By Matt Spetalnick, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 21 (Reuters) – When Joe Biden met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet during his visit to Israel, the U.S. president assured them: “I don’t believe you have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist.”
The politicians and generals gathered in the ballroom of the Tel Aviv hotel nodded in approval, according to a U.S. official knowledgeable of the closed-door remarks, even as Israel bombarded Gaza in retaliation for a devastating attack by Palestinian Hamas militants and with a ground invasion looming.
Biden, who is of Irish Catholic descent, has used similar words in the past to profess his affinity for Israel. But the moment, which has not been previously reported, illustrates how Biden’s decades as one of the leading “Friends of Israel” in American politics seem to be guiding him during a defining crisis of his presidency.
It also underscores the challenges he faces balancing unwavering support for Israel with persuading Netanyahu – with whom he has a long history – to avoid worsening the civilian death toll and humanitarian meltdown in Gaza as well as complicating further releases of American hostages.
“Biden’s connection to Israel is deeply engrained in his political DNA,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who served six secretaries of state in both Democratic and Republican administrations. “Whether he likes it or not, he’s in the midst of a crisis he’ll have to manage.”
Reuters interviewed a dozen current and former aides, lawmakers and analysts, some of whom said Biden’s current wartime embrace of Netanyahu could afford the U.S. leverage to try to moderate Israel’s response in Gaza.
In their private session with aides on Wednesday, the two leaders displayed none of the tensions that have sometimes characterized their meetings, according to a second U.S. official familiar with the talks.
But Biden did pose hard questions to Netanyahu about the coming offensive, including “have you thought through what comes the day after and the day after that?” the official said. U.S. and regional sources have expressed doubt that Israel, which vows to destroy Hamas, has yet crafted an endgame.
Biden’s alignment with the right-wing leader risks alienating some progressives in his Democratic Party as he seeks re-election in 2024, with a growing international outcry against Israel’s tactics also casting some blame on the U.S.
It also has prompted many Palestinians and others in the Arab world to regard Biden as too biased in favor of Israel to act as an even-handed peace broker.
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