Analysis

Vice Presidential Throw-down: Is Pence Really a Better Friend to Israel Than Biden?

Netanyahu calls Mike Pence the VP who has shown the greatest commitment to Israel. How quickly he forgets how Joe Biden stuck with Israel through thick and thin for 35 years

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday.
REUTERS/Ariel Schalit/Pool

As he introduced U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Knesset on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lavished compliments on the visiting dignitary by telling him: “It’s fitting that you are the first American vice president to speak at the Knesset in Jerusalem, because no American vice president has had a greater commitment to Israel and its people.”

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It may well be true that Pence’s rock-solid enthusiasm for the hardline policies of the Likud-led coalition delivered a thrill that Netanyahu had never experienced before. He is surely eternally grateful that the influence of Pence and the evangelical voter base he commands have been a constant voice in U.S. President Donald Trump’s ear, pushing him away from traditional U.S. positions on Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Pence-led penchant for more naked pro-Israel positions paved the way for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv.   

But whether current policy should be the criteria for judging the all-time strongest personal “commitment to Israel” by a vice president is debatable. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has known Netanyahu and been called a “dear friend” by him for decades, might have something to say about it.

Mike Pence and Joe Biden at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 3, 2018.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

So who has the edge on commitment, Pence or Biden?

In the flattering summary he delivered in his Knesset introduction, the prime minister ran down the list of Pence’s pro-Israel bona fides. Pence supported the Jewish state during his 12 years in the U.S. Congress, during which he spent 10 years on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, co-chaired the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus and a Congressional Anti-Semitism Task Force. During that time, he sponsored a bill supporting Israel’s controversial construction of its security fence, as well as legislation that foreshadowed Trump’s White House policy - calling for the U.S. embassy to be moved to Jerusalem and for cuts in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian refugees.

Then, while serving as governor of Indiana, Netanyahu noted, Pence made his state one of the first in the country that would require its pension fund for state employees to divest from all companies and entities that cooperate with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. He also instituted the Indiana-Israel Business Exchange to push economic cooperation forward.

And then there were the warm words. Throughout his time in politics, time after time, in speech after speech, Pence has expressed love for the Jewish state and an unshakeable faith, rooted in his Christian beliefs, that the Jews are destined to rule over Jerusalem.

Pence may have a strong case - but Biden presents a formidable challenge to his record, especially considering the length of time and how intensely the 75-year-old’s commitment has been tested.

The Delaware Democrat, after all, served in the U.S. Senate from 1973 until 2009, and was a staunch supporter of Israel for the entirety of his 35 years on Capitol Hill - three times longer than Pence served in Congress. Biden spent the majority of his years in the Senate serving on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, chairing it during much of the time the Democrats were in control of the chamber. Repeatedly, he advocated and initiated legislation supporting and funding Israel’s economic and military needs.

In front of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) during the first Obama campaign in 2008, Biden declared “I’ve spent 35 years of my career dealing with issues relating to Israel. My support for Israel begins in my stomach, goes to my heart and ends up in my head.”

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Biden’s over-the-top pro-Israel rhetoric has been so flowery at times, that his repetition of an anecdote from a meeting with Golda Meir has become something of a running joke.

Unlike Pence, Biden’s commitment has been tested, no more so than when policy differences distanced the Obama administration from Jerusalem.

As the relationship between his boss and the Israeli Prime Minister went from cool to frosty to sub-zero, there was reason enough for Biden’s sentiments to ice over as well.

But they never did, even after the roughest period in the U.S.-Israel relationship following the tussle between the two countries over the Iran nuclear deal. The then-VP opened his remarks at a Washington Israel Independence Day celebration by saying, “my name is Joe Biden, and everybody knows I love Israel,” and cracked familiar jokes about the fact that two of his three Catholic children married Jews and how, in his daughter’s case, he realized “the dream of every Irish-Catholic father, for his daughter to marry a Jewish surgeon,” reminiscing dreamily about the chuppah at the wedding.

He told the crowd, at times addressing Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer directly that, “I have been here for a long time, for eight Presidents. I’ve witnessed disagreements between administrations. It’s only natural for two democracies like ours. As Ron said, we’re like family. We have a lot to say to one another.  Sometimes we drive each other crazy. But we love each other. And we protect each other as many of you heard me say before, were there no Israel, America would have to invent one. We’d have to invent one because ... you protect our interests like we protect yours.”

Biden’s affection has been returned by Netanyahu, at least on the surface. Even following his worst clashes with the Obama administration, the Israeli prime minister spoke of Biden, whom he’s known since his pre-political days, in the warmest of terms.

When Biden visited Israel in 2016, Netanyahu called Biden, “part of our mishpucha,” using the Yiddish word for family. He said “I want to thank you for our personal friendship of over 30 years. We’ve known each other a long time. We’ve gone through many trials and tribulations. And we have an enduring bond that represents the enduring bond between our people.”

Enduring, it seems, until a better vice president comes along.