Biden's pattern with Israel: public support, private scolds

Full Screen
1 / 7

AP2010

FILE - In this March 9, 2010, file photo, then-U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden walks in the cemetery on Mt. Herzel in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, Pool, File)

It's a story Joe Biden has loved recounting over the decades: A chain-smoking Golda Meir welcoming the 30-year-old senator to Israel on his first visit in 1973 and giving him a grandmotherly hug before schooling him on the Six-Day War and the dangers still faced by Israel.

A classified Israeli government memo, though, paints a less anodyne version of Biden's meeting with the Israeli prime minister that day, reporting that the young senator privately “displayed an enthusiasm” that “signaled his lack of diplomatic experience” as he laid out his concerns over land seized in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel years earlier. The document was published last year by Israel’s Channel 13.

For Biden it was the start of a familiar dynamic. Over his nearly 50 years in national politics, he has often reserved his toughest messages for Israeli leaders for private talks while publicly burnishing his image as an unwavering supporter of Israel.

The pattern holds true to the present, as Biden has delivered his most pointed messages for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the conflict with Hamas in Gaza during private conversations while having little to say in public.

For days, as Hamas rockets have flown toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes pounded Gaza, Biden resisted mounting calls from some Democrats and U.N. Security Council members to more forcefully pressure Israel for a cease-fire. On Wednesday, in their fourth conversation in eight days, Biden told Netanyahu that he expected a "significant de-escalation” by day's end on the path to a cease-fire, according to a White House summary of the phone call.

But hours later, Biden didn't make even a passing reference to the Gaza war or his diplomacy during a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy as he spoke of the need to face accelerating global challenges.

In 1982, Washington was the setting when Biden was among a group of U.S. lawmakers who had a tense meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Biden reportedly pressed Begin to halt the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while some of his colleagues were critical of other aspects of Israel's policies.

″I think it is fair to say that in my eight years in Washington I’ve never seen such an angry session with a foreign head of state,″ Sen. Paul Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters after the meeting.