After nine days of reckless and indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Gaza, leaving at least 220 Palestinians dead, including 62 children, US President Joe Biden finally expressed his support for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Monday.
But he reiterated that Israel had a “right to defend itself” and stopped short of publicly calling on Israel to change its approach despite rising international condemnation.
A White House statement, issued after Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the furthest that the president has gone towards calling for an end to the conflict.
The statement reflected a continued reticence by the US leader to criticise Israel, despite unprecedented pressure from some Democrats calling for more robust condemnation of Israel’s indiscriminate killing of Palestinians and racist practices in the Occupied Territories, including Occupied East Jerusalem.
Biden’s language notably avoided a demand that the ceasefire be “immediate,” language that Democratic senators used in a statement earlier in the day. The US delegation at the United Nations also pressed hard to postpone an open Security Council meeting aimed at discussing the Israeli aggression against Gaza, also to avoid a collective call for an immediate ceasefire.
When the meeting was finally held on Sunday, there was no joint statement because the US delegation refused to adopt language that would condemn Israel or call for a halt of attacks against alleged Hamas targets in Gaza.
In the statement released on Monday, the White House made it clear that it expected others in the region to play a major role, saying Biden had “expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end.”
But he set no deadline and did not appear before cameras to make a public demand, just as he avoided making statements or taking questions during outings this weekend near his home in Delaware.
US officials said part of their optimism that the violence might stop soon has been rooted in conversations US officials have been having with allies in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Doha has maintained good relations with Hamas, while Egypt regularly hosts the group and its leaders in Cairo for reconciliation talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his main faction Fatah. A top security Egyptian delegation is also in Gaza for direct talks on efforts to stop the Israeli war.
“What our objective is in the short term is that Egypt, Tunisia [which holds a non-permanent seat at the 15-member Security Council], and other important countries in the region certainly can play a role in conveying to Hamas and leaders of Hamas the reasons for de-escalation, and how that could be beneficial,” White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Thursday.
US officials insisted they were not blindly supporting Israel, but they believed working behind the scenes was more useful than issuing public statements of condemnation, whether by the White House or by the UN Security Council.
In an earlier conversation with Netanyahu on Wednesday, the White House said that Biden “shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace.”
However, Biden’s original stand when Israel’s missiles first started raining down on Gaza reflected the longstanding view of both Republicans and Democrats in the US that Israel has a right to defend itself against attacks from Hamas, which the US considers to be a terrorist organisation.
A week ago, Biden told reporters that Israel “has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”
However, US officials are also mindful of the delicate political pressures Biden is facing on the matter. Though he has been versed on the issue for decades as a lawmaker and later as vice-president, a growing strain of Democratic politics has been harshly critical of Israel’s actions.
After Biden said on 12 May that Israel has a right to defend itself without mentioning anything about the Palestinians, progressive Democrats pounced. “Blanket statements like these with little context or acknowledgement of what precipitated this cycle of violence, namely, the expulsions of Palestinians and attacks on Al-Aqsa, dehumanise the Palestinians and imply the US will look the other way at human-rights violations,” wrote Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, responding to Biden’s telephone call with Netanyahu, decried its lack of mention of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
“No mention of Sheikh Jarrah. No mention of the Al-Aqsa raid,” she wrote. “No mention of the 13 innocent children killed in air strikes. No mention of the ongoing occupation of millions in an open-air prison. You aren’t prioritising human rights. You’re siding with an oppressive occupation.”
It’s an awkward public fight for a party that has made its commitment to social and racial justice a main part of its platform. As the US comes to grips with its own history of racism in new ways and adopts the Black Lives Matter Movement in a mainstream way, liberals want to apply similar notions of justice to foreign policy, where an increasing number see apartheid in Israel’s approach to the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, America’s largest Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, joined a boycott of a virtual White House Eid celebration that took place on Sunday.
“We cannot in good conscience celebrate Eid with the Biden administration while it literally aids, abets and justifies the Israeli apartheid government’s indiscriminate bombing of innocent men, women and children in Gaza,” it said in a statement.
Biden’s approach is a far cry from former US president Donald Trump’s all-for Israel approach, however, which he used to his political advantage with Evangelical Christian voters.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly