In the summer of 1973, the newly elected Senator Joseph Biden made his first foreign trip to Israel. He met Prime Minister Golda Meir and was "awestruck." To this day, he calls it "one of the most consequential and memorable meetings of my life."
The Senator and I had a far less consequential meeting over dinner one night in Jerusalem. He had spent the day in the West Bank and wanted to talk about it. I was a former West Bank staff officer in the Israeli army, around his age and a fellow American-speaker. A senior official hooked us up.
Biden was very open and personal that night. He talked about his wife's fatal accident with tears in his eyes. He teared up again talking about his love for Israel. I recall thinking he was somewhat over the top. My wife was taken with his smile.
He has retained an affection for Israel, but he is no longer a neophyte. Compared to George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, he is an old Middle East hand, a Democrat but not an idealist. While much is made of the closeness between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, Biden is likely to differ more in tone than in substance.
The Middle East is not high on Biden's list of priorities. But the Middle East has a way of imposing itself suddenly on US Presidents. Jimmy Carter was not expecting a hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 that lasted 444 days. George W. Bush came to office thinking about education reform and got pushed into the region by 9/11. Obama believed he could, with personal charm and soft power, turn the Arab world into a place where human rights and democracy are honored.
That approach had dire consequences for US interests and prestige. Obama failed to enforce his own "red line" against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He overestimated the promise of the Arab Spring, abandoned US ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and recognized a Muslim Brotherhood regime in his place. Obama's failures in Libya made America look weak.
Worst of all, the U.S promoted a nuclear deal with Iran that was perceived by the major Arab Sunni states and Israel as a direct threat to their national security.
Donald Trump, helped by ripening diplomatic conditions and an astute understanding of American economic and military power, left his successor a with a much better hand. How will Biden play it? Cautiously, I think, and without illusions.
The new president understands the value of the Sunni-Israeli alliance and he will attempt to nurture it. That means dealing with Iran. The trick is to resuscitate the defunct Iran nuclear deal by tacitly admitting that it was insufficient, even if Obama and his then Secretary of State John Kerry will find that difficult to swallow. But if Biden accepts a limitation on its offensive missiles, ends its subversive activities in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and agrees to a tougher (and longer term) nuclear inspection regime, it is likely that Netanyahu, or a successor, will be at the table.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas got off on the wrong foot with Biden by demanding the US return its embassy to Tel Aviv. This isn't going to happen. If the Palestinian Liberation Organization insists on stonewalling (or joining a coalition with Hamas) there isn't much Biden can do for the Palestinians beyond restoring US aid to Ramallah, reopening the PLO office in Washington and perhaps renewing the US consulate in East Jerusalem. Absent real pressure (of the kind even Obama didn't exert), however, Israel will not make concessions that go far beyond the Trump Plan. It is possible Jerusalem could accept a freeze on West Bank settlements, but only if it is presented as a first step toward a deal.
In short, President Biden should try to do things that can be done: peace deals between Israel and more Arab states, starting with Saudi Arabia; a new Iran agreement that satisfies Israeli and Sunni concerns; a continued fight against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Africa; and a regional understanding with Russia. These are not beyond the grasp of an experienced and realistic President, especially one who comes equipped with a calm disposition, a modest set of goals and a killer smile.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.