If Vice President Biden did not harbor a sincere ambition to succeed President Obama in 2016, then there would have been little need to deliver the type of speech he gave at J Street’s conference this afternoon.
It’s not that his address didn’t include lines or themes that appealed to the crowd at J Street. It is more than possible to be “progressive and a supporter of Israel,” Biden said. “You are welcome and your ideas are welcome.” The administration, he added, is “devoted to the survival of the Jewish State of Israel” and “none have done more to protect the State of Israel than my friend, President Barack Obama. American’s support for Israel’s security is unshakeable, period.” Later, he stated empathically that, “I believe Israel’s security requires a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
And yet, the majority of his speech could have been made at any synagogue or Jewish community center across the United States and it would have gone down well. It could have been made at AIPAC and it would have been appropriate. Indeed, the vice president even told one of his favorite stories about meeting Golda Meir for the first time—the one in which she leans over to him and says, “Our secret weapon, Senator, is we have no place else to go”—that he had closed his speech to AIPAC with earlier this year.
The bulk of the speech focused on regional security issues. On Iran, Biden stressed that the United States and its allies had implemented “the most effective sanctions regime in all of history,” which the audience approved of, adding that while “we don’t know if Iran is willing to do what is necessary to get there, but we, along with the Security Council and Germany are willing to find out.”
At once, Biden stressed that “we will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons.” A nuclear-armed Iran “would pose an existential threat to Israel, an unacceptable danger to world peace and security, including the likely bid of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, making everyone less secure.” Biden also touched on the crisis in Syria, presenting a narrative suggesting that it was the threat of military force that got Russia and Syria to the table for a compromise.
Still, even if Biden did not fully customize his speech to the J Street audience, his eventual presence at their conference—eventual, because he was an hour and a half late due to earlier meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu—represents a substantial get for the organization. Not only does it signal that the White House feels able to endorse J Street by sending the vice president, it also demonstrates the extent to which J Street has become legitimized in Washington.
Biden was introduced at length prior to his address by Louis Susman, one of Obama’s main campaign bundlers and a member of J Street’s board. Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Susman was the main individual who persuaded Biden to come to J Street:
Susman joined the board of J Street shortly after returning from London and, according to people I spoke to, was asked by J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, to recruit top-tier administration officials for his conference, something Ben-Ami’s lower-wattage board hadn’t previously been able to do. Biden, who is contemplating a run for president and could use a master bundler like Susman, was said to be eager to participate.
The problem for J Street here, of course, is that while they are evidently becoming more adept at the money game and a better operator in the halls of power, senior government officials—or Joe Biden, at least—do not feel able to fully address J Street in the open, free, and critical manner they might have wanted.
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Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.