Joe Biden needs to get tough with Benjamin Netanyahu

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Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Netanyahu

American Democratic presidents and their red lines have a problematic history. In 2013, Barack Obama discovered that his red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons was more of a suggestion than a firm stance. Today, his former vice president, Joe Biden, seems to have forgotten the red line he drew in March regarding an Israeli invasion of Rafah. Other international leaders who initially voiced opposition have now fallen silent in the face of reality.

The ground invasion of Rafah is now in full swing. Propaganda initially portrayed last week’s operations as limited, a claim that aid agencies on the ground and Palestinian civilians hoped for but never believed. US officials, from the president down, had voiced opposition to a Rafah invasion. Even last week, a spokesman stated that “any kind of major Rafah ground operation would actually strengthen” Hamas. However, this opposition was half-hearted.

Palestinians and others can see the hypocrisy of the US and other supporters of Israel. They observe US actions, not just words, much like they have learned to do with Israeli leaders. Although the US has paused the transfer of some arms to Israel, including 3,500 bombs, it continues to provide weapons, military assistance, vital intelligence, and diplomatic cover. The minimal US humanitarian assistance to Palestinians pales in comparison to the billions in lethal aid received by Israel.

Additionally, the US led the charge, inspired by Israel, to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Had the Biden administration waited for Israel to provide evidence of any links between the UN agency and Hamas, UNRWA would likely still be receiving American aid, and no other donor state would have suspended their funding.

When it comes to Israel, accountability is often absent. This was painfully evident two years ago with the killing, arguably murder, of Al Jazeera journalist and US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022. The US demanded answers, and Israel initially spun various stories, first blaming a Palestinian gunman and then claiming ignorance, before finally admitting that it was an Israeli soldier’s bullet. Yet, no one has been held accountable. What has President Biden done about it? Nothing. This is the same leader who warned Iran in February, “If you harm an American, we will respond.” If Israeli soldiers can kill US citizens with impunity, what hope do Palestinians have?

Leaders often express “concern” or even “deep concern” about Israel’s actions, calling on Israel to adhere to international humanitarian law. However, American, British, or German leaders never unequivocally state that Israel has violated international law. This has been particularly true over the past seven months. Last week, the US administration stated that Israel had used American weapons in a way “inconsistent” with international humanitarian law. To a normal person, this means illegal, but heaven forbid it should be articulated as such.

British leaders have gone to great lengths to avoid stating this explicitly. The deputy foreign minister said last week that the government had not seen a credible Israeli military plan for its invasion of Rafah that would adhere to international law. On May 7, the day after the ground invasion began, the minister stated, “We have not seen a credible plan for military action in Rafah so far, so we are not able to judge whether it would be in accordance with international humanitarian law.” In other words, because Britain has not been shown the military plan, it will not make any judgment on its legality. Israeli leaders were wise not to share it.

In Congress, there is strong support not just for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also for extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. In a move reminiscent of “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather,” a dozen US Republican senators signed a letter threatening the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, and his family with sanctions and travel bans. Khan’s crime? It was merely the rumor that he might seek arrest warrants for Israeli leaders on war crimes charges-essentially, doing his job.

Netanyahu has long understood how to manipulate American presidents, a skill he has honed since 1996 and even earlier. As US Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush, James Baker claims to have banned Netanyahu from the State Department. The Israeli PM has mastered the dark arts of deception, bluff, and counter-bluff. He knows that, ultimately, given the makeup of US domestic politics, no American president will sever the umbilical cord tying the country to Israel, especially not in an election year.

Despite rumors and reports of an angry Biden, the reality is that no matter how appalling the Israeli bombing and starvation of Palestinians in Gaza, the American president will not fundamentally shift his position. Occasionally, Benjamin Netanyahu throws Biden a few crumbs, pretending to listen. Under Biden’s pressure, Netanyahu lifted the total siege of Gaza last October to allow a few aid trucks in via Egypt. It cost Netanyahu nothing, and Palestinians still did not receive the lifesaving aid they needed.

Biden has sanctioned several extremist Israeli settlers and settler groups. Two things stand out: First, despite decades of evidence of massive Israeli settler violence, this has never been done before. Second, the Israeli government’s reaction was to openly and shamelessly order further settlement expansion and the authorization of outposts. The message is clear: if the US or anyone else tries to penalize Israel, it will punish the Palestinians.

For all the American green lights for Israel’s actions in Gaza, the lack of any strategy is remarkable. The failure to secure a ceasefire has isolated the US and damaged what is left of its reputation. It jeopardizes American strategic interests, as it risks being drawn into a regional conflict it does not want and cannot afford. Biden is losing domestically, seen as weak and indecisive.

Above all, the US is isolated internationally. In Friday’s UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, the US and Israel were joined by just seven other states-including Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau-in opposing the resolution. China and Russia cannot believe their luck as their foe commits such acute self-harm.

Joe Biden needs to get tough with Netanyahu. The Israeli leader is prepared, solely for reasons of political self-preservation, to ignite the region, put hostages’ lives at risk, and foment enduring generational hatred that, far from defeating or destroying Hamas, will strengthen it for years. It is time for Biden to stop indulging Netanyahu in the interests of the US, Israel, and the Palestinians.

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