Eric R. Terzuolo
International affairs scholar and practitioner

Can we manage a US/Israel quid pro quo?

US President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 26, 2024. (AP/Matt Kelley, File)
US President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 26, 2024. (AP/Matt Kelley, File)

In a previous post, I suggested that US president Biden’s verbal escalation against Israel following the tragic death of the World Central Kitchen volunteers might presage stronger US efforts to leverage its aid to Israel to secure policy changes. That is exactly what we are seeing.

The official, public White House record of the Biden-Netanyahu telephone conversation on April 4 is brief, befitting the measure of confidentiality that is required for such conversations. But the message is clear. After stating that strikes on civilian aid workers and the overall humanitarian situation in Gaza are “unacceptable,” the US president “made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.” Biden was explicit if not detailed in stating that  “U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.” We are clearly in quid pro quo territory here.

This was clearly understood on the Israeli side and almost certainly expected. Despite complaints by National Security Minister Ben Gvir about the decision-making process, the package of measures, e.g. opening up Ashdod Port and the Erez Crossing, announced following the Netanyahu-Biden call, looks pre-cooked. And the announcement of the dismissal of two IDF officers found responsible for the deaths of the World Central Kitchen volunteers was certainly timely.

Kudos for anticipating events and preparing appropriate responses. I think The Bulwark, a publication by anti-Trump former Republicans, offered a headline that captured the spirit of this particular quid pro quo: “Biden Demands Israeli Changes on Aid – And Gets Some.” It looks like we are heading down the incrementalist path.

In its support for Ukraine, for example, the Biden Administration has shown an almost obsessive incrementalism. There is strong faith, which I attribute particularly to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in Washington’s ability to temper its actions with great precision, always just enough but not too much. Fear of provoking Russia, or simply appearing to provoke it, runs high, as documented in a valuable recent volume that the Johns Hopkins University Press is kindly making available for free.

The situation with respect to Israel is not the same, but just as incrementalism in helping Ukraine has run into problems, managing an incrementalist path to avoid a major collapse in US-Israel relations will not be simple. The interests of the two parties are far from identical, and the weighting of interests is different.

My rather simplistic view, as a former US diplomat and student of international relations, is that the Biden Administration is fighting a war for national and international public opinion, and internally for the support of an increasingly fractious political class and electorate, with strains of isolationism and anti-Israel sentiment much more visible than was the case until quite recently. The Administration  fundamentally wants to support Israel, but also demands Israel’s help in creating a public opinion and political environment that helps the Administration do so.

I claim no special expertise regarding Israel, but it is a state facing an existential threat of a sort the US simply is not facing. The security calculus, something I do know about, is always different in the presence of existential threats. I also ask myself whether the dramatic international outpouring of anti-Israel vitriol, and media coverage that seems to wipe October 7, 2023 from the calendar, aren’t creating a sense in Israel that it has lost the information war no matter what it does. Others, though, have more warrant to speak of this than I.

Still, if I’m not seriously misjudging things, incrementally adjusting Israeli policies enough to give the Biden Administration what it is looking for, and what it needs, may prove very difficult. With a tight and crucial election coming up, Biden is worried about defections from constituencies that normally lean Democratic. He called on Netanyahu for an “immediate ceasefire” without clearly identifying hostage release as a precondition. This suggests the White House staff has been reading the signs in front of numerous Washington, DC houses, calling for a total Gaza ceasefire right away. They may see risks in the core Democratic constituency, highly-educated and fairly well-off people, not quite the working-class Democratic voters of yore. Ceasefire pressure from Washington seems likely to grow. But Israel’s resistance to ceasefires without hostage release is well documented and highly understandable to anyone who studies security issues.

Concerns about those aged 18-29 and about Muslim voters seem especially acute, as numerous “Uncommitted” votes in the Michigan and Wisconsin Democratic primaries and polling data suggest. There is a serious risk that these can become “maximalist” voters focused on Gaza and turn their backs on a pragmatic “lesser of two evils” approach, focused on keeping Trump out of the White House. Are there concessions Israel could make, consistent with its own bottom line security and continued existence, that actually would help Biden pull back these at-risk U.S. voters? I have a hard time seeing it.

At this point, one should hope that U.S. and Israeli leaders are able to remain on a path where the differing needs of both sides are met. This means clearly articulating one’s own red lines and respecting those of the other. It’s not easy, and pressure to “just get it over with” is mounting.

About the Author
Eric Terzuolo is an international affairs scholar and practitioner based in Washington, DC. Among his assignments as a US Foreign Service officer, he served at the US embassies in Beirut and Damascus (1983-84) and represented the United States at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2001-03). He has taught international relations at universities in the US and Europe and published widely, including in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the National Interest, and The Hill.
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