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The Biden-Obama divide over how closely to support Israel

The current president believes his close embrace of Israel, which he called for as vice president, gives him greater influence with Israeli leaders and the public.
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WASHINGTON — In the first weeks of the Israel-Hamas war, President Joe Biden privately pointed to praise for his unconditional public support of Israel, as well as some initial successes in influencing its government, as vindication of advice he said President Barack Obama and his closest aides dismissed, according to five people familiar with his comments.

Biden recounted in private that when he was vice president in 2014 and Israel mounted a military assault on Gaza, Obama and his staff rejected his belief, held for decades, that the best way to approach the Israelis is to hug them close but not criticize them, the people familiar with his comments said.

Instead, they said Biden has noted, Obama publicly admonished Israel’s actions and voiced concern for Palestinian civilian deaths early into the 2014 conflict. As a result, Biden has argued, Obama squandered any ability to influence the Israeli government as it invaded Gaza, said the people familiar with his comments.

joe biden bibi benjamin natanyahu hug embrace
President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, on Oct. 18, 2023.Evan Vucci / AP

They said Biden’s message when he revisited the 2014 debate was: I was right then, and I am right now. 

The president’s private comparisons with his former boss subsided as outrage over rising civilian deaths in Gaza eclipsed the early praise for his approach, according to three of the people familiar with his comments. More than 14,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Department.

But Biden’s confidence in his strategy has not wavered, these people said. If anything, it has hardened, they said, despite his administration’s recalibrated public message urging Israel to minimize civilian casualties and intense pressure for Biden to change course, some of it from members of his own Democratic Party.

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President Obama with then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2014.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

“If this was the Obama years, we would’ve been a lot more publicly critical than we have been by now,” a senior administration official said. “And that wouldn’t work. We wouldn’t have the influence.”

Biden and his top aides have pointed to the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, some shifts in Israel’s military tactics from its original plans and now the deal to release hostages held by Hamas as evidence that his strategy is effective. 

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters Monday that Biden “believes right down to his core that the approach he’s been taking is getting results.”

“The approach we’re taking now is working,” Kirby said.

Asked about Biden’s comments regarding Obama’s handling of the 2014 Gaza conflict, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement, “The President’s senior White House and national security advisers have never heard the President say this, and do not believe it is accurate.”

A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment.

It remains to be seen whether Biden’s approach will ultimately work any better than Obama’s did. This conflict is unlike previous ones because of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, which killed 1,200 Israelis, said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former senior State Department official.

“This is completely different,” Miller said. “The Israelis are all in.”

Politically, Biden’s full embrace of Israel has been a liability with some Democrats, particularly younger and more progressive ones. Biden has expressed bewilderment at what he sees as some liberal Democrats’ criticism of Israel, according to people familiar with his comments. And while Biden has been willing to move on other issues when he has been lobbied by Democrats, he has refused to budge on Israel. 

Image: As Gaza Ceasefire Holds, Residents Seek Food, Fuel And Other Aid
A Palestinian man sits with his family beneath the rubble of his house on Tuesday, after it was destroyed by air strikes in Khan Younis, southern Gaza.Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

He continues to reject calls to back a cease-fire. He said Friday that placing conditions on future U.S. military aid to Israel, as some Democrats have proposed, is “a worthwhile thought” but added, “I don’t think if I started off with that we’d ever gotten to where we are today.”

There is some frustration in the White House that more American hostages have not been released as part of the deal, a senior U.S. official said.

Administration officials are concerned about Hamas’ regrouping during the pause in fighting, the official said, but they are also worried about Israeli forces’ coming on strong in Gaza after the pause ends and killing many more civilians.

This week Biden administration officials conveyed to Israeli officials that they must approach any military action in southern Gaza with more care for civilians than they have in the north, a second U.S. official said. “We’ve been working with them on that,” the official said.

That message underscores growing disagreements between the Biden administration and the Israeli government, which are poised to widen as the war advances. Already administration officials say privately that they do not believe Israel has been doing everything it can to protect civilians despite their repeated, direct pleas that it do so. 

Whether Israeli leaders listen to the administration when the fighting resumes will be a test of Biden’s strategy. How much influence his approach gets him will be made plain in whatever plan Israel adopts for the postwar future of Gaza. Part of Biden’s calculus, administration officials say, has been that his early, unflinching embrace of Israel gives him the best chance to influence how a postwar Gaza will be governed.

“By doing that, he bought a lot of goodwill with Israel and the Israeli public overall,” the second U.S. official said.

At times, Biden has privately expressed frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war, according to people familiar with his comments. He has said privately that in the midst of the war is not the time to focus on Netanyahu, but officials do not see a long-term solution to the conflict if he remains in office, said three people familiar with Biden’s comments.

Obama had a deeply strained relationship with Netanyahu, largely over his administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran. The tensions were widely known and often spilled into public view. From the start of the two-month conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2014, Obama was publicly critical of how Israel was carrying out military action in Gaza. He warned of the need to protect civilians, saying he was “deeply concerned.”

President Obama And Netanyahu Speak To Press After White House Meeting
President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Oval Office in 2011.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

In the view of Obama and his top aides, the deaths of Palestinian civilians were going to increase, and the U.S. should not be seen as lopsidedly pro-Israel, in part because they believed it could inflame tensions across the region.

Meanwhile, as vice president, Biden advocated internally that Obama’s strategy should involve expressing stronger support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

“He didn’t think we should be criticizing the Israelis, and Obama did,” a former senior administration official who was part of the 2014 debate said of Biden.

Obama appeared to echo his approach as president this month when he offered a nuanced view of how decades of simmering tensions led to the current Israel-Hamas war, saying “nobody’s hands are clean” and “all of us are complicit to some degree.”

Some Biden administration officials bristled at Obama’s comments, which he made in a discussion with some of his former aides for a podcast, according to two senior administration officials. They felt his comments undermined Biden, the officials said.

Obama’s office has coordinated with the White House, an aide to the former president said. His office provided the White House with copies of his Medium posts about the war, in which he has been complimentary of Biden, the aide said. Biden’s aides also were told in advance that Obama would discuss the conflict during the podcast and were aware what his thinking about it was, the aide said. 

The different approaches to Israel by Biden and Obama — who are almost 20 years apart in age — in some ways reflect generational differences among Americans’ views of the war. An NBC News poll released this month found that a majority of voters ages 65 and older approve of Biden’s handling of the war, while 70% of younger voters disapprove of it. 

The roots of Biden’s approach to Israel reach back nearly five decades. A lawmaker who has spoken with Biden about Israel described him as “ideological” on the issue. 

At the start of the war, Biden privately boasted that he has known his entire career how to handle Israel, specifically the need to express complete support for its right to defend itself, according to three people familiar with the discussions. He credited his strategy, including a whirlwind trip to Israel during which he publicly embraced Netanyahu, with getting Israel to slow down its invasion of Gaza, according to five people familiar with his comments. 

Biden also cited a quotation from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his 2014 book to argue that he has been right on how to handle Israel even though his views were rejected when he was vice president, according to two people familiar with his comments. In the book, Gates wrote that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” 

In an early discussion about Israel, another senior U.S. official said, Biden playfully slapped the arm of an aide next to him and asked: Who’s wrong now?