Biden, Battered at home, Basking in praises unarmed in Israel

JERUSALEM – If President Biden’s arrival in Israel on Wednesday for his first visit here since taking office could be summed up in just two words, it could be: Donald who?

A year and a half after Donald J. Trump left the White House, Israeli leaders greeted his successor with a passionate hug, as if to prove that their love affair with the former president would not stand in the way. close relationship with the new president. chairperson. As for Mr. Biden, he also seems determined to prove that he is not pro-Israel.

At the red-carpeted airport ceremony with mutual flattery, Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, called his American counterpart “our brother Joseph”, declaring that “you really are a member of the family”. The country’s interim 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 asserted that “our relationship is deeper in my opinion than ever before” and told an Israeli interviewer that going back to the Holy Land was like “going back to the Holy Land”. home”.

In fact, these days at home aren’t as much as this for Mr. Biden, who rarely receives such compliments or loving hugs when he returns to the US, where his vote count has dropped. plummeted and even most Democrats don’t want him running for another term.

The cheerful, grinning, clapping reception he received on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport could be something to remember. Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was so popular with Mr. Trump that he named a settlement after himgreeted Mr. Biden with a warm and prolonged handshake.

“Every chance to be back in this great country, where the ancient Jewish roots go back to biblical times is a blessing, because the bond between the people of Israel and the American people is so deep. , to the bone,” Biden said during the ceremony at Ben Gurion. “Generation to generation, that connection grows.”

In the process, Israel has become increasingly a partisan issue in the United States, with Republicans strongly supporting the issue as a serious test and Democrats increasingly critical of the political parties. its policy towards the Palestinians.

However, Mr. Biden said he wanted to restore traditional Democratic support for Israel even as he hoped to resume America’s role as an honest broker with the Palestinians. In an interview with Israeli television, he dismissed Democrats, who have denounced Israel as a racist country.

“There are a few of them,” he told Channel 12 anchor Yonit Levi during a session that was taped at the White House on Tuesday and aired on Wednesday night. “I think they were wrong. I think they are making a mistake. Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend. And I think I’m not sorry. “

However, the mutual representations of the bonhomie reflected fundamental differences, most notably over Iran and Palestine. Mr. Biden’s efforts to restore 2015 accord with Iran Trump’s abandonment has raised doubts among Israel’s leaders, who doubt Tehran will abide by the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. And the president will meet Friday in the West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his first high-level contact since 2017.

In the Israeli TV interview, Mr. Biden reassured the Israelis that any Iran deal would not sacrifice their security. “The only thing worse than Iran that exists today is an Iran with nuclear weapons, and if we can get back to the deal, we can keep them,” he said. “I think it was a huge mistake that the president ended up getting out of the deal. They are now closer to nuclear weapons than they were before.”

The negotiations have yet to reach an agreement, and one of the missions of the trip will be to ensure the United States stands on the same page as Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Iran’s enemies if they fail. But Mr. Biden remains hopeful that the negotiations can be successful. “We’ve put it on the table, we’ve made the deal, we’ve offered it, and it’s up to Iran,” he said.

He again rejected Iran’s insistence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be taken off the foreign terrorist list as part of any deal, even if holding that position means with the cancellation of the agreement. Asked if he would use force against Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, he replied: “If that’s the last resort then 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 prime minister of Israel. He has met every prime minister since.

On the first day of his 10th visit to Israel, Mr. Biden chose two iconic statements by receiving a briefing on Israel’s latest defenses against missile attacks and visiting the memorial. The country’s iconic Yad Vashem memorial for Holocaust victims.

Among the weapons on display to him at the airport was a prototype of a new laser defense system that Israeli leaders have described as a strategic game-changer.

Weapon, called Iron beam, an addition to the Iron Dome missile interceptor system, is the result of two decades of research and testing. And while it may be several years away from being deployed, officials say the laser will be able to knock out missiles, mortars, drones and anti-tank missiles.

Mr. Biden’s focus on joint work between Israel and the United States on Iron Dome and Iron Beam is as strategically important as it is symbolic. Iron Dome has been remarkably effective in protecting Israel from missile attacks, and Iron Beam offers the opportunity to blind a drone directed at civilians.

But for Mr. Biden, it is also a way for the Israeli government to engage in important work with the United States. That effort has been underway since President George W. Bush brought Israel and the United States into a joint effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with a cyberweapon called “”Stuxnet“Helps forge closer ties between American and Israeli cyber engineers.

At Yad Vashem, one of the cornerstones of Israeli society, Mr. Biden met with two Holocaust survivors, Rena Quint and Giselle Cyclowiczwho were interned in concentration camps and, after the war, immigrated to the United States.

As the two women sat in chairs, Mr. Biden knelt down to level with them, spoke to them for several minutes, clasped their hands and kissed their cheeks in an emotional scene shown on national television.

Later, 95-year-old Cycowicz said: “When I came to America, I didn’t know a soul there. And I met a lot of friends. And now I have been invited to meet the most important person in the world.”

Writing his name in the memorial’s visitor register, the president wrote, “We must never, never forget, because hatred is never defeated, it only hides.”

But Mr. Biden’s meeting with two Holocaust survivors also undercut what appeared to be a White House effort to create justification for avoiding a politically damaging moment later. there on the trip. From Israel, the president will fly on Friday to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man considered the mastermind of the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.

Mr. Biden’s team, knowing that images of the president shaking hands with the crown prince would embarrass reporters, hinted to reporters that the president might forgo all handshakes in the Middle East because of the crisis. The new Covid-19 general is toxic.

The president only accompanied the program for a few minutes. Upon leaving Air Force One, he refrained from shaking hands with Mr Lapid and other Israeli leaders, instead offering handshakes. But he barely avoids close contact as he happily pats their arms, gives them a partial hug and pulls them close with no mask in sight.

When he was brought into a pose with congressional leaders, he completely followed the no-handshake rule, taking Mr. Netanyahu’s hand in a particularly lengthy and friendly greeting.

By the time he got to Yad Vashem, he was clearly done with his idea of ​​keeping his distance. The survivors received the memo, even if he no longer followed it. Ms Quint, 86, said: ‘He asked for permission to kiss me, and he continued to hold my hand.

David E. Sanger contribution report.

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