It’s a story that President Joe Biden must have told a thousand times over the years, if not more.
Never was it more poignant than in his telling to a national audience from the White House on Tuesday afternoon.“Over 50 years ago, as a young senator, I visited Israel for the first time, as a newly elected senator,” he said, going on to describe a meeting with then-prime minister Golda Meir just before the Yom Kippur War, and an exchange with her at a photo opportunity outside her office.
“We were standing there silent, looking at the press. She could tell, I guess, I was concerned. She leaned over and whispered to me – she said, ‘Don’t worry, Senator Biden. We have a secret weapon here in Israel’ – my word, this is what she said – ‘We have no place else to go. We have no place else to go.’”
Having told this story for so long, so often, to so many Jewish audiences, the reflex when Biden says it again is to think, “Here we go again, how many times are we going to hear the same story?”
But what came out Tuesday in his deeply supportive speech for Israel was the degree to which that exchange with Golda left a profound imprint on him, and was not just a rhetorical prop to be used in all speeches to pro-Israel audiences.
The degree to which this meeting with Golda impacted Biden was apparent in what he said immediately after relating that tale.
“For 75 years, Israel has stood as the ultimate guarantor of the security of Jewish people around the world, so that the atrocities of the past could never happen again,” he said. “And let there be no doubt: The United States has Israel’s back.”
Many are the reasons that Hamas chose to carry out its barbaric attack now, and once the war is over, those reasons will be investigated and dissected. For now, suffice it to say that among those reasons are two developments over the last 10 months since the swearing-in of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that led them to believe this was the perfect time to strike.
The first was the divisions in Israel, and the second was a perception that Israel and the US were drifting apart.
Regarding the divisions inside Israel, the massive mobilization – an unprecedented 360,000 reservists in 48 hours – put to pay any illusion the enemy may have harbored that Israeli society would not unite at a time like this. Now, all that discussion during the heat of the judicial overhaul debate by reservists – including reserve pilots – whether they would show up for reserve duty seems an almost quaint remnant of a long bygone age.That was one calculation Hamas got wrong.
The second miscalculation was that the distance Biden kept from Netanyahu and his hard-right government – and the talks about weakening ties because the two countries allegedly no longer shared the same democratic values – indicated that the US would not give full backing to Israel.
Words and actions
Biden, in his heartfelt speech, as well as an equally powerful speech he gave Saturday night and other statements he has released since this crisis has unfolded, let it be known that this impression was severely mistaken.
But Biden did not suffice with words, and his dispatching of the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike force to the region, and his explanation as to what message that move was meant to send, made clear just how badly mistaken this assumption was.
“Let me say again – to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said.
Then, in a line that uncannily sums up the prevalent feeling right now in Israel, he added: “Our hearts may be broken, but our resolve is clear.”
When, if at all, will the support stop?
As the war rages on and the casualty toll rises inside the Gaza Strip, there will be calls for Biden to stop this unequivocal support.
But what Biden radiated in his speech on Tuesday was genuine horror and moral outrage at what he saw and heard from the Simchat Torah massacres.
“If the United States experiences what Israel is experiencing, our responses would be swift, decisive, and overwhelming,” Biden said he told Netanyahu at the end of their third telephone conversation since the attack.Think about that sentence for a minute.
This was not an Israeli spokesperson trying to convince a skeptical CNN interviewer of the justification for Israeli bombing raids in Gaza. This was the president of the United States speaking to the American people – a US president who just set a new standard of support for the Jewish state and the Jewish people in times of tragedy and war.