. “The Democratic Party is not at all split in two,” Rubin explained. “Democrats are unified across the board on getting back to the Iran deal and opposing annexation, and the American people in poll after poll are there too. To me the challenge of convergence is one of how we are pushing in that direction, but it’s not pushing against a closed door.” Rubin, who also served in the Obama administration as the State Department’s chief liaison to the House of Representatives, described the former vice president as a “natural” partner, who is “absorbing the progressive base that Bernie mobilized” because of his track record of “being able to listen, adapt and lead.”

Token of approval: On Friday, the Biden campaign promoted an endorsement from J Street, marking the first time the dovish group has endorsed a candidate for the country’s top office. J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami described Biden as “a long-time friend of J Street who truly understands the need for a bold new era of American foreign policy rooted in principled, proactive diplomacy.” Ben Shnider, vice president of political affairs at J Street, told JI on Sunday that the decision to endorse the eventual nominee was taken months ago by the board once they “had a feel [for] where the field was” and the views the top candidates held on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once Sanders quit the race, Shnider said, “we knew that we wanted to get to work as quickly as possible” to support Biden. “We have full confidence in Biden to lead on our issues once in office, and were that not the case we wouldn’t be endorsing and committing to bring all of our resources to get him elected.” 

Campaign narrative: Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks wrote in a fundraising email to supporters on Sunday ― under the subject line “Anti-Israel Joe Biden” — that Biden “isn’t wasting a moment trying to prove to his far-Left base that he will continue the anti-Israel policies of the Obama/Biden administration… Joe Biden, just like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, is proving that this is no longer the old Democrat party of bipartisan support for Israel.” President Donald Trump repeated his attacks on the Democratic Party during a coronavirus briefing on Saturday, telling reporters, “I’ve seen a very strong anti-Israel bent in Congress with Democrats.” 

Look at the record: Democratic Majority for Israel CEO Mark Mellman maintained that Biden is not shifting his position on Israel-related issues to appeal to the party’s left flank. “Biden has a responsibility to unite the party. At the same time, on foreign policy he has a long record, personal expertise and a personal commitment, and I don’t think that anybody coming in as an advisor, or in any other capacity, is going to change those long-standing views,” Mellman told JI. “His views have been very clear and very strong for a long time.” Mellman’s group, which launched last year in an effort to support pro-Israel Democrats, endorsed Biden for president in March after running ads against Sanders in early primary states. 

Coalition building: Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told JI, “I have spent time with Joe Biden at J Street conferences, AIPAC conferences and numerous other Jewish community events. I’ve seen him up close on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the Obama-Biden administration, where his personal commitment to and interest in the U.S.-Israel relationship were constantly in evidence. He has wide and deep support and affection in the Jewish community for his support for Israel’s security, a close U.S.-Israel partnership, and a two-state solution; for his willingness to fight all forms of antisemitism; and for his agenda on health care, climate change, immigration, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, gun violence, and restoring American leadership that reflects our community’s values. I am not surprised that any Jewish organization would endorse him, as others have as well.” 

The Dem base that matters: Arab American Institute President James Zogby, who was a longtime Sanders supporter, suggested that Biden’s Mideast policy will be influenced by what happens in the region, in particular if Israel annexes the West Bank, and by the “shifting debate” in the party on Israel. “Regardless of what Biden himself may have said in the past, or done at any time, there is a growing current of opposition to business as usual, and the direction of Israel at this point — maintaining the occupation while keeping a low profile so it doesn’t aggravate the U.S. — is business as usual on steroids,” Zogby said. “I believe in a Democratic administration there will be consequences for Israeli behavior.” Zogby expressed his hope that Biden will work out his differences with the progressive base “and he will become the standard-bearer for a united Democratic party” and “we will see a tougher stance on settlements, clearly on annexation.”

The Biden I know: Jack Rosen, a longtime donor to Democratic candidates who hosted a fundraiser for Biden last year, told JI that given that Biden “hasn’t moved away from his strong position” on Israel, “I don’t think he’s going to be moved by J Street’s endorsement or Sanders’s advisors.” Rosen added, “I’ve known Joe Biden for a long time. It is very hard to alter his position when he has a long history on something. He sticks to it, and I think he will stick to it here as well. He is his own person. I have rarely seen him move away from his positions, unless the situation itself calls for it.” 

What will a Biden presidency look like? Mellman told JI that it would be “pure speculation” to project how Biden would avoid a repeat of the fractured relationship between former President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he suggested that Biden’s “tendency in the past has been to focus on the use of quiet diplomacy — firm, tough, but quiet.” Shapiro pointed out that the former vice president has spent his entire career supporting Israel’s security and efforts to achieve a peace settlement, noting that “he’s given every indication that he would continue those policies as president, and work with all parties to advance them.” The former ambassador added: “I would expect continuity with the Obama-Biden administration’s record of ensuring Israel can defend itself from every threat it faces.” 

Departure from the Obama era: Rosen suggested that a Biden presidency would be different in its tone towards the Israeli government, even though the policy positions would be similar. “Joe Biden has a long standing bond with Israel. I don’t think that alters,” he explained. “Obama, he didn’t have that long history with Israel. He didn’t have enough time to bond with Israel. I don’t think you will see Joe Biden threatening Israel, embarrassing Israel, using a U.N. vote to press Israel. It will be a different tone, and as we learned, tone matters.” 

View from the far-left: Linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky said on The Intercept’s “Live with Mehdi Hasan” that he will be voting for Biden. “This time, the future of humanity is at stake,” he said. “With a Biden presidency, the activism of a popular movement will make a big difference. Trump is probably immune, but Biden would be open to it.”

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