Delaware’s Joseph Biden, a senior Democratic senator and presidential candidate, said in an interview this week that the Bush administration has wrongfully kept Israel from opening negotiations with Syria and has missed key opportunities to improve political realities in the Middle East.
“It is a mistake not to let Israel, if it wishes to, if it sees an opportunity to go out and explore possibilities with the Syrians,” said Biden, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and one of the longest-serving members of Congress. “If I’m in Damascus, what’s in my best interest? My best interest is to be free of Iran’s yoke, on the good side of the equation with the oil-producing Sunni states, and able to deliver for my people what appears to be a victory by having a settlement on the Golan. Now, whether that can be accomplished remains to be seen, but it should be explored.”
Biden is not the only Democratic presidential contender to call in recent weeks for increased engagement with Syria. Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in New York last month, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called President Bush’s steadfast rejection of talks with Syria a “good-faith position to take” that was, nevertheless, perhaps not the “smartest strategy.” Former North Carolina senator John Edwards and Illinois Senator Barack Obama have also said that they favor talks with Damascus. In a recent speech to Aipac supporters in Chicago, Obama said that “no Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”
In his interview with the Forward (see transcript below), Biden rejected the suggestion made by some on the left that the United States should develop a more neutral posture toward Israel. “In my 34-year career, I have never wavered from the notion that the only time progress has ever been made in the Middle East is when the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us and Israel,” Biden said. “So the idea of being an ‘honest broker’ is not, as some of my Democratic colleagues call for, the answer. It is being the smart broker, it is being the smart partner.”
Under the Bush administration, Biden said, the United States has had good intentions toward Israel but has not been proactive enough. The senator criticized the administration’s willingness to let Saudi Arabia be the main mover behind the recent deal that brought together the Palestinians’ two feuding factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity government that does not explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist or disavow terrorism.
“We contract our foreign policy, and that is a dangerous situation,” Biden said. “Do you think there’s any reasonable prospect that the Saudis are going to push Hamas to recognize Israel?”
The following is a partial transcript of Senator Biden’s March 20 interview with the Forward.
FORWARD: How would a President Biden handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently from President Bush?
BIDEN: I’d be proactive; I wouldn’t be absent at the creation. Let me give you a couple of examples of things I’ve tried to do as Senator Biden that I would have tried to do as President Biden. I don’t doubt the heart of the administration when it comes to support for Israel, but I have grave doubts about its judgment, and I think it has put Israel in a position in the last six years that is less advantageous than it was when the administration started … Let me give you three examples:
I was in Lebanon two Januarys ago for the election, and met with everyone. … I came with away with a couple of clear impressions, and I communicated these to the administration. The first one was that there was an overwhelming sentiment among all of the confessional parties that they did not trust, nor like nor support Hezbollah. Secondly, that with the vacuum being created … to get Syria out of the Valley and off the border, there was going to be a real vacuum created that was going to require immediate action on our part. I argued that we should have been getting NATO to get engaged in training immediately, what had become a fairly dysfunctional Lebanese military force….Not only do you have the Syrians leave, but you disarm Hezbollah and you intercede a force in the vacuum. What did the administration do? Nothing – virtually nothing in the name of supporting Israel…. I argued that we should be putting extensive pressure on the Saudis and others who were floating in oil profits to support the Sinora government, which was a pro-Western government in Beirut, and we did nothing, we were absent.
Now fast-forward. The Israeli soldiers were captured and I argued that what we should be doing is giving the Israelis justification for their actions by calling for a cease fire with the Israelis conditioned on total disarmament knowing that they would never disarm – thereby putting Israel on the right side of the argument. What did we do? We remained silent, did nothing. My sources in Israel … indicated that they really didn’t hear from anybody in the administration for the first several days. What the hell is that all about? What kind of friend is that? … Well, the backing of Israel in that context did not give Israel the kind of coverage it needed.
Now, fast-forward again… With all due respect, Israel is in a very difficult political situation. There is no politician in Israel, who at this moment is in a position to take a real chance politically because [they don’t have the] support of Israeli consensus. So what are we doing? We’re standing by again as Hezbollah becomes a legitimate political force in Lebanon. They’re handing out checks to people to rebuild their homes for $19,000 or $20,000 bucks.
FORWARD: Speaking of taking a political chance for peace, there have been reports that the administration has strongly discouraged Israel from opening informal talks with Syria. What do you think of that position?
BIDEN: It’s ridiculous. You know, out chaos, often comes opportunity…. We’re sitting here, you and I, in support of Israel, and I say to myself, ‘Okay, what looks good for Israel out there on horizon?’ You’ve got Iran, you’ve got us bogged down in Iraq with no apparent strategy for a political solution. … you have Lebanon in some chaos still, you have Hezbollah and Hamas, which have been legitimized by the administration unintentionally — and so what do you do? Well, it seems to me that you recognize a real opportunity. For the first time since I’ve been involved, and I’ve been there for seven presidents, there is a common enemy and concern with Israel’s most ardent group of enemies, the Sunnis. What is it? It’s Iran and Hezbollah.
My information is that as far back as Sharon, before his stroke, there was a desire, expressed by the Israeli government, to open quiet negotiations or at least discussions, with Syria, and that we put the kibosh on that. First of all, we shouldn’t be directing Israel’s policy, if that’s true. Second, it is mistake not to let Israel, if it wishes to, if its sees an opportunity, because they know the area better than we do, to go out and explore possibilities with the Syrians.
The Syrians have backed themselves into corner where their only ally is an uneven ally and an uneven peace with Iran. Figuratively speaking, and I please emphasize figuratively, if in fact the ‘revolution’ comes, does anyone think that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad is going to be embraced by Tehran? They’ve got to know that.
I would do as a president what I do as a senator, but only more pointedly. I would sit down and think to myself, which I do, ‘If I’m in Damascus what’s in my best interest?’ Well, my best interest is to be free of Iran’s yoke, on the good side of the equation with the oil-producing Sunni states, and being able to deliver for my people what appears to be a victory by having a settlement on the Golan. Not born out of any real desire to do good, just simple, straightforward self-interest. Now, whether that can be accomplished, because countries often act against their own self-interest, remains to be seen, but it should be explored. But only be explored in conjunction with and with the approval of the Israelis, not the United States.
[But when you have] a prime minister with very very low approval [in the polls], you can’t expect him to be able to make a significant initiative. If I’m your friend sometimes I have to — to use a colloquial expression in my town — sometimes I have to wear the jacket for you. Sometimes I’ve got to be the devil made you do it. Sometimes I’ve got to give you some excuse if I’m you’re friend. So only if the Olmert government was prepared and wanted to reach out, that’s what friends do. Friends provide the circumstance for you to be able to do what you think you want to do….
We contract out our foreign policy. That is a dangerous situation…. What do you expect when you bring Hamas and Fatah to Mecca, sit them in a room, and say, ‘We want an agreement.’ Do you think there’s any reasonable prospect that the Saudi are going to push Hamas to recognize Israel? Where’s the pressure going to be — on Fatah. So what do we get? Now we have a ‘unity government’ and we’re going, ‘Oh my goodness, we have a problem.’ And Olmert has no option but to say, ‘Hey, don’t count me in this deal.’ And what do we say? Now we have a possibility of splitting us and the Quartet, which is the one thing that might have been able to begin to move Europe towards Israel’s position to get an agreement – and they call that leadership? …. They are A-W-O-L. And we do this all the time; we have little coherent notion of a foreign policy.
FORWARD: Last Sunday, Nick Kristof of The New York Times wrote a column discussing what the termed the administration’s “crushing embrace” of Israel. Do you think the next president needs to strike a better balance between being a 100% neutral broker and being completely with the Israelis?
BIDEN: No…. It’s not so much being perceived as neutral, it’s being more of a partner to Israel, so that you don’t let bad things get out of control. You don’t put Israel out in front on everything, when they’re not able to play in a half-dozen arenas. They can’t affect whether or not Saudi Arabia calls [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas and the Hamas leadership to Mecca — we can….
In my 34-year career, I have never wavered from the notion that the only time progress has ever been made in the Middle East is when the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us and Israel. So the idea of being the ‘honest broker’ is not I think, like some of my democratic colleagues call for, is not the answer. It is being the smart broker, it is being the smart partner….
I believe the people who are suffering are the Israelis. Imagine what it feels like every time an Israeli mother packs up her kids’ lunch and sends them to school, and they walk out the door…. The suffering is real on both sides, but there is a side that can impact on ending it. The responsibility rests on those who will not acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, will not play fair, will not deal, will not renounce terror….
FORWARD: In what ways does the U.S.-Israel partnership need to change?
BIDEN: It’s a little bit like my saying to you, as a woman, taking you down in the middle of the night through the Bowery and saying, ‘Look, I’m supporting you completely, and you get out of the car and you walk the next 20 blocks through the Bowery. I’m with you no matter what happens, if you take out a gun and shoot a passerby, I’m with you. If you get attacked, I’ll help you.’ Am I helping you, for God’s sake? I’ve got to get out of the car and walk with you, with you, and not tell you where to walk. Sit with you and say, ‘Now tell me … which way you going to walk here, let’s talk this through.’ And say ‘I agree with you’ or say, ‘If you’re going to walk the other direction, I think it’s a real mistake,’ and have a real argument with you about it, privately…. That’s the relationship.”
I’ve had my shouting matches over 25 years, privately, in my office and in the offices of prime ministers. I’ve had disagreements. Israel’s a democracy and they make mistakes. But the notion that somehow if Israel just did the right thing this would work, I mean that’s the premise, give me a break.
FORWARD: What should our approach be to the unity government? You signed a letter that is currently circulating in Congress that asks the administration to cut off all contacts with the Palestinian authority, but you reportedly had a few concerns.
BIDEN: I wanted to make sure … that there was the ability to have direct contacts with Abbas, personally, not as a governmental person … because there has to be some way to have a connection with somebody who we know … who has recognized Israel, who has talked about the need for a two-state solution. There has to be some ability to have some contact.
FORWARD: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, has faced a lot of criticism on the left for supposedly being too hard-line on the Middle East, and you’ve sometimes conflicted with Aipac due to your vocal criticism of the Bush administration, which Aipac has seen as a major ally. Do you see any change in how Aipac views what the U.S. role should be?
BIDEN: What I think has happened is a lot of folks at Aipac bought into the intentions and the emotions and the commitment [of the administration], but have become disillusioned with the [actual results]. But they’re a little afraid to embrace what they see as an alternative [on the left] … that looks like it is has gone from the embrace [of Israel] to just holding hands. That’s why I think I’m going to be the next president, for real. I’m not being facetious. That’s why I think that at the end of the day I will get a vast majority of support from the Jewish community that has been my ally for 34 years, but also from Aipac, which has been somewhat critical of my criticism of Bush for four years.