Balance Foreign Policy
As toll rises in Gaza, diplomatic and political costs mount for Biden
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As Israel’s massive counteroffensive against Hamas continues, crucial Biden allies at home and abroad are alleging hypocrisy. Does the U.S. prioritize humanitarian aims only when convenient? The Biden administration is scrambling to prove otherwise.
Moreover, bipartisan support for Israel has historically been very strong.
But things aren’t turning out the way the president might have imagined.
With the death toll in Gaza reportedly surpassing 10,000 Monday as Israel pursues a relentless campaign aimed at destroying Hamas, and as Gaza’s humanitarian crisis only deepens, the political winds at home and abroad – and in particular in the Middle East – have shifted significantly.
On the domestic front, the coalition that put Mr. Biden over the top in key states in 2020 – young people, African Americans, and other minorities including Arab Americans – is showing signs of unraveling.
Michigan is a case in point. Recent polls show support for President Biden plummeting in the state’s sizable Arab American community, whose overwhelming support in 2020 played an outsize role in delivering the battleground state to the blue column.
And overseas and especially among America’s Arab partners, opposition to Mr. Biden’s full embrace of Israel is intensifying – as Secretary of State Antony Blinken learned this weekend.
Meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan Saturday after a stop Friday in Israel, Mr. Blinken heard demands for a cease-fire in Gaza – something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out – while receiving a message that the United States is not doing enough to pressure Israel to modify its onslaught in Gaza, home to more than 2 million Palestinians.
“U.S. policy at the moment is stoking further anger in the Arab states and across the Global South, not least because it is seen as being hypocritical in its application of international law,” says Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow in Middle East affairs at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.
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Hypocritical, he says, because the U.S. is not seen to be demanding that its ally Israel adhere to international humanitarian law and rules of war so soon after calling on the world to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion based on international law.
The U.S. is on a tightrope between its commitment to an ally at its moment of deep distress – following the slaughter of 1,400 people in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack – and its sense that the ally should be acting differently now for everyone’s long-term good, he says.
“This is a very difficult U.S. balancing act, pursuing a two-track policy that consists of (1) hug Israel closely, and (2) influence Israel to modify its actions in its war and to open up more widely to humanitarian steps,” Mr. Lovatt says. “But the nuance is lost in the Middle East; in Arab capitals, they’re only seeing the first of these.”
Some U.S. officials admit privately to a growing frustration with Israel over its refusal to act on U.S. counsel both to modify its military campaign aimed at rooting Hamas out of Gaza, and to move more deliberately on easing what many experts say is a looming humanitarian catastrophe there.
Some reliable administration (and Israel) supporters are beginning to publicly express misgivings over Israel’s conduct of the war.
Last week Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, called on Israel to “shift” its strategy, saying events including a deadly strike on a refugee camp suggest that Israel has “not struck the right balance between military necessity and proportionality.”
Secretary Blinken presented Israel with President Biden’s proposal for humanitarian “pauses” in the military campaign, which would allow for more humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and for negotiations aimed at freeing the more than 240 hostages being held by Hamas.
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But Mr. Blinken was unable to report any progress on humanitarian pauses to Arab leaders – who in any case are pressing for a full cease-fire, something Mr. Netanyahu says will not happen at least until all the hostages are released. The leaders also told the secretary that instead of destroying Hamas, Israel’s war is more likely to create a new generation of religious extremists that will mean more trouble for everyone in the region, including Israel.
During a surprise stop in Baghdad Sunday, Mr. Blinken told journalists that getting to humanitarian pauses is a “process” that will take more time.
“Israel has raised important questions about how humanitarian pauses would work,” he said. “We’ve got to answer those questions.”
Still, many experts assume that at some point at least some form of pause in hostilities will come.
“The history of Gaza is a history of cease-fires called something else,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The U.S. view is that if the Israelis stop [the military campaign] for some set time, it will allow more humanitarian aid to get in and space to negotiate freedom of some hostages,” Dr. Alterman says. “The U.S. has a lot of room to pressure Israel. The question is whether that pressure will have a desired effect.”
“Many American officials feel the U.S. learned a lot from the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, and they’re sharing that with the Israelis,” he adds. “The Israeli response is that those experiences aren’t relevant to our particular situation.”
Whether President Biden can demonstrate enough influence with Israel to begin altering perceptions of him in key audiences at home and abroad remains to be seen, a variety of experts say.
Mr. Biden is a “very tactile president” who “lives for these moments of high pressure to figure out how to move people to where you want them to go,” Dr. Alterman says.
The problem is that while the president works the “process” of trying to transform influence with Israel into actions, key communities he needs at home and abroad are souring on him.
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“The administration needed to figure out how to walk a tightrope between support for Israel” and pursuing long-term U.S. interests, “but instead it’s been a full bear hug [of Israel] with no counterbalancing actions,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.
President Biden has made a number of public “mistakes” that have sent his support among Arab Americans plummeting, Dr. Zogby says, including casting doubt on the high Palestinian death toll in Gaza because the numbers are from the Gaza Health Ministry, an agency of the Hamas government.
“It’s insulting, and it suggests Palestinian lives matter less than others,” he says. “The sense of betrayal in Arab American communities is strong enough that it could make a decisive difference next year in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania,” he adds.
Indeed, a sense of U.S. complicity in what is seen by some as Israel’s disregard for civilian lives in Gaza was a common theme in large pro-Palestinian demonstrations this weekend both in the U.S. and around the world.
At the less emotional policy level, Dr. Zogby says frustration is building with the Biden administration for not pushing Israel harder to conduct its military campaign and articulate an endgame in a way that can draw in Israel’s Arab neighbors instead of alienating them.
Some say Israel, having developed stronger ties with some Arab states, is at risk of squandering regional support it’s going to need.
“The Arab states are unified in two things: an abhorrence of Hamas, and disgust at how Israel is carrying out this war with Hamas,” Dr. Alterman says. “Israel needs to be mindful of this because it’s going to need to establish a sense of partnership with the Arab neighbors on a postwar Gaza. And the U.S.,” he adds, “needs to be reminding the Israelis of this early and often.”