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‘If Arabs have a problem with Israel, they have a problem with US’: 1986 papers reveal Joe Biden’s initial stand

Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu with the then US Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (photo courtesy: Times of Israel)

Rare decades-old documents suggest a young Joe Biden was an ally of Israel but reluctant to get involved with pro-Israel advocacy, an Israeli newspaper has revealed.  

The declassified documents, recovered from Israel state archives records by Haaretz, reveal a glimpse into a February 1986 meeting between then-Senator Biden and Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Meir Rosenne, and then-embassy staffer Yosef Lamdan. 

At the time, Biden was a little over a year away from announcing his 1988 run for the US presidency.

Rosenne and Lamdan were aware of Biden as a potential presidential candidate but considered his chances of victory slim, Haaretz reported after viewing the embassy documents, which were once marked as classified and sent to Jerusalem. 

Still, Lamdan, who was responsible for embassy relations with Congress, documented that Biden had insufficient ties with Israel, as he was not involved in the Jewish-Democrat politics of Washington and did not have much to do with any pro-Israel organisations. 

At the time, Ronald Reagan was president, and Republicans were viewed as the party that was less-friendly to Israel compared with the Democrats.  

Today that dynamic has shifted, as has Biden’s reputation, with the president-elect well known for having frequented pro-Israeli lobby meetings with groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street. 

‘A frank exchange’

While Biden had supported major pro-Israel campaigns in Congress back in the 1980s, lists created by the embassy at the time did not place Biden in a category of for or against Israel, indicating he was viewed as neutral.

His meeting with Lamdan and Rosenne, however, seems to have marked a pivotal change in Israel’s perception of Biden, as the two embassy officials painted the then-Senator as an enthusiastic supporter who, during the meeting, had expressed a stance that the US was at times too critical of its ally. 

According to three pages of embassy notes on the one-hour sitdown, Lamdan wrote that Biden said he believed US officials openly criticising Israel – despite providing support for the country as an important ally – was “paradoxical and a mistake”, according to Haaretz.

“[Biden] wanted to say that even though the positions of the U.S. were, with a few exceptions, alright, the U.S. continues to claim outwardly that it wishes to be equally friendly to all sides,” Lamdan wrote, referring to US efforts as a mediator between Israel, Palestine and surrounding Arab countries. 

“Biden believes that the U.S. should tell the Arabs that Israel is foremost among its friends, and that if the Arabs had a problem with that, they should be aware that they would have a problem with the U.S. as well,” Lamdan continued. 

Biden reportedly told the embassy officials that “the U.S. should change its public debate with Israel” and that if he were president, the US would treat it “like it treats its other friends”.

“It would be inconceivable to openly argue with Mrs. Thatcher on disputed topics, but in the case of Israel, the U.S. does not hesitate to openly disagree with it. This approach is unacceptable to him,” Lamdan noted. 

“If he were elected, he would have a frank exchange with us, without publicity and through diplomatic channels”. 

Four months later, Biden made similar remarks when addressing the US congress. 

“It’s about time we stop apologising for our support for Israel,” he told lawmakers that June. “It is the best $3 billion investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”