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Biden And Bibi Go Way Back: The Fraught Friendship Between 2 Leaders

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A fragile cease-fire is still in place in the Middle East. After 11 days of explosive conflict between Israel and Hamas, President Joe Biden yesterday made his first major remarks about the fighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Folks, I've just spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Earlier today, I spoke with President al-Sisi of Egypt.

SHAPIRO: Biden said he and his team had engaged in quiet, relentless diplomacy and hour-by-hour discussions with regional leaders, including six calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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BIDEN: I commended him for the decision to bring the current hostilities to a close within less than 11 days. I also emphasized what I've said throughout this conflict - the United States fully supports Israel's right to defend itself.

SHAPIRO: These conversations are the latest chapter in a relationship between Biden and Netanyahu that has spanned seven American presidencies. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote a biography of Joe Biden, and he's here to guide us through the way these two leaders have dealt with each other over the decades. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start in the early 1980s, when Netanyahu was deputy chief of mission, second in command at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and Biden was a young senator. How did they get to know each other?

OSNOS: Well, at that point, Biden had gotten to the Senate and become interested in foreign affairs and especially in Israel. I mean, he met the prime minister, Golda Meir, in 1973, just when he was barely 30 years old. And that was the beginning for him of an education of a kind about the complexities in the Middle East. And when Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington, these were two people with strong political instincts and a strong sense that they had a long career ahead of them. And they got to know each other. And then Benjamin Netanyahu, of course, went on to become the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. They stayed in contact then. And eventually when he went back and became prime minister, the two of them had sort of been ascending the ranks of their own political systems in parallel, and they stayed in contact ever since.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, as Biden ascended, he became the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, a role that has a major influence on American foreign policy. What was that chapter of their relationship like?

OSNOS: It's been tense, frankly. I mean, they are people who have a fundamental understanding of one another, in the sense that each of them believes that diplomacy is really an extension of domestic politics. You have to understand what the other person's thinking about. What are the pressures that they're under? And the United States and Israel have a - of course, a very close, long-standing relationship. But in policy terms, they have sometimes disagreed about the path to peace and about what Israel believes it needs to do to protect its own security. And so they have differed at times, sometimes quite bluntly.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about one of those specific instances that took place during the Obama administration, when Vice President Biden had a major hand in foreign policy. In 2010, the White House got word that the Israeli government had approved new housing construction in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration was not happy about that. And Biden actually happened to be in Israel at the time.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Vice President Biden, Joe, welcome to Israel and welcome to Jerusalem. We've been personal friends for almost three decades. Could you believe it's been that long?

BIDEN: No, you're getting older, Bibi. I don't know how it's...

NETANYAHU: Well, you remain younger all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So, Evan Osnos, what happened next?

OSNOS: It was very awkward. I mean, on the ground, Vice President Biden was under a tremendous amount of pressure. He was being advised, in fact, from the White House that he should leave before having dinner that night with the prime minister. And Biden actually broke with that council and said, no, I'm going to stay here, and what I'll do is publicly criticize the decision that the Israeli government has made, but I want them to know that I am - as he said in a speech on that visit - he had what he called an absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israeli security, at the same time that he was willing to condemn the decision to build settlements.

And so it really gets to the core of his view of this relationship, which is that they can fight bitterly on a Monday and then get together on a Tuesday and begin to try to negotiate again.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's talk about another major disagreement between them, which was - in the lead up to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu strenuously opposed and still does, Biden went out of his way to play up his chumminess with Netanyahu.

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BIDEN: Now, Ron (ph), you better damn well report to Bibi that we're still buddies. And I'm, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: You got it, right?

SHAPIRO: So, Evan, what impact did the nuclear deal ultimately have on their personal relationship?

OSNOS: Well, the relationship between their administrations was very tense. And Biden actually became what one Israeli ambassador described as the primary conduit to the White House in that period. And it's worth pointing out that even at the same time that Biden and Israeli diplomats and political leaders were having a lot of contact, Biden has also been quite clear, as he once has said publicly - in fact, he inscribed it on a photograph to Benjamin Netanyahu. He said, Bibi, I don't agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk more about what that says about the dynamic between these two men. I mean, the fact that such a strong personal relationship could underlie so many decades of disagreement on issue after issue after issue.

OSNOS: In a sense, this comes down to the fact that each one of them believes that they are representing the interests of their own country. Biden often says - when he goes in to a meeting with a foreign leader, one of the things he tells his staff beforehand is, I cannot go in there unless I really understand what's going through that person's mind. And as a result, he tries to understand, what are their domestic political opportunities? What risks are they willing to take? And he's not going to push somebody faster or farther than he thinks they're willing to go, partly because he believes it'll undermine his own position, his own ability to try to bring them to an agreement later. So he's constantly sort of regulating how much pressure he can and can't apply.

SHAPIRO: So in this conflict, each man has been trying to manipulate the other in service of their own goals. Arguably, that's been the dynamic over all these decades that we're talking about. Who do you think has done that more effectively in this chapter - Netanyahu or Biden?

OSNOS: Well, I would say that at the outset, the thing that the Biden administration was most concerned about was a repeat of what happened in 2014, when - you remember, of course, it was a bitter conflict that went on for more than 50 days. It cost the lives of 2,300, at least, Palestinians and at least 60 Israelis. And there was a real fear that it could go like that this time, and they were trying to prevent that. Biden's view was that he couldn't push Benjamin Netanyahu too far, too fast because if the Israelis simply said no, if they defied the American call to bring military operations to an end, that would be a rupture.

And so what they did is they paced it out, and they raised the pressure over the course of this - closing in on two weeks. And one of the key points that Biden wanted to make was that the domestic political pressure at home on him was rising and that he needed Netanyahu to understand that there was going to come a point in which he could no longer stand by. And I think these two men who have, in fact, had so many dealings over the years, some genial and some very tense, recognize that moment had arrived.

SHAPIRO: You know, I saw one description of Netanyahu that said he views people in the world as either friends or enemies. Do you think Biden genuinely likes the man, or does he realize that it's more useful for him to be perceived as a friend than as an enemy?

OSNOS: Biden loves Israel, is what he loves, and he believes that Benjamin Netanyahu is a part of that puzzle and probably will be for a while, at least as it stands today. And so he doesn't imagine himself having the luxury of not dealing with him. Biden is very much, as we all say sometimes, a pragmatist about these kinds of things. He will deal with the person who is across the table from him, and that person right now is somebody he's known for a long time.

SHAPIRO: Evan Osnos of The New Yorker - his biography of Joe Biden is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Thanks a lot.

OSNOS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.