Regardless of who originated the pithy observation that the Vice Presidency of the United States is not worth a bucket of warm spit (or, perhaps, some other bodily fluid), there was once more than a grain of truth embedded in the remark. Until the middle of the twentieth century, VPs had been seen rather than heard and were rarely in the loop on anything immediate or consequential. That organizational structure, for better or worse, is no longer the case; vice presidents have ceased to sit unnoticed in the shadows but have become an authority that can no longer be ignored.
It would therefore be foolhardy to disrespect a sitting vice president or to regard the office that he or she inhabits as being unworthy of attention. Particularly now, specifically. President Biden is way past his prime and is most certainly no longer as sure footed or sound of mind as he once was; it’s fair to say, then, that Vice President Kamala Harris’s proximity to the Oval Office is a bit closer than the proverbial heartbeat away. The world – and Israel – cannot discount the possibility that she might be called upon to complete Mr. Biden’s current term and, well, who knows what might happen beyond that. If media outlets have obituaries on file for the president, it’s equally likely that there are comprehensive political biographies of VP Harris should she be called on to take the presidential oath of office.
The obvious concerns center around the readiness and preparedness of a vice president to enter the Oval Office should the sitting president no longer have that ability – for whatever reason. President Franklin Roosevelt, stricken with polio and not in the best of health, undoubtedly struggled with that question when he insisted that the vice presidents that served under him participate in cabinet-level meetings, something that was, for the most part, unprecedented. Nonetheless, Harry Truman, the vice president who assumed the presidency after FDR passed away, confessed that he felt altogether unprepared for the responsibility the Constitution required him to undertake. Here was the beginning of a major shift in the sharing of knowledge if not power between Number One and Number Two. Leaving the vice president unprepared to respond to a hotline call at three in the morning is as reckless as leaving the military with no commander in chief. And while not all of those who have been in second-in-command since 1946 can be described as, well, presidential, POTUS, I suspect, now keeps few secrets from VPOTUS.
Locally, it’s no secret that there is little affection between Israel and the White House. Our government is well aware of President Biden’s concerns over the proposed judicial reforms that have been the center of debate for the last six months or so, and caution from the coalition has been exercised not to engage in a potentially harmful dialog with the administration on this issue. Both the president and vice president have been, it seems, taking their cues from legal and economic advisors who have not been shy about expressing disdain for the reforms that are being promoted by the Netanyahu government. If anything, the current residents of the White House have been peripheral but nonetheless vocal supporters of the anti-reform demonstrations that have been taking place virtually non-stop since the onset of the current coalition.
In and of itself, this is not particularly disturbing. Differences in policy and protocol between the US and Israel are by no means unheard of, but they have involved, for the most part, activities related to the settlements and Palestinian rights to self-determination. That the president began to take sides in what is for all practical purposes domestic legislation requires neither political nor financial support from the United States goes well behind the perimeter of friendship and cooperation enjoyed by our two counties. Nevertheless, the situation has escalated and, not surprisingly, the Vice President has, too, decided to rumble.
Her recent and pointedly barbed remarks regarding the reforms caused, understandably, a bit of consternation in Jerusalem. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, somewhat unwisely, decided that he was not able to refrain from responding to the Vice President’s public and reported on comments. In the end, it turned out to be much ado about nothing, but FM Cohen’s recklessness cannot be overlooked. It makes little sense for anyone in Israel’s current coalition to go toe-to-toe with Mrs. Harris; the last thing Israel needs is to deal with a democratic administration that is even less welcoming than the current one. It’s more than a little troubling that our foreign minister appears to be oblivious to this reality. I’m not too familiar with Mr. Cohen’s experience or background, but I’ll wager that diplomacy is not one of his stronger attributes. Like many of Mr. Netanyahu’s appointments, political loyalty rather than professional competency was undoubtedly the principal consideration for the appointment to the post.
The proposed reforms that are the focus of all this controversy have been discussed, debated and dissected extensively. From the Vice President’s point of view, the reforms will remove one of three legs of the stool upon which sound government rests. The foreign minister may indeed be correct that the vice president most likely never took the trouble to read the text of the proposed reforms but relied on staff members for the Reader’s Digest version. Moreover, I suspect she has little patience to hear an official spin on how Israel’s democracy will, if anything, be strengthened by the reforms. It’s much easier to go in the direction of the wind rather than struggle to move in the opposite direction.
All of that, though, matters little. Mr. Cohen and anyone else should simply nod politely and thank the vice president for her insight and opinion. Israel can ill afford to increase the animosity that already exists with those currently in the White House. We may very well need VP Harris’s support when the inevitable showdown with Iran arrives.