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Biden’s Israeli bear hug is a double-edged sword

Biden's bear hug is a double-edged sword

It took 11 days and the death of 256 Palestinians for US President Joe Biden’s preference for a bear hug rather than a sledgehammer approach to get Israel to halt the Gaza bombing in 2021.

Even then, Mr. Biden needed to be blunt and go public to get what he wanted. After 10 days of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and US blocking of condemnatory United Nations Security Council resolutions, Mr. Biden placed his fourth phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in little more than a week.

Mr. Biden advised the Israeli leader that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

When Mr. Netanyahu sought to buy time to continue the bombing, Mr. Biden replied: “Hey man, we’re out of runway here. It’s over.”

Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire a day later.

Mr. Biden’s bear hug approach took its toll on the Palestinians in 2021, but ultimately it worked.

Two years later and 20 days into the most ferocious Israeli air attack on Gaza, likely to be followed by a ground offensive into a besieged strip that has been devastated, the toll of Mr. Biden’s approach is a multitude.

Heart-wrenching scenes of more than 7,000 dead, including 2,000 children, according to Palestinian sources, the closure of hospitals because of a lack of fuel, a blackout due to Gaza running out of energy, unimaginable situations in hospitals lacking electricity and medical supplies that are overrun by patients and displaced persons, and impending hunger as food stocks are depleted.

Pressured by the United States and international public opinion, Israel has agreed to allow humanitarian aid to trickle into Gaza. However, it is too little, and for many too late, and impeded by unrelentless Israeli bombings.

To be sure, 2023 is not 2021. What provoked Israeli ferocity was far more extreme than the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces and the rockets fired at Israeli towns from Gaza by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 2021.

The brutal and wanton killing by Hamas of some 1,400, mostly civilian, Israelis and the kidnapping of some 220 Israeli, dual, and foreign, primarily civilian, nationals was on an unprecedented scale and demonstrated Hamas’ refusal to distinguish between innocent civilians and security and military personnel, a mirror image of Israel’s approach to Gaza. The killings evoked Holocaust associations.

Dehumanizing statements by Israeli officials and calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza reflect the depth of Israeli anger. Coupled with a seemingly blanket US support for Israel, they also reinforced Palestinian suspicions that ridding itself of Palestinians is Israel’s long-standing goal.

Mr. Biden’s bear hug approach and refusal to pressure Israel more forcefully involves a complicated cost-benefit analysis as well as a crucial political battle that could not only drag the United States into another Middle East war but also change the paradigm of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Republican Mike Johnson’s introduction of a bill in Congress supporting Israel that was adopted with an overwhelming majority as his first act as speaker of the US Congress demonstrates domestic restraints on Mr. Biden in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.

Even so, the depth of emotional Israeli public backing for a severe punishment of Hamas calls into question the effectiveness of a bear hug approach unless Israel decides there are reasons of its own to limit or avoid a ground offensive or stop the bloodletting.

Add to that the question of the price both Palestinians and the United States are paying for a go-slow approach. Palestinians pay the price in lives and destruction, the cost to the United States is reputation and geopolitics.

To be sure, Mr. Biden agrees with Mr. Netanyahu that Hamas leaders, commanders, and fighters should be held accountable for the October 7 killings. The problem is that even if the Israeli assault destroys Hamas physically, it will not squash militancy nor Palestinian national aspirations.

Moreover, Mr. Biden’s bear hug approach lends legitimacy to assertions of US hypocrisy, particularly when compared to his statements on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the exception to his tactics that he applies not only to Israel but also in domestic politics.

The notion of hypocrisy undermines the US assertion that it stands for principles and values and perceptions of its reliability as a security partner elsewhere in the Middle East.

Similarly, it has opened the door to a shifting of the Israeli-Palestinian paradigm with Israel’s assertion that Hamas is the equivalent of Islamic State.

The Israeli effort is designed to put the shoe on the other foot.

Two decades after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington sparked a push for “moderate” Islam, the Israeli assertion turns a national conflict into a struggle against religious militancy.

On a visit to Jerusalem to express solidarity with Israel, French President Emmanuel Macron picked up on the Israeli assertion by calling for the military alliance that defeated Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to take on Hamas.

While Hamas’ October 7 rampage resembled Islamic State atrocities, Hamas differs substantially from Islamic State.

It is a militant religious nationalist group, not a transnational jihadist movement seeking a caliphate.

Moreover, Hamas long served Mr. Netanyahu’s effort to keep the Palestinian polity divided between the Gaza group and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank.

Equating Hamas with the Islamic State serves the same purpose as Israel’s visceral response to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterrez’s statement that the Hamas attack “did not happen in a vacuum.”

Israel cannot maintain its occupation of Palestinian lands and rejection of an equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the Hamas attack is explained, not justified, as linked to Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

This week, Mr. Biden insisted that “there’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6,” the day before the Hamas attack.

“That means ensuring that Hamas can no longer terrorize Israel and use Palestinians civilians as human shields. It also means that when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view, it has to be a two-state solution,” an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, Mr. Biden said.

To achieve that, Mr. Biden, the first US president in decades to refrain from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, would have to engage. Bear hugs may not be sufficient to prevent Mr. Biden from becoming the umpteenth president to fail in resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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