Minimizing rift, Biden plays up US commitment to Israel

Minimizing rift, Biden plays up US commitment to Israel

At embassy’s Independence Day gala, vice president says Washington will provide F-35 fighters next year, defends Iranian nuclear deal

Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the Saban Forum in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the Saban Forum in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON — Downplaying the US rift with Israel, Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday staunchly defended President Barack Obama’s record of supporting the Jewish state, working to allay the concerns of many American Jews who have lined up against the budding nuclear deal with Iran.

In a speech marking Israel’s independence day, Biden also reaffirmed US support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, drawing an implicit distinction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose comments disavowing Palestinian statehood ahead of Israel’s recent elections — later backtracked — were a factor in the ongoing deterioration of US-Israeli ties.

Biden, at a gala organized by Israel’s embassy to mark the holiday, said it was no secret that the Obama administration has had differences with Netanyahu’s government.

“It’s only natural for two democracies like ours,” Biden 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.”

Biden reiterated that the US would supply Israel with a raft of highly sought F-35 jet fighters next year.

“Much has changed [since 1948] but two things have remained absolutely the same, the courage of your people and the commitment of mine,” he said.

The Obama administration has been working to repair ties with Israel and its supporters that have deteriorated to their worst level in recent memory amid strains over US nuclear negotiations with Iran. Sending Biden to the celebration reflected a symbolic attempt by the White House to show the relationship is still intact.

Biden addressed concerns that Obama had agreed to immediate sanctions relief for Iran, as Tehran has demanded, saying the final deal, which is still being hammered out, must ensure a breakout timeline of at least one year which stays in place for at least a decade.

“A final deal must include phased sanctions relief – if it doesn’t – no deal,” he said.

But he defended the agreement as worked out between Iran and six world powers last month, which Israel’s lobbying against has helped to ratchet up tensions.

“This isn’t a grand bargain between the United States and Iran,” Biden said, noting that other world powers are also parties to the deal. “It’s based on hard-hitting, hard-headed compromises and assessments.”

Biden repeatedly said that he and Obama both saw supporting Israel as not just policy.

“My commitment to protect Israel’s security is personal. Its personal for me and its personal for the president,” he said.

Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, was also spotted at the ritzy gala at Washington’s Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.

Netanyahu is fiercely opposed to the emerging deal, concerned that it offers broad concessions to Iran that would leave the Jewish state’s security in jeopardy.

Long-suspected tensions between Obama and Netanyahu came out into the open earlier this year when Netanyahu, in a visit arranged without Obama’s knowledge, came to Washington to lobby US lawmakers and Jewish leaders against the deal.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington and one of Netanyahu’s top advisers, acknowledged that the US and Israel have sometimes had deep disagreements on critical matters. Yet he said the region’s immense security challenges would inevitable pull the two democracies together.

“We have weathered all those disagreements to grow closer and closer, decade after decade,” Dermer said.

Yet while the White House has signaled it’s still re-evaluating how to handle its relationship with Netanyahu, who is forming a new government after a victory in Israel’s recent elections, Obama and Biden have sought in recent days to blunt the political blowback at home.

Last week, Obama spent most of an afternoon in a pair of meetings with prominent rabbis and leaders of major Jewish organizations, aiming to reassure them the deal won’t put Israel at risk.

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