by Mel Gurtov
Presidents always face uncomfortable choices: supporting human rights versus providing weapons to governments that consistently violate human rights; adding to the nuclear weapons stockpile versus spending money on social well-being; sanctioning an adversary or working with it.
In the Middle East today, Joe Biden’s choice is between wholeheartedly supporting Israel and doing all he can to protect the innocents in Gaza. He’s trying to do both, but he is not satisfying advocates of either policy.
In Israel, Biden’s pressure on the Netanyahu government to avoid a full-out invasion of Gaza, provide humanitarian aid, and avoid unnecessary civilian casualties are resented by the Israeli far right. It wants 100 percent support, period, and it has a powerful argument: It has been attacked, many innocent lives have been lost, and there are well over 200 hostages.
Nor is Biden’s approach appreciated in Palestinian circles, in Arab countries, in the UN leadership, or by US human rights groups, progressives in Congress, and some officials in his own State Department. They all see his policy as impossibly contradictory: You can’t have an “ironclad” pro-Israel policy and expect to moderate Israel’s actions in Gaza.
The Leverage Problem
The Biden administration is a party to the war but, in fairness, is not at the controls. To be sure, US military aid—jet fighters, drones, and Special Forces—is supporting Israel’s operations in Gaza. But it’s the right-wing government in Tel Aviv that not only wants to decapitate Hamas but also use the war to exert new controls on the Palestinian population, possibly including mass deportation.
Unless Biden is willing to do what no previous US administration has been willing to do—namely, impose severe restrictions on US economic and military aid and political support, subject to Israel’s behavior in Gaza—the administration has very little leverage.
Unwillingness to use US leverage undercuts Biden’s entire Middle East policy. He can’t expect Saudi Arabia to move on normalizing relations with Israel. He can’t expect support from the region or from developing countries for putting pressure on Iran and Hezbollah not to enter the fighting. Nor, at home, can Biden expect understanding from Palestinian and other Muslim communities—or even from progressive Jews—on his current policy.
All these groups see the glaring contradiction, not the logic, of fully supporting Israel while calling for its restraint. They all are calling on the administration to push for a cease-fire.
But Biden, like previous presidents, seems to have given Israel veto power over such calls. Netanyahu has explicitly ruled out a cease-fire until the hostages have been released.
Biden has finally called for a pause “to get the prisoners out,” but not for a cease-fire. Yet only a cease-fire holds out any hope for the release of some hostages, for saving civilian lives in Gaza, for enabling hospitals to treat the wounded, and for opening the way to more substantial humanitarian aid.
The fundamental dilemma that Biden faces is that he is the inheritor of many decades of unqualified US support of Israel. Numerous critics over those years have warned of the consequences of that support, most especially for the deprivation of Palestinian rights and the denial of their statehood aspirations.
Liberals in the US government, notably in Congress, have from time to time tried to tie US aid to Israel’s apartheid policies (as Jimmy Carter called them), but politics at home—the Israel lobby, in short—has always nipped that effort in the bud.
Getting Out of the Bind
I sympathize with Biden’s situation. I believe he and other top US officials are truly concerned about, perhaps even appalled by, the devastation of Gaza and the civilian deaths there. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an impassioned plea for protection of Palestinian civilians in a Washington Post op-ed, saying that “preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is vital to Israel’s security.”
And we know that Biden is no friend of Netanyahu; he probably mistrusts any assurances Netanyahu has given him about trying to limit civilian losses of life and property. Yet as the New York Times recently described, Biden has a long and deeply personal history of support for Israel—so much so that “a longtime Israeli official more recently called him ‘the first Jewish president.’”
He has made numerous trips to Israel and has met with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meier. No doubt Biden can count on considerable financial support for his presidential campaign from Jewish organizations.
All these ties only tighten the bind he’s in, not least because they increase his difficulty in dealing with members of Congress and State Department officials who are now sharply critical of his policy. They don’t see the choices he is making as either wise or humane.
What they, and we, do see every day is video and photographs of deadly bombardments that are making Gaza a moonscape and killing scores of innocent people with every strike.
The only way Joe Biden can break the bind is to do the courageous thing, which is also the right thing: join those calling for a cease-fire in order to save lives, including those of the hostages and Gaza’s population; and support a “safe Israel beside a safe Palestinian state” as essential to the long-term security of both.