Joe Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s Gaza onslaught could come back to haunt him

The US president is failing his first big foreign policy test

May 18, 2021
A building in Gaza housing AP and Al Jazeera collapsed after an Israeli missile strike. Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
A building in Gaza housing AP and Al Jazeera collapsed after an Israeli missile strike. Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

There was a striking boast in Benjamin Netanyahu’s 16th May statement defending Israel’s devastating military onslaught on Gaza, delivered even as the casualties (at least 212 Palestinian and 12 Israeli deaths so far) were mounting by the hour. The Israeli prime minister confidently asserted that “we are receiving very serious backing, first of all from the US” and thanked “our friend President Joe Biden” for providing it. This seemed a reasonable inference from Biden’s bland public response on 12th May that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was initially relatively low priority for the incoming Biden administration—understandably, perhaps, given how much it had drained the time and attention of the president’s last few predecessors. It’s ironic, therefore, that it is now posing his first big foreign policy test.

The test might have been less severe had his advisers seen—and, ideally, urged him to act on—the warning signs, including aggressive Israeli policing in and around the Old City of Jerusalem which culminated in the wounding of 205 Palestinians (and 17 police officers) as 70,000 gathered at Al Aqsa Mosque for the last Friday prayers of Ramadan. This coincided with mounting protests—intensified by the counter-presence of Jewish extremists—against the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the homes they had occupied for decades in the nearby East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Israeli settlers.  

The US administration’s Israel-Palestine watchers cannot have been unaware of the combustible political context—on both sides—of these events. In Israel, Netanyahu, on trial for corruption charges which he denies, and who sees survival in office as both a political and personal imperative, was determined to prevent what looked like the imminent formation of an alternative government which would have excluded him from power. Whether or not he helped to foment it, the crisis has already succeeded in detaching his right-wing rival Naftali Bennet from that putative coalition, probably fatally for its prospects. The other key player in that formation, the centrist Yair Lapid, has pointedly remarked that if such a government had been formed, no one would have to ask themselves “why the fire always breaks out precisely when it’s most convenient for the prime minister.”

On the Palestinian side, by refusing to allow voting in Jerusalem during the elections planned for 22nd May, Israel gave President Mahmoud Abbas the pretext he may well have wanted to call them off. But it was bound to anger the Palestinian public, hungering for their first vote of any kind in 15 years. Nor did the US apply any pressure on Israel not to give Abbas such a pretext, as President George W Bush successfully did in 2006. Two new breakaway parties from Abbas's political party, Fatah—one led by Marwan Barghouti, in jail for his part in the lethal second intifada and easily the most popular candidate for the future presidency—would have further dented support for the already disliked Palestinian president. A Hamas victory in Gaza was not certain either, since both breakaways offered a plausible alternative to both it and Abbas’s faction.

All this—and most immediately the events at Al Aqsa—afforded Hamas an excuse to launch the first of the 3,200 rockets it has fired at Israel. This attack triggered what was easily the most terrifying Israeli assault on Gaza since the 51-day Operation Protective Edge in 2014. There has also been dangerous violence between Jews and Arabs in Lod and other ethnically mixed towns in Israel.

Hamas’s targeting and killing of civilian Israelis in defiance of international law cannot be justified. But that hardly absolves Israel from its own obligations in a military operation which has already killed scores of civilians as well as militant Palestinians and, even if as collaterally as Israel claims, pulverised high-rise buildings and wrecked infrastructure on which the already-impoverished Gazans depend for water, sanitation and, above all, electricity. The weekend saw the deaths of eight young cousins and their mothers in a single air strike on a refugee camp. Even if that did not move those US legislators urging Biden to continue unswerving support for Israel, they can hardly have failed to notice the destruction of the offices of the US’ own leading news agency Associated Press, or the affecting account of fleeing them, in which Fares Akram, AP’s outstanding correspondent (whom—full disclosure—I have known for over 12 years) says there is now “no safe place” in Gaza.

The US has exceptional power to influence Israel. That power is constrained by the greater role Israel plays in US domestic politics than in any other western democracy, including through the millions of dollars poured into political campaigns by AIPAC, a body vastly more representative of Israel than it is of mainly Democrat-voting US Jews. But there are signs of gradual change, with some progressive Democrats now prepared to challenge unequivocal support for Israel “right or wrong.” A majority of Democratic senators have called for an immediate ceasefire, echoing Senator Bernie Sanders, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed last week that “while Hamas firing rockets into Israeli communities is absolutely unacceptable, today’s conflict did not begin with those rockets.”

He is right. As Sanders points out, those Sheikh Jarrah evictions are “just one part of a broader system of political and economic oppression”—a half-century occupation deepened by the creeping de facto annexation of the West Bank and the crippling 15-year siege of Gaza. And while ultra-nationalist right-wing figures like the racist settler Itamar Ben Gvir, courted by Netanyahu for his coalition, have been licensed by four years of Trump’s indulgence, what makes life, in Sanders’s word, “intolerable” for Palestinians is far deeper and longer-standing than that.

The problem with Biden’s efforts to sidestep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it isn’t going to go away when the current carnage ends. It may well get even worse, inevitably entangling his administration all the more. The Carnegie Endowment’s Zaha Hassan and the US Middle East Project’s Daniel Levy have argued in Foreign Policy not for the revival of a top-down “peace process,” but for a new US focus on advancing the rights of Palestinians to freedom, security and livelihood, chronically denied to them by Israel. Such an approach would chime with Biden’s commendable human rights agenda in other parts of the world; while without it, Levy and Hassan suggest, it’s not hard to imagine the refrain in Beijing: “You say Uighurs, we say Palestinians.”  

Biden has now—cautiously—expressed his support for a ceasefire. But this is hardly the pressure the crisis demands. He has repeated his “Israel’s right to defend itself” mantra while continuing to protect Israel at the UN Security Council. If—and it’s still an ominously huge if—Biden is prepared to use his undoubted leverage over Israel, easily the strongest party, to secure a desperately needed and immediate Gaza ceasefire, US engagement could help to arrest further deterioration of an already incendiary conflict. If not, it will come back to haunt him again.

Read more: Road to nowhere: Behind the headlines in Israel/Palestine