Israel doesn’t need America’s permission to attack Iran, Vice President Joe Biden told a gathering of Conservative rabbis May 8.
“Were I an Israeli, were I a Jew, I would not contract out my security to anybody, even a loyal, loyal, loyal friend like the United States,” Biden said.
American and Israeli officials agree that Iran’s development of its nuclear capabilities has not yet crossed the threshold that would justify such a strike, Biden added.
The vice president delivered his address at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international umbrella group representing Conservative rabbis. Other high-profile guests at the four-day gathering in Atlanta included Israeli broadcaster-turned-political hopeful Yair Lapid and Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon
Biden’s address to the crowd of rabbis from across the United States came six months before November presidential elections, in which Jewish voters could play a meaningful role in swing states such as Ohio and Florida.
The vice president described high levels of American security cooperation with Israel, an oft-repeated Democratic talking point. He emphasized his personal relationship with Israeli leaders, noting a recent meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in which they discussed Barak’s concerns about the threat Iran posed to Israel.
“He talked from the heart about his concerns about Iran,” Biden said of Barak. “We knew we had to talk to one another, look each other in the eye, take the measure of the man.”
Regarding Iran, Biden said that Israel could decide to launch an attack if it determined that Iran’s nuclear capabilities were going beyond the point at which the country would be able to produce highly enriched uranium at bomb-grade levels, or if Iran’s efforts to take its nuclear operations underground into impregnable sites were nearing fruition.
Speaking a week after the death of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, Biden opened his address with a moment of silence for the academic.
“I think there are few families who can match the service the Netanyahu family has made to protect and defend their beloved Israel,” Biden said.
During an introduction by the newly elected R.A. president, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, in Queens, Biden jokingly crossed himself as Skolnik noted that he had spent three decades in the Senate.
Also speaking at the R.A. gathering was Yair Lapid, a prominent Israeli television host who announced this year that he would enter politics. Lapid’s address came just hours after the surprise announcement that Netanyahu and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz had reached a deal to form a unity government and had canceled the September parliamentary elections in which Lapid had planned to figure as a candidate.
In his address, Lapid posited that the new deal between Kadima and Netanyahu’s Likud would lead to a merging of the two parties — far from a sure bet, according to analysts. Lapid suggested that the disappearance of Kadima would bode well for his own political future.
“Not everything that happened in the last 24 hours is bad,” Lapid said. “Kadima is returning to Likud, and the political map in Israel has changed in a way that allows my party to become the sole representation of Israel’s moderate voting class.”
Lapid poked fun at the size of the new governing coalition, claiming, “The last time a state had such a big political coalition was under Nicolae Ceausescu, in Romania.” It seems the comment was meant as a joke.
Four hundred rabbis attended the R.A.’s annual gathering.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.