JERUSALEM — If President Biden’s arrival in Israel on Wednesday for his first trip here since taking office could be summed up in just two words, they might be: Donald who?
A year and a half after Donald J. Trump left the White House, Israeli leaders welcomed his successor with an enthusiastic hug, as if to show that their love affair with the former president would not stand in the way of a close relationship. with the new president. As for Mr. Biden, he seemed equally determined to show that he was second to none in his support of Israel.
In a red-carpet airport ceremony filled with adulation from both sides, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, called his American counterpart “our brother Joseph,” declaring that “you are truly among the family.” The country’s interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, called Biden “a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known.” For his part, Mr. Biden stated that “in my opinion, our relationship is deeper than ever” and he told an Israeli interviewer that returning to the Holy Land was “like coming home”.
Home, in fact, doesn’t look much like this these days for Biden, who rarely receives such loving praise or hugs in America, where his poll numbers have plummeted and even most Democrats don’t want him to. run for another term.
The friendly, smiling, back-slapping 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 enamored with Trump that he named a settlement after him, greeted Biden with a long, warm handshake.
“Every opportunity to return to this great country where the ancient roots of the Jewish people go back to biblical times is a blessing, because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people runs deep, deep,” Biden said. he told her during the ceremony at Ben Gurion. “Generation after generation, that connection grows.”
In the process, Israel became more of a partisan issue in the United States, with Republicans making their strong support a litmus test and Democrats increasingly critical of the country’s policies toward Palestinians.
But Mr. Biden indicated that he wanted to restore traditional Democratic support for Israel even as he hoped to resume the American role of honest broker with the Palestinians. In an interview with Israeli television, he rejected Democrats who have denounced Israel as an apartheid state.
“There are some of them,” he told Channel 12 host Yonit Levi in a session taped at the White House on Tuesday and broadcast Wednesday night. “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, hid fundamental differences, especially in Iran and the Palestinians. Biden’s efforts to restore the 2015 Iran deal abandoned by Trump have sparked anger among many Israeli leaders who doubt Tehran will abide by the limits of a deal for its nuclear program. And the president will meet on Friday in the West Bank with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in the first high-level contact since 2017.
In his interview on Israeli television, Biden assured Israelis that any deal with Iran would not sacrifice their security. “The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is a nuclear-armed Iran, and if we can get back to the deal, we can keep it strong,” he said. “I think it was a gigantic mistake that the last president walked out of the deal. They are closer to a nuclear weapon now than before.”
The negotiations have yet to reach 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 Biden remained hopeful that the talks could still succeed. “We’ve put it on the table, we’ve made the deal, we’ve offered it, and now it’s up to Iran,” he said.
He again rejected Iran’s insistence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the foreign terrorist list as part of any deal, even if maintaining that position meant ending the deal. When asked if he would use force against Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon, he replied: “If that 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 with every prime minister since then.
For the first day of his 10th visit to Israel, Mr. Biden chose two symbolic statements as he received a briefing on Israel’s latest defense against rocket attacks and visited the country’s iconic Yad Vashem memorial for Holocaust victims. .
Among the weapons displayed to him at the airport was a prototype of a new laser defense system that Israeli leaders have described as a strategic turning point.
The weapon, known as the Iron Beam, a complement to the Iron Dome missile interception system, is the result of two decades of research and experimentation. And while it is still a few years from deployment, officials said the laser will be able to shoot down rockets, mortar shells, drones and anti-tank missiles.
Mr. Biden’s focus on Israel and the United States working together on Iron Dome and Iron Beam was as important strategically as it was symbolically. Iron Dome has been remarkably effective at protecting Israel from rocket attacks, and Iron Beam offers the chance to blind a drone heading for civilians.
But for Biden, it was also a way to engage Israel’s government in meaningful work with the United States. That effort has been underway 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 cornerstones of Israeli society, Biden met with two Holocaust survivors, rena quint Y giselle cykowiczwho were interned in concentration camps and, after the war, emigrated to the United States.
With the two women sitting on chairs, Biden knelt at their level, talked to them for several minutes, shook their hands and kissed their cheeks in an emotional scene that was shown on national television.
Later, Ms. Cycowicz, 95, said: “When I came to the United States, I didn’t know anyone there. And I met many friends. And now I’ve been invited to meet the most important person in the world.”
Adding his name to the monument’s guestbook, the president wrote: “We must never forget because hate is never defeated, it only hides.”
But Biden’s meeting with the two Holocaust survivors also undermined what appeared to be an effort by the White House to build a case to avoid a politically damaging moment later in the trip. From Israel, the president will fly to Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, believed to be the mastermind behind the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Biden team, knowing that images of the president shaking hands with the crown prince would be embarrassing, had hinted to reporters that the president might forego all handshakes in the Middle East due to the virulent new sub-variant of covid-19.
The president only agreed to the program for a few minutes. When he disembarked from Air Force One, he refrained from shaking hands with Lapid and other Israeli leaders, instead offering them a fist bump. But he barely avoided close contact as he playfully patted their arms, gave them partial hugs, and pulled them close with no masks in sight.
When he was taken to pose with parliamentary leaders, he dispensed with the no-handshake rule altogether and took Netanyahu’s hand for an especially lengthy and apparently 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 memorandum, though he was no longer following it. “He asked my permission to kiss me and kept holding my hand,” said Ms Quint, 86, “and we were told not to touch him.”
David E Sanger contributed report.