The president’s “unwavering support” for Israel stems from childhood dinner table conversations and half a century of trips to the Jewish state. But it puts him at odds with some in his own party.
One morning during a spasm of violence two decades ago, with suicide bombings shattering Israel every other day, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem seemed eerily empty. Foreigners were staying away. Nobody was in the dining room. Except for two people having breakfast: Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his aide, Antony J. Blinken.
Dennis B. Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator, spotted them and approached. “I know why I’m here,” he said. “Why are you here?”
“This,” Mr. Biden responded without missing a beat, “is exactly when I should be here.”
Mr. Biden’s staunch support for Israel in a time of crisis is no recent phenomenon. The shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity that he has demonstrated in the three weeks since the bloody Hamas terrorist attack has its roots in more than half a century of affinity for the Jewish state, one that transcends scripted talking points and has become deeply personal. Other presidents have spoken the words. Mr. Biden gives every impression that he feels it in his bones.
For a devout Catholic from a state with relatively few Jews, Mr. Biden may seem like an unlikely champion of Israel. But his views were shaped by dinner table conversations with a father who decried the Holocaust and stories told by an aide who had survived the death camps. Some confidants said that Mr. Biden’s Irish heritage makes him relate to the plight of historically marginalized people and that his own family tragedy connects him to the grief of those who have lost so much.
Over the course of his career, he has traveled to Israel seven times as a senator, three times as vice president and now twice as president. He has met every prime minister since Golda Meir. His passion for the Jewish state has been evident that a fellow senator years ago called him “the only Catholic Jew.” A longtime Israeli official more recently called him “the first Jewish president.” He embraces Jewish nationalism. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he often says.
Mr. Biden with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002 at the Capitol. The president and former senator has met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir.Credit…Stephen Jaffe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“There’s clearly something there that accounts for something rooted in him quite deeply,” said Mr. Ross, who has worked for or studied presidents of both parties since the 1980s. Of all of them, he said Mr. Biden’s ties to Israel appeared strongest. Recalling that day in 2002 when Mr. Biden made a point of showing up during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Mr. Ross said, “It was so poignant. I think it just speaks volumes about this emotional connection that he has.”
Mr. Blinken remembers that trip vividly, too. As a young aide who had just started working for the senator, it was a lesson in how Mr. Biden saw his relationship to Israel. Now as the secretary of state, Mr. Blinken is once again at Mr. Biden’s side as they make a point of showing up for Israel — both physically during a trip to Tel Aviv within range of Hamas rockets and politically in the form of staunch support for the country after the deadliest attack of its existence.
“This is something, as I’ve seen it and experienced it, that goes in a sense from his gut to his heart to his head,” Mr. Blinken said of the president in a phone interview. Other presidents may process the situation through an “intellectual policy prism,” he added. “But there’s something, as I’ve been able to witness it, that seems more visceral for him.”
Shalom Lipner, who was an adviser to seven consecutive Israeli prime ministers, said Mr. Biden was akin to the first Jewish president and now more popular in Israel than the country’s own leaders. “This isn’t just from today; we’re looking at a history here,” Mr. Lipner said. “He’s always been there.”
That does not mean that Mr. Biden has not experienced periods of friction with Israeli leaders, most notably the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even now the president is trying in his own way to restrain the Israeli government from acting too quickly and too harshly.
But Mr. Biden’s “rock solid and unwavering support” for Israel, as he has described it, is born of a different era of politics. He is a creature of a time when Democrats were more uniformly pro-Israel. But while he has not changed, his party has, with progressives far more critical of what they see as Israeli repression of Palestinians, including occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank and a longstanding blockade of Gaza that has turned it into what is often called an open-air prison.
Congressional Democrats on the far left like Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have openly criticized Mr. Biden for not stopping Israel’s retaliation while “watching people commit genocide.” Even some younger members of Mr. Biden’s own staff privately do not understand why he has been so willing to back Mr. Netanyahu even as Israeli forces besiege Gaza, cut off food and fuel and pound the Hamas-run coastal enclave with bombs that Hamas officials in Gaza say have killed thousands of people.
Aides said Mr. Biden’s public embrace of Mr. Netanyahu gives him the ability to influence him in private. The president has spoken with the prime minister 10 times since Hamas assailants killed more than 1,400 people and seized another 200 as hostages on Oct. 7, in addition to flying across the world to hug Mr. Netanyahu and survivors of the attack.
In those private sessions, advisers said, Mr. Biden asks pointed questions rather than lecturing. Why do you plan to do it this way? Have you thought about what comes next? What have you done to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?
“He genuinely feels that it’s not his place to tell another leader how to handle his own politics,” said Jonah Blank, who advised Mr. Biden on the Middle East during his Senate days. “He’ll offer advice, but he’s not going to do it like Tony Soprano.”
Mr. Blinken said Mr. Biden was able to be blunt with Mr. Netanyahu behind the scenes. “Because the president has so much credibility built up over so many years with Israelis, with the Jewish community here, he’s able to have very direct and sometimes, as warranted, very hard conversations that maybe others would have more difficulty having,” he said.
In examining Mr. Biden’s history with Israel, there is no Eddie Jacobson to his Harry Truman, no Jewish best friend who sensitized him to the issues of the Jewish state. But Mr. Biden traces his interest to childhood conversations with his father, who described the horrors of the Holocaust over dinner.
“The world was wrong — failing to respond to Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews — and we should be ashamed,” he quoted his father saying in one of his memoirs.
The issue came up in his first Senate campaign in Delaware in 1972 when a former campaign volunteer wrote a story in a local newspaper asserting that Mr. Biden’s support of Israel “was opportunistic and politically motivated,” as his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, recalled in her autobiography.
Mr. Biden in 2006 with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who presided over a round of negotiations with Palestinians. Mr. Biden has long supported a separate state for the Palestinians.Credit…via Associated Press
Mr. Biden’s campaign enlisted Gov. Milton J. Shapp, the first Jewish leader of neighboring Pennsylvania, to affirm that the 29-year-old candidate “supports Jewish values, principles, faith and the Jewish state of Israel.” Mr. Biden won the election, but it was a searing lesson in the politics of support for Israel.
As a young senator, Mr. Biden made Israel one of his first official trips, visiting just weeks before the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Mr. Biden has told the story of meeting Ms. Meir repeatedly in recent days — sometimes more than once in the same day — relating how she reassured him about Israeli resilience by saying that Jews had “a secret weapon” in their struggle for Israel: “We have nowhere else to go.”
Perhaps just as influential was Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who came to work on Mr. Biden’s staff in the late 1970s before going on to win a seat in Congress. Mark Gitenstein, an aide at the time who now serves as ambassador to the European Union, recalled Mr. Biden urging him to meet with Mr. Lantos.
“I remember Biden telling me, ‘You’ve got to go talk to Lantos. He’s a Holocaust survivor. You’ve got to let him tell you what happened,’” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I think that had a real impact on him.”
Indeed, Mr. Biden and Jill Biden took their first official trip after getting married to Hungary along with Mr. Lantos and his wife, a journey in which they talked about the impact of the Holocaust in Europe, according to Katrina Lantos Swett, Mr. Lantos’s daughter. “His relationship with my late father was actually quite a significant factor helping then-Senator Biden to understand the meaning of the Holocaust beyond what one gets by reading and getting briefing papers,” she said.
Ms. Swett went on to work for Mr. Biden later, as did her nephew — three generations of Lantos family members serving on his staff.
Mr. Gitenstein said his old boss clearly internalized the lessons from Mr. Lantos. In 2009, when Mr. Biden was vice president, he visited Romania with his granddaughter Finnegan and stayed with Mr. Gitenstein, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Bucharest.
Over dinner, Mr. Biden prompted Mr. Gitenstein to describe the Nazi terror of Jews in Romania during World War II for his 9-year-old granddaughter’s benefit. “He wanted me to talk about the Holocaust in Romania, so I talked to her about it,” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I could tell she was very moved about it.”
Six years later, Mr. Biden took Finnegan to Dachau, just as he had his children, Beau, Hunter and Ashley, years before. When the guide was reluctant to show Finnegan the notorious gas chamber, the vice president insisted. “Look honey,” he recalled telling her when they left. “This can happen again. This is happening in other parts of the world now.”
Mr. Biden being Mr. Biden, he nonetheless sometimes tripped over his own tongue. Once while complaining about debt collectors hounding American soldiers during deployments, he condemned “Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men.” As Evan Osnos recounted in his biography of Mr. Biden, the Anti-Defamation League chided him for using the term, an old slur against Jews, but gently noted how “friendly to the Jewish community” he was. Mr. Biden apologized for “a poor choice of words.”
Still, he forged a strong relationship with Jewish leaders. “I never heard a president call himself a Zionist before,” recalled Rabbi Michael S. Beals of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Del., who has been dubbed “my rabbi” by Mr. Biden. “I was like, what? He linked it to the Holocaust experience.”
Vice President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu in 2010. Israel announced new settlements in disputed territory while Mr. Biden was then visiting, embarrassing the U.S. government.Credit…David Furst/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Biden did not evince the same empathy for the Palestinians early in his career. “There was very little public appetite in the U.S. for pro-Palestinian sentiments — or even a relatively balanced approach,” recalled Mr. Blank, the former aide. “That’s changed: Recognizing the humanity of Palestinians is no longer political suicide.”
Even so, he has long supported a separate state for the Palestinians and at times pressed Israeli contacts to do more to make peace. Even in that much-celebrated meeting with Ms. Meir, he warned against “creeping annexation” and urged unilateral withdrawal from some occupied land, according to a classified Israeli summary that came to light in 2020.
“He used to call me a lot at the embassy whenever he thought there was something I should know,” recalled Zalman Shoval, who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington twice during the 1990s. Among other issues, Mr. Biden would object to settlement expansion in the West Bank. “He wanted us to know he was not happy when something was going on in that respect.”
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who served on the Foreign Relations Committee with Mr. Biden and traveled with him to Israel a couple of times, said the future president always favored an equitable resolution for the Palestinians.
“He didn’t just automatically give carte blanche to the Israelis,” said Mr. Hagel, who later served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama when Mr. Biden was vice president. “I’ve never seen him equivocate in his fairness about the Palestinian situation, the two-state solution, although he’s been very clear that he’s a strong supporter of Israel.”
Mr. Biden’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, though, has been particularly complicated. The president likes to say that they have been friends for 40 years despite their ideological disagreements, and some advisers say that is not as much political puffery as it sounds.
Former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, a longtime aide to Mr. Biden and close friend, said the future president and prime minister genuinely bonded because Mr. Netanyahu grew up in Philadelphia, not far from Mr. Biden. “From the beginning, it was like meeting a kindred spirit,” Mr. Kaufman said. “He’s had a very good relationship with Bibi for a long, long time. He talks our language.”
Indeed, Mr. Biden has at times been more forgiving of Mr. Netanyahu than other Democrats. The Israeli government announced a new housing project in East Jerusalem in 2010 while Mr. Biden was in Israel, embarrassing the American administration, which had pushed for a moratorium. Mr. Obama was livid and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a tongue lashing to Mr. Netanyahu over the phone, even though Mr. Biden wanted to avoid a public spat.
Indeed, it was Mr. Biden who sprang into action four years later when Israel came under attack from Hamas rockets in Gaza and needed to replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system. The Israeli ambassador came to the White House on a Thursday night pleading for help, as Mr. Blinken recalled, and Mr. Obama the next day assigned Mr. Biden to get the money.
“He was on the phone all weekend calling the relevant members of Congress, and by Tuesday morning, we had a quarter of a billion dollars,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Biden and the Israeli prime minister have been more at odds since Mr. Netanyahu returned to office last December and tried to curb the power of Israeli courts. Mr. Biden publicly chastised him for undermining democracy and refused to invite him to the White House for months.
For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has bristled at Mr. Biden’s efforts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Iran, seeing it as foolhardy. Some Republicans in the United States have gone so far as to blame the Hamas attack on Mr. Biden, saying that he has coddled Iran, the group’s patron.
But any friction between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu was put to the side after Oct. 7. From that moment, Mr. Biden was all in. He took in the shock and devastation of some of those close to him who are Jewish, including Mr. Blinken, whose stepfather survived the Holocaust, and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, who has helped lead the administration’s antisemitism efforts.
A few days after the attack, Mr. Biden marched into the State Dining Room of the White House with Mr. Blinken and Ms. Harris behind him and delivered a speech expressing outrage on Israel’s behalf with more fury than perhaps any American president had ever delivered.
“He worked on that very deliberately and spent real time on it,” said Mr. Blinken. “But in terms of how he delivered it, his investment in what he was saying, that’s not something you write or practice. It really is all him. And that’s, I think, very much of the moment.”