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Ethan Sirhal

The Great Vacillator: Biden doesn’t understand Israel, nor Jews

A celebration of Israel is no longer a celebration of the international Jewry, a point Joe Biden continues to miss. [Sirhal/2022]

After six months of war in Gaza, the dissonance between Washington and Jerusalem has never been more pronounced. As the American disposition slides toward distrust of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, President Biden seems incapable of presenting a coherent vision for the future of Israel and the Palestinian nation. In an indistinct effort to answer humanitarian demands without alienating pro-Israel hardliners, his administration vacillates endlessly, surrendering face within his own party and among Western progressives. Although Bibi’s political antics exert strain on the US-Israel relationship, Biden’s perfunctory leadership throughout this crisis stems from political diseases that metastasized well before October 7th: political cowardice, and a fundamentally poor understanding of Israel and Jewishness. 

Petty dialogues, such as former-President Trump’s recent comments on Jewish progressives, echo the same vain search afflicting Americans across the political spectrum: the search for the right Jew. To their credit, the confusion is exacerbated by Israeli division on the topic of Jewishness, non-Jewishness, and the manifest of the Israeli state. Despite taking the back-burner in domestic coverage, MK Simcha Rothman’s judicial overhaul project brought these to the surface at the highest levels of Israeli politics. 

Support for Rothman’s project by far-right stalwarts like Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich, and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir is ever more openly aimed at expanding Israel’s borders. Without the High Court to bulwark against Bibi’s collection of Kahanists, a future majority would face little impediment to annexing the West Bank and Gaza. Mind you, the current majority faces little impediment to illegal settlements which, given the far-right’s involvement, are a war crime in effect regardless of Israel’s official stance about legality.

The Israeli far-right archetype of Orthodox purists bent on expelling Palestinians from “Judea and Samaria” does as much damage to the Jewish-Israeli identity as it attempts to do to the Palestinian one. The international enmity with Israel it broods not only complicates the US-Israel relationship, it binds every facet of Israeli society. In an ideal world, Israel is a pluralistic haven for semites—Jewish, Druze, or Palestinian. In a semi-ideal world, Israel and Palestine are two different states, separate, but at peace. In our world, Israel is a state so extremist-wracked that Jews outside of Israel question whether the country represents them at all, if at one time they felt it did. For Arabs, that question was already answered by the 2018 Nation-State Law—it does not. 

While Jewish-Israelis may equivocate over their national identity, it is disconcerting to watch Biden apply Israeli baggage to Jewish-American voters. Furthermore, it echoes the right Jew Republicans and religious Zionists also want. For Trump, the right Jew is the one who decries progressives’ outrage at Israel and votes for him. Nevertheless, Trump is no longer a policymaker. Indeed, between him and President Biden, the Commander-in-Chief’s conception of the Jewish community and Israel is much more critical. For Biden, the right Jew is the one that supports his candidacy, even with a hardline approach to Bibi. Of course, that would be perfect, if American Jews were uniform in their support of Bibi’s Israel and the Gaza War; they’re not. It is this same imaginary wall, ironically, that the Biden administration continues to slam into. 

Time and again, President Biden pines after an Israel that no longer exists. The political will toward a two-state solution that defined the 1990s is gone from Jerusalem. The Israel that Bibi birthed by unleashing religious Zionists into the Knesset is no longer recognized as an oasis of Western ideals. With misapplied concern regarding American Jews’ willingness to admit that, Biden refuses to leverage Netanyahu in a way that the US is uniquely capable of, instead offering half-baked ceasefire proposals that rely on third-parties and empty threats. 

If President Biden wants to solidify his foreign policy record ahead of the November election, he should watch Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant closely. While domestic trust in Netanyahu’s government decays, Gallant capitalizes on every opportunity to contradict and counteract Bibi which, to Biden’s credit, he has encouraged. However, by failing to form a legitimate plan of action for addressing Israel’s rogue tendencies, Biden fails not just American Jews and the innocent Palestinians dying in Gaza, he tempts the Democratic base to abandon him at the polls this fall and risks leaving his legacy as more of a Chamberlain than a Churchill.

About the Author
Ethan Sirhal is a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans and native of Massachusetts. His research focus is US civil-military cooperation, anti-base movements, and inter-communal mediation in split nations. Ethan is also of Lebanese-Druze heritage and an avid travel photographer.
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