Biden’s Increasingly Contradictory Israel Policy

For months, the White House has criticized Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, with President Biden himself calling the offensive “over the top” and the bombing “indiscriminate.” But the President has continued to insure that Israel is supplied with weapons and aid. This mixture of rebuke and support has led to increasing confusion about what exactly

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

For months, the White House has criticized Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, with President Biden himself calling the offensive “over the top” and the bombing “indiscriminate.” But the President has continued to insure that Israel is supplied with weapons and aid. This mixture of rebuke and support has led to increasing confusion about what exactly his Administration is trying to accomplish. Just last week, the U.S. declined to block a United Nations resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. (In response, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, postponed a planned visit of an Israeli delegation to Washington.) The resolution expressed “deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip,” and yet, within days, the Biden Administration declared that Israel has not been found to have violated international law in its use of American weapons. On Friday, the Washington Post reported that, despite the government’s public warnings about Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinian refugees have sought shelter, the U.S. has authorized the transfer of billions of dollars’ worth of more military equipment to Israel.

To talk about the American-Israeli relationship and the Biden Administration’s goals, I recently spoke by phone with Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, and formerly a State Department official who played a role in Middle East peace negotiations, most notably at the end of the Clinton Administration. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what’s behind the Biden policy, the aims of Israel’s war in Gaza, and why American Presidents are so reluctant to cause serious conflict with Israeli leaders.

I have been asked many times recently, by friends and colleagues, what the Administration’s policy is regarding the war in Gaza. I don’t really have an answer. What’s yours?

The policy has evolved, but I think there were two broad objectives. No. 1, containment, to insure that this conflict does not spread and evolve into a regional war. By and large, the Administration’s been relatively successful in containing this conflict. The second involves what to do about the conflict itself. This is not the October War, where within three weeks you had a ceasefire, and American pressure and persuasion resulted in three disengagement agreements that would ultimately lead to Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, making a trip to Jerusalem.

This was the war in October of 1973 between Israel and Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria.

Exactly. That was a conflict between states that were amenable, particularly in Sadat’s case. He had a strategy. This conflict is between an established state—a close American ally—and an organization that went on a terror rampage on October 7th, willfully and indiscriminately killing, and sexually abusing, and then grabbing at least two hundred and fifty hostages. So the notion that you could somehow be an objective observer and de-escalate and create some sort of modus vivendi between Israel and Hamas—that was not the Administration’s take.

President Biden, both for emotional reasons and for political reasons, and I think for practical policy reasons, fundamentally tethered himself to Israeli war aims, which is to insure that Hamas, as a military organization, is never in a position to pull off another October 7th, or to threaten those communities near Gaza with high-trajectory weapons or cross-border incursions. Biden deeply shares that objective, and Israel’s other objective, which is to end Hamas sovereignty in Gaza.

Right now it seems like the Biden Administration is trying to pressure Israel not to launch a military assault on Rafah and to allow in more humanitarian aid. At the same time, it has shown an unwillingness to take strong steps to punish Israel or to restrict the flow of aid or weapons to Israel if the Israelis disregard that pressure. How do you understand the strategy now?

I’d call the Biden Administration’s approach “passive-aggressive.” They are angry at Netanyahu, and were even before this. He’s presiding over the most extreme government in the history of the state of Israel. That government and the preceding dozen years of Netanyahu’s tenure are undermining the two fundamental drivers of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which are shared values and common interests. So, it’s passive-aggressive in the sense that, six months into the war, the Administration has still been unwilling—unable—to impose a single cost or consequence that you and I, as normal human beings, would describe as real pressure.

Unable or unwilling?

Both, but I’ll get to that in a second. There were three levers the Administration could’ve pulled. They’re still available. No. 1 is to end U.S. military assistance. There’s no indication the Administration’s anywhere close to that. It just approved a shipment of two-thousand-pound bombs, and twenty F-35s. No. 2, change the U.S. voting posture at the U.N., either by introducing its own Security Council resolution, or by voting for someone else’s, that is very critical of Israel. It has not done that. No. 3, abandon the whole notion of negotiating the hostage release and simply join the chorus of those in the international community who basically say, “You need to pressure Israel to cease this military campaign.”

And I think it has not done these things for three reasons. No. 1, Joe Biden, alone among modern American Presidents, has an emotional relationship with the idea of Israel, the people of Israel, the security of Israel. Then, there is the politics. And, yes, the President is hemorrhaging support among progressives and more than a few mainstream Democrats, but pressing Israel, using this leverage, particularly on military systems, is going to stir up a hornet’s nest among Republicans, conservatives, and the presumptive Republican nominee, who fashions himself as the most pro-Israel President in history. The Republican Party has emerged as the Israel-Can-Do-No-Wrong Party.

And the third I find the most compelling: If Biden is going to change the picture in Gaza before the Democratic National Convention, if he’s going to find a way to de-escalate Israel’s military campaign, surge humanitarian and ultimately reconstruction assistance into Gaza, and free any of the hostages, he cannot do it by renouncing, calling out, or creating any sustained public breach with this Israeli Prime Minister. And everything that he has done and not done has convinced me that that is his objective. The Biden Administration recognizes that this is not Joe Biden against Benjamin Netanyahu. It is not as if Benny Gantz, members of the war cabinet, and most of the political élites are not completely in tune with Netanyahu’s war strategy. If Biden wants to change the picture, he can’t completely renounce the Israeli government. No one in the Administration wants a major breach.

Does Biden want to make a point, Isaac, or does he want to make a difference?

When you say that Biden wants to make a difference, not a point, what do you mean? A difference to what?

To change the situation on the ground in Gaza. That is the President and the Administration’s prime—if you’re a Star Trek fan—directive. That’s what’s hurting the President morally; that’s what’s hurting the President politically. If he renounces Netanyahu and goes to war with him—

But they haven’t accomplished not going to war with him, either.

Exactly, and I’m not here to argue that this is going to work. Israel is not fighting Switzerland, Isaac. Israel is engaged in a major war with a terrorist group that holds around a hundred and thirty hostages, including some Americans.

When you say Israel’s not fighting Switzerland, and Hamas is not Switzerland, I understand the point you’re making. But I don’t really understand why that has to include intentionally starving the Palestinian population.

I don’t think that’s the way the Administration sees it.

Are they reading the news?

No, I’m not saying [trails off]. By May, the World Food Programme and others suggest that half the population of Gaza may be on the verge of what they call catastrophic starvation.

Sir, you’re a smart guy. It’s pretty clear what’s going on: Israel does not want to allow humanitarian aid for starving people. I don’t really understand what that has to do with whether Hamas is Switzerland or not.

What is the most effective way? That’s the question. The fact that Hamas isn’t Switzerland is the political point, which limits and constrains the degree to which the Administration can use its leverage on Israel. That’s my point. I’m not denying how bad the situation is for 2.3 million Gazans. What I’m suggesting is, because of the politics in Israel, because most of the Israeli public couldn’t care less about the population in Gaza as long as they hold hostages, you wouldn’t have had an iota of assistance—no crossing points opened in the north, Rafah would not have opened, Kerem Shalom would not have opened—without the Administration pressing the Israelis.

Read More