Biden’s dangerous stance on the war in Israel and Gaza

American and Israeli flags on display in Statler Park in Boston, MA on Friday October 20, 2023.
American and Israeli flags on display in Statler Park in Boston, MA on Friday October 20, 2023. In addition, a large sign with a combined America and Israeli flag that says "I Stand With Israel" is on display. (Photo by Jason Bergman / Sipa USA)

President Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel throughout his long political career. Yet it has been stunning to watch his seeming tolerance of the calamity that has been visited on the people of Gaza and his reluctance to condemn the actions behind it. Biden was rightly lauded for reaching out to Israelis after Hamas’ horrific attack killed and wounded thousands of Israelis, mostly civilians, including many children, and took over 200 hostages. He signaled support for a people under attack during a moment of pain and vulnerability, displaying timely solidarity. Nothing justifies targeting or recklessly endangering civilians, which also constitutes war crimes.

But since that first moment, many of the president’s actions have been misguided, even dangerous. They serve neither Israeli nor Palestinian long-term interests, and they threaten to undermine the U.S. national interest.

The failure of private counsel

One charitable take on Biden’s approach, privately encouraged by some administration officials, is that Biden’s full public support for Israel, without loud, overt calls for restraint, is tactical: to gain leverage with Israeli leaders in the hope of influencing them, while counseling restraint privately. But if this is the intent, the outcome has been a demonstrable failure.

Despite Biden’s full support for Israel, including a trip to the country, during which he described himself as a “Zionist” and joined a meeting of Israel’s war cabinet, his chief accomplishment has been to get a few truckloads of aid to Gaza. If the president counseled Israel to be restrained in its bombing and to avoid a ground attack on Gaza, as has been reported, there is little evidence the Israeli government is taking his advice. Yet this has not stopped Biden from seeking $14 billion of support for Israel’s war effort, which speaks louder than private or public words.

Furthermore, despite the president’s plea to Americans to reject anti-Palestinian sentiments, his posture on the violence has in practice legitimized Israeli actions that are causing immense human suffering. The president’s public support for Israeli actions that have rendered thousands dead and wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced has served to dehumanize Palestinians in the eyes of the public.

The president went further in his remarks on October 25, challenging the reported number of Palestinian casualties because, he said, he had  “no confidence in the number the Palestinians are using.” He also downplayed the thousands of civilian casualties as “the price of waging war.” Though Biden has expressed sorrow for the humanitarian crisis, he has often spoken about it as if it were a result of a natural disaster, not the outcome of ruthless actions, using U.S.-supplied weapons and funds, that he has not condemned.

Reflecting a broader mood in much of the Arab world and Global South, King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close American ally, declared in response, “The message … is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries — they stop at borders, they stop at races, and they stop at religions.”

Wishful thinking and tone deafness

A U.S. strategy hoping that Palestinians and other Arabs would be so struck by the awfulness of Hamas’ attack that they would be angrier with the group than with Israel is a fantasy. For such a strategy to have had any chance at all, it would have to offer a credible path toward freedom from 56 years of occupation. Unfortunately, Biden’s policy preceding Hamas’ attack added significantly to the prevalent Palestinian despair in the West Bank and Gaza, including among those who want nothing to do with Hamas and were not under its rule.

The rise of the far-right Israeli government, which had made no secret of its intent to continue depriving Palestinians of their rights, was accompanied by the construction of more illegal Israeli settlements and rising settler violence against Palestinians. Biden did little to defend them or offer a credible path forward. Instead of working to end settlements, his administration worked hard to shield their expansion at the United Nations. Instead of seeking to use the last “big” Arab leverage with Israel — possible peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia — as a lever to end decades of occupation, Biden prioritized mediating a deal that would leave occupation intact. He fueled Palestinian despair instead of hope. It was improbable that Palestinians and Arabs would broadly and suddenly trust what Biden had to sell.

What does “destroying Hamas” mean?

The Biden administration’s complete support for the Israeli aim of “destroying Hamas” seems understandable, given Hamas’ actions. But in practice, it is far more problematic than the president and his administration appear to appreciate. It is possible to weaken and hurt Hamas but Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is ultimately a political one — the violence will not end until Palestinians get their freedom. In the short term, the stated military aim of destroying Hamas at any cost has put the fighting on a path toward a large escalation that could easily draw the United States into a regional war.

As president of the United States, Biden cannot afford to back Israel’s total freedom of action in Gaza. He cannot assume that Israeli aims fully coincide with those of the United States. As Biden himself had noted, this is the most extreme government in Israel’s history, with prominent Jewish supremacist ministers whose stated aims conflict with both U.S. interests and values and seek an opportunity to expel Palestinians from what they see as the land of Israel, including Gaza. And Netanyahu is known to have attempted over the years to draw the United States into a war with Iran, something that’s decidedly not in the United States’ interests.

Biden is probably right in assuming that neither Lebanon’s Hezbollah nor Iran has an interest in getting into a full war with Israel, despite the limited but increasing Israel-Hezbollah skirmishes in recent days. The assumption is that the deployment of U.S. assets, including two aircraft carrier strike groups, would also act as deterrence. But those assumptions could be rendered useless by the seemingly reasonable, Biden-backed aim of “destroying” Hamas.

After more than two weeks of fighting, Hamas has not been destroyed. In his speech to the nation last Friday, Biden seemed to imply that Hamas has yet to pay a “price” for its crimes. Yet Gazan civilians certainly are. About half of Gazans have been reportedly displaced; many thousands, including children, have been killed and wounded; and conditions at hospitals are catastrophic.

If destroying Hamas is possible at all, it would probably entail destroying Gaza itself. The moral implications alone, not to mention the severe violations of international law, should be enough to reject this mission. But put these considerations aside for a minute; also put aside the result of a devastated Gaza with hundreds of thousands of desperate and angry refugees who will surely blame Israel and the United States, giving rise to new militancy. There are more immediate consequences for U.S. interests that cannot be ignored.

“He who strikes first is better off”

The first is that the ongoing fight to destroy Hamas and the resulting humanitarian horrors could draw Hezbollah and Iran into the fight. One reason is that the scale of destruction and casualties makes it increasingly hard for them to stay out. This goes to the heart of their regional posture as the parties able to stand up to Israel, and as allies of Hamas.

Perhaps a bigger reason is that the stated aims of Israeli actions, coupled with Hamas’ early operational success in its attack on Israel, have given rise to a perception of the primacy of the offense: the notion that he who strikes first is better off.

Hamas surprised the Israelis and inflicted high casualties. Israel and Hezbollah are drawing their own conclusions about the benefits of going on the offense in a possible fight between them. Like Hezbollah, Israelis prefer to avoid a simultaneous war on their northern front. As for Hezbollah, it likely fears that if Israel is allowed to destroy Hamas — and Gaza along the way — Israel will turn to Hezbollah next, free of battling Hamas at the same time. Such a conflict could draw the United States and Iran into the fight with devastating results.

Biden’s decisions may inadvertently set in motion a process of escalation he will increasingly be unable to control. President Barack Obama managed to avoid being pulled into a war with Iran by prioritizing the Iran nuclear deal in his second term. And despite President Donald Trump’s one-sided support for Israel on the Palestinian issue, he also managed to resist a possible war with Iran during his last months in office, served well by his aversion to major conflicts. Given Biden’s posture in Israel and Gaza so far, can we be as confident that he will keep us out of another unnecessary and devastating war in the Middle East? Not if he doesn’t urgently shift course, starting by seeking a cease-fire.