Biden, Battered at Home, Basks in Unvarnished Praise in Israel


JERUSALEM — If President Biden’s arrival in Israel on Wednesday for his first trip here since taking office could be summarized 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 a rapturous embrace, as if to prove 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 just as determined to prove that he took a back seat to no one in supporting Israel.

At a red-carpet airport ceremony flush with fawning on both sides, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, called his American counterpart “our brother Joseph,” declaring that “you are truly amongst 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 view than it’s ever been” and told an Israeli interviewer that returning to the Holy Land was “like going home.”

Home, in fact, is not much like this these days for Mr. Biden, who rarely gets such unvarnished praise or loving hugs back in America, where his poll numbers have plummeted and even most Democrats do not want him to run for another term.

The chummy, grinning, backslapping reception he received on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport may have been something of a balm. Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was so besotted with Mr. Trump that he named a settlement after him, greeted Mr. Biden with a warm, prolonged handshake.

“Every chance to return to this great country where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times is a blessing, because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone-deep, bone-deep,” Mr. Biden said 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 strong support for it a litmus test and Democrats growing increasingly critical of the country’s policies toward the Palestinians.

But Mr. Biden indicated 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 a few of them,” he told the anchor Yonit Levi of Channel 12 in a session taped at the White House on Tuesday and aired on Wednesday night. “I think they’re wrong. I think they’re making a mistake. Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend. And I think that I make no apologies.”

The mutual show of bonhomie, however, papered over fundamental differences, most notably on Iran and the Palestinians. Mr. Biden’s efforts to restore the 2015 accord with Iran abandoned by Mr. Trump have raised hackles among many Israeli leaders who doubt Tehran would abide by a deal’s limits to 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 such high-level contact since 2017.

In his Israeli television interview, Mr. Biden reassured Israelis that any Iran deal would not sacrifice their security. “The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons, and if we can return to the deal, we can hold them tight,” he said. “I think it was a gigantic mistake for the last president to get out of the deal. They’re closer to a nuclear weapon now than they were before.”

The negotiations have yet to yield a deal, and one of the missions of the trip will be to make sure the United States is on the same page with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran if they fail. But Mr. Biden held out hope that the talks may yet succeed. “We’ve laid it out on the table, we’ve made the deal, we’ve offered it, and it’s up to Iran now,” he said.

He again rejected Iran’s insistence that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps be taken off the foreign terrorist list as part of any agreement, even if holding to that position meant killing the deal. Asked if he would use force against Iran to stop it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, he answered, “If that was the last resort, yes.”

Mr. Biden has a long history with Israel. He first came nearly half a century ago, in 1973, as a newly elected senator, and met Golda Meir, the famed Israeli prime minister. He has met every prime minister since.

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

Among the weapons displayed 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, a complement to the Iron Dome missile interception system, is a result of two decades of research and experimentation. And while it may still be a few years away from deployment, officials said the laser will be able to knock down rockets, mortar shells, drones and anti-tank missiles.

Mr. Biden’s focus on the joint work between Israel and the United States on Iron Dome and Iron Beam was as important strategically as symbolically. Iron Dome has been remarkably effective at protecting Israel from rocket attacks, and Iron Beam offers the chance to blind a drone headed for civilians.

But to Mr. Biden, it was also a way of engaging Israel’s government in significant 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,” helping forge a closer relationship between American and Israeli cyber engineers.

At Yad Vashem, one of the touchstones of Israeli society, Mr. Biden met with two Holocaust survivors, Rena Quint and Giselle Cycowicz, who were interned at concentration camps and, after the war, emigrated to the United States.

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

Afterward, Ms. Cycowicz, 95, said: “When I came to America, I did not know a soul there. And I met so many friends. And now I have been invited to meet the most important person in the world.”

Adding his to name to the memorial’s visitor book, the president wrote, “We must never, ever forget because hate is never defeated, it only hides.”

But Mr. Biden’s encounter with the two Holocaust survivors also undercut what appeared to be a White House effort to build justification for avoiding a politically damaging moment later in the trip. From Israel, the president will fly on Friday to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deemed 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 be embarrassing, had hinted to reporters the president might forego all handshakes in the Middle East because of the virulent new Covid-19 subvariant.

The president only went along with 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 them fist bumps instead. But he was hardly avoiding close contact as he cheerfully patted their arms, gave them partial hugs and pulled them close with no masks in sight.

When brought over to pose with parliamentary leaders, he dispensed with the no-handshake rule altogether, grasping Mr. Netanyahu’s hand for an especially 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 gotten the memo, even if he was no longer following it. “He asked permission to kiss me, and he kept on holding my hand,” said Ms. Quint, 86, “and we were told not to touch him.”

David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

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