Jonathan Lord

Biden hasn’t abandoned Israel, he’s just learned to speak like an Israeli

Tired of being ignored, the US president is using the same blunt talk Israelis use – but never expect to hear from the polite American
US President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 26, 2024. (AP/Matt Kelley, File)
US President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 26, 2024. (AP/Matt Kelley, File)

Since October 7th, President Biden has made clear, time and again, through both word and deed, the US-Israel relationship is “iron-clad.” Ask any IDF general behind closed doors what he needs from the United States to defend Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran that he isn’t getting, and the answer is universally the same: “Klum. Nothing. We are getting everything we need, and everything we ask for.” Beginning with his rhetorical warning of “Don’t” to Iran and its proxies and partners, backed-up by his order to move a massive US military presence into the Middle East region, followed by his dogged pursuit of a defense appropriations supplemental bill with $14 billion of additional support for the defense of Israel, his unprecedented visit to Israel in a time of war, and the vetoing of multiple UN Security Council resolutions inimical to Israeli security interests – Joe Biden should have nothing left to prove to Israelis. He fundamentally believes in the Jewish state and unequivocally stands with Israel.

And yet somehow, despite all he has said and done, some Israelis seem to have their doubts.

After all, how were Israelis to interpret what they saw last week? He sent the country into a panic when they woke last week to CNN clips of an irate Biden threatening to withhold weapons if the IDF invaded Rafah. What did that mean? Before Israelis had gotten their pants on, false rhetoric of “Biden’s arms embargo” had made it half-way around the world, in no small part, promulgated by some of his political opponents exploiting the chance to recast the American president in an anti-Israeli light in this “erev-election season.”

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s “10-points” clarifying the US position, delivered earlier this week, asserted that the Biden administration’s commitment to Israel remains unchanged. Sullivan’s upcoming visit to Israel is no doubt in part to fortify his message of reassurance. If this wasn’t proof enough, President Biden just this week signed off on the transfer of $1 billion-worth of munitions to Israel.

Yet, something has changed. If it’s not America’s enduring commitment to Israeli security, what is it? It’s the tone and tenor of the communication. To Israel’s leaders, Joe Biden has learned to speak dugri.

Throughout the history of the US-Israel relationship, and despite the closeness of that relationship, there has always been a very particular cultural divide that Americans and Israelis have struggled to navigate. To the American ear, Israelis are blunt, brusque, and indelicate. In Israeli slang, it’s known as dugri, which to Israelis, equates to straight talk. It’s not a bad thing in Israeli culture – if anything, it’s how you know you’re being spoken to honestly. In contrast, Israelis hear American politeness and mistake it for evasiveness or equivocation. It is safe to assume that more than once, following any one of the countless bilateral meetings in the history of US-Israeli relations, American officials left the room thinking the Israelis were rude, and the Israelis left wondering what the Americans were trying to hide: “Why don’t they just say what they mean?”

President Biden is saying what he means. His comments last week may have been about Rafah, but they weren’t just about Rafah. For months, Biden and virtually every relevant security official in his administration, has been begging, pleading, cajoling, encouraging, recommending, and even strongly suggesting to their Israeli counterparts that they work with Washington to formulate a plan for governance and security in Gaza. Fed up with being ignored, Biden has started speaking with a blunt directness with which Israelis engage each other every day but are totally unaccustomed to hearing from an American president.

And it worked. This past Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant broke ranks to state his unwillingness to see Israel militarily re-occupy Gaza, and the need “to promote an alternative governing body to Hamas.” Surely, Biden’s remarks weren’t the only factor that shook Gallant loose. There is a growing sentiment within Israeli society that soldiers are now sacrificing their lives without clear strategic purpose, clearing and re-clearing the same territory of Hamas militants.

With any hope, Israel’s government will seize upon the opportunity of Jake Sullivan’s upcoming visit to speak honestly and openly about a model for governance in Gaza that prevents Hamas from reconstituting itself, supports Israel’s long-term security, and enables its continued integration into the region.

They should speak directly and plainly – like America’s dugri president.

About the Author
Jonathan Lord is a senior fellow and the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a former staff member for the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, a former Iraq country director in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and a former political military analyst in the Department of Defense.
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