Biden's AIPAC Pandering

Peter Beinart on why the Vice President's refusal to acknowledge that Jewish power can be abused does nothing for peace.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Joe Biden speaks AIPAC extremely well. In his speech yesterday at the group’s annual policy conference, he invoked Judaism just enough to suggest cultural familiarity (“I’m a little jealous that he [Obama] gets to be the one to say ‘this year in Jerusalem’” when he visits Israel this spring) but not so much as to unsettle the relatively secular crowd. He knew what the Jews of AIPAC are proud of (Israel’s “astonishing world-leading technological achievements”) and what they’re anxious about (“it’s critical to remind … your children” that “the preservation of an independent Jewish state is … the only certain guarantor of freedom and security for the Jewish people”). He knew that AIPAC-ers want to wield political influence (“Many of you in this hall have been my teachers, my mentors and my educators”). But he also knew that, paradoxically, they want to believe that most American Christians are instinctive Zionists already (“My father was what you would have called a righteous Christian”).

The audience loved it. Many of the Jews who heard Biden speak carry in their mind memories of parents and grandparents who were too marginal, timid, and fatalistic to pressure America’s government to act to save their brethren in Europe in the 1940s. For their children to assemble near the Capitol, eating kosher food and being pandered to by the most powerful gentiles in the land, represents more than just American Jewish success. It represents American-Jewish redemption. If this were the Purim story, Biden would be King Achashverosh. The AIPAC audience would be Queen Esther: loved by the gentile king and bold enough to use that love to save her people in its hour of need.

I get the yearning to use American Jewish power to safeguard Jewish lives. I get and admire it. What’s awful is the refusal to acknowledge that Jewish power can be abused. And central to that refusal is the language AIPAC and its allies have created to talk about Palestinians, millions of whom live largely at the mercy of Jewish power, as noncitizens in a Jewish state. It’s a dishonest and dehumanizing language, and, unfortunately, Biden speaks it extremely well too.

“Unilateral”: That’s how Biden described the Palestinian effort for statehood at the United Nations. What nonsense. There are many adjectives one can use to describe a statehood bid that receives the endorsement of 138 countries, but “unilateral” isn’t one of them. The term would be better applied to the Israeli government’s policy of subsidizing settlement building in the West Bank, including on privately owned Palestinian land, a policy opposed by virtually every government in the world. But Biden’s only reference to “settlements” was his boast that the Obama administration had blocked a U.N. investigation into them. In fact, Biden boasted that America had been the only country to oppose such an investigation. When the United States practices it, evidently, unilateralism isn’t such a bad thing.

“Delegitimize”: That’s the term Biden used to describe international criticism of Israel. “Delegitimize,” according to Merriam-Webster, means to “diminish or destroy” a country’s “legitimacy, prestige, or authority.” For AIPAC, the only possible explanation for Israel’s delegitimization is anti-Semitism. That Israel might have undermined its own legitimacy and prestige for 45 years by holding millions of Palestinians as stateless noncitizens, unable to move freely and subject to military law, never enters the discussion. And in his speech, Biden dutifully ignored it too. In fact, he never acknowledged Palestinian suffering at all.

“Blockade”: That’s how Biden described Israel’s policy of severely limiting the movement of goods and people in and out of the Gaza Strip, a policy that Biden insisted “Israel has the right … to impose.” Unfortunately for Biden, the script has now changed. Even the Israeli government has acknowledged that its previous policy of denying cilantro, ginger, musical instruments, notebooks, and numerous other civilian products into Gaza was a mistake. Israel now allows goods to cross into the strip far more freely, and, instead of defending the blockade, AIPAC denies its existence. In his determination to pander to AIPAC, in other words, Biden ended up defending a position that even the group itself no longer holds.

Top Obama officials didn’t always speak this way. Obama once said that “my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror” to those aspects of Israeli behavior that its leaders, and its American allies, don’t want to face. No longer. Instead, Joe Biden made AIPAC’s own funhouse mirror his own. He praised Benjamin Netanyahu for having endorsed a “two-state solution.” What he didn’t mention was that in 2011, when Obama proposed the 1967 lines plus land swaps as the basis for that two-state solution—parameters proposed by Bill Clinton and accepted by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert—Netanyahu angrily refused. Nor did Biden mention Netanyahu’s doubling of settlement subsidies or the increasing hegemony of avowed one-staters in his Likud Party. Instead, Biden insisted that although Netanyahu was doing his part, “the Arab world has to get in the game” of peacemaking. As if every Arab country had not offered in 2002 and again in 2007 to recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a “just” and “agreed-upon” solution for the Palestinian refugees.

“We are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve” a two-state solution, declared Biden, “but we’ve got to get caught trying.” Once upon a time, Barack Obama believed that trying meant expressing solidarity with, but also speaking hard truths to, both Israelis and Palestinians. It meant challenging the deceit and dehumanization on both sides. By that standard, Joe Biden was doing a lot of things in his speech yesterday to AIPAC. But trying to achieve peace wasn’t one of them.