Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, President Biden has presented himself as a statesman humbled and enlightened by his own country’s missteps after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “While you feel that rage,” he advised Israelis, “don’t be consumed by it.”
Mr. Biden meant to offer more than therapy. White House officials soon revealed they were deeply concerned by Israeli plans to invade the Gaza Strip. They feared the operation would fail to root out Hamas, wantonly kill and injure Palestinian civilians and potentially set off a wider war. But these officials said so anonymously. In public, Mr. Biden professed staunch support for Israeli military action, while urging Israel to comply with the laws of war. Bear-hugging America’s ally, he apparently figured, was the surest way to restrain it — or the only way he was willing to try.
Yet that gambit has failed. Israel has gone ahead with a ground offensive: Its forces have reached Gaza City amid continued aerial bombardment and blockade of the enclave. So much for Mr. Biden’s restraining embrace. Israeli leaders, reeling from a heinous assault, should hardly have been expected to heed mere words from Washington. After Sept. 11, would the United States have changed its conduct in deference to the kindly advice of an outside power?
It’s Mr. Biden who has not learned from America’s mistakes, rushing headlong into the latest war. By backing Israel unconditionally, and failing to champion Palestinians’ rights as well, he made the United States complicit in whatever Israel did next. The costs, in American prestige and power, have already proved substantial. And they could get much worse.
In the days after Oct. 7, Mr. Biden had the opportunity to shape Israel’s response by publicly defining what kind of actions the United States would, and would not, support. While expressing solidarity with Israel and revulsion at Hamas, he might have withheld assistance for a military campaign until Israel formulated a plan that the White House deemed effective and just and that treated Palestinian civilians acceptably. Instead, Mr. Biden announced, “We’re with Israel,” pledging to provide for its defense “today, tomorrow and always.” Even as he privately pressed Israeli leaders to think twice about a ground invasion, he publicly requested $14.3 billion in emergency military aid, no strings attached.
There was no need to be so cavalier. A carrot-and-stick approach could have either improved Israel’s actions or distanced the United States from a costly failure. Yet the administration seemed to barely try; it preferred to commit itself first and then find out for what. Now the United States finds itself following Israel’s lead in a brutal war “of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences,” as Barack Obama, then a senator, described the invasion of Iraq before it began. U.S. officials are increasingly signaling their displeasure at Israeli military operations in Gaza and mounting settler violence in the West Bank, but they will have little leverage to make Israel change course unless they specify an “or else.”
Mr. Biden has been no better in identifying a long-term solution. Sidestepping the obvious reality that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land lies at the core of the conflict, Mr. Biden has mainly described Palestinians either as evil terrorists or as innocent civilians deserving of humanitarian protection. But Palestinians most importantly are political agents who seek self-determination and refuse to be ignored. Mr. Biden’s deflective, ideological language — “Terrorists will not win. Freedom will win.” — ignores that Palestinian terrorism and Israeli occupation are reinforcing injustices, both of which stand in the way of peace. [Continue reading…]