Joe Biden’s key foreign policy role as Barack Obama’s vice president and his record of support for Israel make him one of the candidates best positioned to defend the nuclear deal with Iran as he enters the 2020 presidential race today.
Unlike his rivals, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee boasts a decades-long relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, potentially helping Biden to fend off Republican attacks against his support for Obama’s signature foreign policy effort. That tight connection, however, could prove a liability with some left-wing primary voters who have soured on Israel’s right-wing leadership.
As he puts together his campaign staff, Biden is expected to draw from a pool of experts that participated in years of negotiations with Iran, said Ben Fishman, a former adviser to Obama on Middle East policy. That should leave him well-positioned to defend specifics of the deal while also addressing lingering bipartisan concerns about Iran’s role in the region.
“His first-hand knowledge of the details will allow him to articulate a policy not just on the nuclear elements of Iran, but the regional destabilization elements that Iran is still pursuing actively — including in Iraq,” said Fishman, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A Morning Consult poll released last year shortly before President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord found that 68% of Democrats — and 56% of the general public — support the deal. Most of the leading 2020 Democratic contenders have come out in support of reentering the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned in May 2018, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. But Biden’s close ties to the Israeli leadership set him apart, Fishman argues.
“You have to start with the premise that Biden’s relationship with Israel goes back 40-plus years,” Fishman told Al-Monitor. “What the Democratic Party is going to have to wrestle with is balancing … the party’s relationship with Israel with a right-wing-dominated government that’s more than likely going to take steps against the Palestinians, such as annexation of parts of the West Bank. But I think Biden is well positioned to walk that balance, much more than Sanders or some of the other candidates who have less experience on the issue.”
A former US official told Al-Monitor that Biden was a key voice in the Obama administration in seeking to assuage Israel’s concerns over the Iran deal, which was vociferously opposed by Netanyahu. Ultimately Obama increased base military aid to Israel to $38 billion over 10 years, up from $30 billion the previous decade.
“Biden was a leading voice to argue that we still need to solidify the relationship to include providing additional security assistance to Israel,” the former official said, “to make sure that the Israelis understood whatever our disagreements were on the Iran deal, that we continue to support their security.”
The official added that Biden is expected to try to revive the deal should he win the presidency.
“If Iran remains compliant with its obligations under the deal, then I think that he would envision entering the agreement,” the source said. “But I could also imagine that he would first engage in pretty close consultations with our [international] partners, especially the Europeans, about how any US reentry should be integrated into a broad approach to Iran.”
Biden’s record on Israel could open him to attacks from the left, however.
A Pew Research poll released Wednesday found that only 26% of Democrats have a favorable view of Israel’s government versus 61% of Republicans. Most Democratic candidates have not shied away from criticizing Netanyahu, particularly after he included the extremist Jewish Power party as part of his winning electoral alliance.
While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) denounced Sanders this week after the progressive stalwart condemned the Netanyahu government as “racist,” even AIPAC-friendly candidates have criticized the prime minister. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., became the first candidate to condemn Netanyahu’s deal with Jewish Power shortly after AIPAC itself did the same.
The situation could be more complicated for Biden, who has had a historically warmer relationship with the prime minister dating back to his days on the Foreign Relations panel. That chemistry was tested during Biden’s time in the White House. The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu became increasingly acrimonious as the United States negotiated the Iran deal and Israel continued to expand settlements in the West Bank.
The Netanyahu government embarrassed Biden by announcing 1,600 new settler homes in East Jerusalem in the middle of the then-vice president’s 2010 trip to Israel. Five years later, Netanyahu again infuriated the White House with his 2015 speech to Congress, which Biden did not attend, urging opposition to the deal. Still, in 2016 Netanyahu met with Biden in Israel even as he rejected Obama’s invitation to meet at the White House.
“The vice president has believed — and this is true of all foreign leaders — that it serves us well if we have a good personal relationship with foreign leaders because it allows you to have frank conversations with them,” the former Obama official told Al-Monitor. “In the past, Biden has reserved most of his harsh words for private conversations.”
Despite the friction, Biden continued to refer to Netanyahu as a “great friend.” In 2012, he noted that Netanyahu has been his friend for more than 30 years.
“Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,” Biden said at the time.
Biden’s extensive experience in Iraq could also serve as an asset as Iran takes center stage in the foreign policy debate. As vice president, Biden assumed the Iraq portfolio following his extensive experience in the country as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With Trump’s "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran putting Iraq in the crosshairs, Biden has a unique opportunity to leverage that experience.
“He knows the strategic importance of Iraq and not letting it either fall within the Iranian orbit or keeping it out of an [Islamic State] return,” Fishman said.
Still, Biden’s 2002 vote authorizing military action against Iraq could dog him, providing ample fodder for opponents in the primaries and Trump himself — just as it did Hillary Clinton during her failed 2008 and 2016 campaigns.