Biden Speaks His Mind in Candid Interview

By | Jul 10, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. Biden Weighs in on Extreme Elements of Netanyahu’s Cabinet

In a CNN interview that aired Sunday, President Joe Biden spoke at length about the state of his relationship with Israel and its prime minister. In it he detailed, quite candidly, his misgivings over Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and the actions it’s been taking.

According to reports, Netanyahu was briefed on Biden’s comments while chairing a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Among the most stinging comments in Biden’s interview with Fareed Zakaria was his suggestion of extremism within Netanyahu’s cabinet, saying he has “one of the most extreme members of cabinets that I have seen. And I go all the way back to Golda Meir,” Biden remarked. “Not that she was extreme, but I go back to that era.”

True, there are few leaders in the world who have been personally involved in Israel longer than Biden, who has met with every Israeli leader since his first term in the Senate in 1973. So when Biden calls out extremism within the current coalition, he probably knows what he’s talking about. CNN, in an effort to make clear just who exactly these extremists are, covered parts of the interview with visuals of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two top cabinet members hailing from far-right political parties and each carrying a troubling baggage of past convictions (Ben-Gvir) and arrests (Smotrich) in connection to Jewish extremist activity, as well as a long documented history of anti-Arab, xenophobic and homophobic comments.

How extreme is this Israeli government? By many measures, the answer is obvious. It is the first time that members of far-right parties have been permitted to hold sensitive high-level positions in the cabinet; the first time a leader of an extremist party has become the minister in charge of police; and it is the first coalition to include only right-of-center parties.

But extremism is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. And it’s also a moving target.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, famously declared, when negotiating the makeup of Israel’s first coalition in 1948, his red lines: no Herut, no Maki. Herut was the revisionist party of Jabotinsky’s followers, and Maki was the pro-Soviet Communist party. At the time, they were the extremists. Eventually, Herut formed Likud and became not only a coalition member but the dominant political force in Israel since 1977. In the current coalition it is seen as a moderating, not extremist, force. Maki, in its later incarnations, backed Rabin’s government in 1992 and is still seen as a potential outside supporter of center-left coalitions.

Ben Gurion’s red lines on extremism have long been forgotten. In 2009, when Avigdor Lieberman was appointed foreign minister, the U.S. administration made no secret of its dislike of his positions, viewed at the time as too far to the right. Even some Jewish American groups even avoided meeting with him. Now, Lieberman is a welcome guest in all corridors of power, seen as a valuable centrist pillar in Israel’s anti-Netanyahu coalition.

Will Biden be in power long enough to see the politicians he now deems too extreme move to the center? Probably not. It’s hard to imagine Israel’s political landscape shifting far enough to the right to make Smotrich and Ben Gvir seem palatable to a U.S. Democratic administration. But it is worth keeping in mind that Biden’s distaste for Netanyahu’s political bedfellows is a matter of values, not of policy. And in the real world, values rarely determine policy.

2. Biden Giving up on Saudi Deal

There’s more to unpack in Biden’s interview with Zakaria.

One surprising point had to do with the chances of brokering a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. All agree that this would be the crowning achievement of America’s effort to advance Israel’s integration in the region. It would be a true game changer, and Biden, in recent months, has made a real effort to make it happen.

But on Sunday, the optimism being spread by the White House regarding a possible breakthrough dissipated. “We’re a long way from there,” Biden said, explaining that while he doesn’t think the Saudis have a real problem with Israel, what’s holding back the deal is its price tag. Reaching normalization, Biden said, “depends upon the conduct and what is asked of us for them to recognize Israel.” Riyadh would like Washington to supply it with security guaranties and with a path to becoming a nation with civilian nuclear power, and Biden just doesn’t feel he can pay that price right now, or that reaching normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is worth that price, or worth fighting members of both parties in Congress to approve these measures.

Has the window for a deal closed for good? That could be the case. But it could also be a bargaining tactic. Biden could be signaling to Netanyahu that chances of reaching the coveted Saudi deal are low, but if Israel makes significant gestures toward the Palestinians, maybe the Saudis will lower their price, and maybe America will be more enthusiastic about brokering the deal.

3. Do Jews Hold the Key to Legalizing Abortions?

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled last year in Dobbs v. Jackson, ushering in a new age of abortion restrictions and limitations, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor of Palm Beach County decided to sue the state of Florida, which was moving forward with new anti-abortion legislation following the overruling of Roe v. Wade. The synagogue argued that according to Jewish law, “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman,” and therefore taking away this right would violate their religious freedom.

Then came others, including a group of Jewish women in Kentucky and another in Indiana, as well as many non-Jewish groups.

Their tactic was based on a counterintuitive rationale: Anti-abortion activists have based their call to deny women’s right for abortion on religious grounds, so why not use the same argument, but this time for those who hold different religious beliefs on abortion?

The lawsuits are making their way through courts across the country; one year after Dobbs and with half the states in the union already passing anti-abortion laws, the religious freedom argument has emerged as one of the most promising avenues for reversing the trend.

The New York Times last week noted that “there are signs the arguments may have some legal traction” in the battle to overturn abortion bans, especially in states such as Indiana, where the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been used to justify limiting abortion rights.

4. Can It Work?

Using religious freedom arguments to overturn abortion bans is a long shot, but that doesn’t mean it stands no chance.

In a JTA interview, legal scholar Elizabeth Reiner Platt sounded cautious, yet slightly optimistic, regarding the chances of these religiously based cases actually winning in court. “I think there’s definitely an appetite for these arguments,” she said, adding, “I’m not Pollyanna-ish about the fact that we have very conservative state judiciaries and a lot of these states are very opposed to abortion, but I think the legal claims themselves based on doctrine should be very strong.”

5. A Must Stop for GOP Presidential Hopefuls

Christians United for Israel, which calls itself America’s largest pro-Israel organization, is holding its annual conference in Washington next week, and since election season is right around the corner, the gathering has become a hot ticket for Republican presidential candidates.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will be there, as will former vice president Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador and former governor of South Carolina.

It’s a great opportunity for these three candidates, all struggling to break through in a race currently dominated by former president Donald Trump. It will be a unique opportunity for them to demonstrate their pro-Israel credentials to conservative voters who care about the issue.

Image credit: CNN screenshot / Eitan Fuld (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Alon Nouriel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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