‘Strategic Empathy’: How Biden’s Informal Diplomacy Shaped Foreign Relations

One of Mr. Biden’s oldest friends among sitting foreign leaders is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whom he has known‚ and argued with, for decades. For a time, the Israeli displayed in his office a photograph from Mr. Biden with the inscription: “Bibi: I don’t agree with you on a damn thing, but I love you — Joe Biden,” according to a Biden aide who saw it.

The relationship was tested when Mr. Biden, on a March 2010 visit to Israel, learned that Mr. Netanyahu’s government had approved 1,600 new housing units for Israelis in Palestinian areas, flagrantly defying American policy. White House officials were furious, and some argued that the vice president should leave the country before a scheduled dinner at Mr. Netanyahu’s home that night.

Mr. Biden stayed on, believing he could reason with the Israeli leader, and over dinner chastised Mr. Netanyahu, who blamed a rogue housing official. “Bibi made all sorts of rationalizations,” said Dennis Ross, a National Security Council aide who was on the trip. “Biden basically rolled his eyes and said something to the effect of, ‘Come on, Bibi — this is Joe. I know what’s going on.’” Mr. Netanyahu agreed to delay the housing construction, and the immediate crisis passed.

Mr. Ross said that Mr. Biden’s method “builds a trust, and then you can say really hard things when you need to — and not just get a brick wall.”

As his long-ago encounter with Mr. Milosevic shows, Mr. Biden can also do confrontation.

That was showcased, a bit uncomfortably, during the Trump impeachment. In 2015, Mr. Biden had browbeaten Ukraine’s leaders to fire a corrupt federal prosecutor as a condition for a $1 billion American loan guarantee. “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,’” Mr. Biden said in a 2018 public appearance. Mr. Trump seized on the remarks to suggest, without evidence, that Mr. Biden had acted improperly.