he whole world is watching, the stakes are high, and the danger of a broader regional war grows by the day. While the battle on the ground is between Israel and Hamas, responsibility for managing the conflict falls at Washington’s feet. Thus far, the Biden administration’s efforts have failed to meet the moment and pose a grave risk to the global standing of the United States and the political fortunes of US President Joe Biden.
Fingers can be pointed in all directions as to why the region is in crisis, and there can be much hand-wringing about intelligence failures, ineffective policies, and the inability to secure a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This conflict has been at the core of the region’s problems since 1948, and recent attempts to wish it away – such as through the so-called Abraham Accords – were quashed on 7 October.
One cannot overstate the traumatic impact of the attack carried out by Hamas on Israel, nor justify the slaughter of innocent civilians. It was acknowledged, and understood, that the Israeli response would be severe. No country could let such a horrific attack go unanswered. Accordingly, the initial US response of offering support to Israel, and deep sympathy, was fully expected and appropriate.
But the 7 October attack must also be recognised for what it was – a strategy, no matter how cynical and in disregard of the consequences for the Palestinian people. It was intended to goad the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into reacting with impunity.
This would inevitably result in massive civilian casualties, leading to increased opprobrium against Israel as worldwide public opinion shifted from sympathy to anger. It would place frontline states like Jordan and Egypt in a bind, force the US to defend Israel, and scuttle the nascent Israel-Saudi peace talks. It would elevate the Palestinian issue to the forefront of world attention, sideline the Palestinian Authority (PA), and destabilise the region.
Netanyahu took the bait, and thus far Biden, by granting him unconditional public support, has enabled him to pursue a course of action that promises neither security nor peace for Israel, more suffering for the Palestinians, and a growing likelihood of a multifront war.
Since the end of the 1973 October War, the US has been the key player in preventing broader war in the Middle East involving Israel and multiple other states. By assuming diplomatic responsibility, Washington was not required to lessen its support of Israel or act as a truly honest broker. But it was expected to use all the tools in its diplomatic toolkit to work towards a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian question.
In short, Washington would offer reassurance to Israel so that it would not act in such a manner as to hurt either its own, or US, long-term interests. To be a true friend, Washington would encourage or, if absolutely required, pressure Israel to pursue a path that allowed it to establish and expand peaceful relations with its Arab neighbours, building commercial, security, and cultural ties that ensured its survival without the constant threat of war.
Biden’s “bear hug” of Israel is intended to show support and a degree of deference, while also quietly urging it to act with caution. Minimise collective punishment. Provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people. Be wary of a political and security vacuum in Gaza. Don’t further empower the settler movement in the West Bank. Do not expect Egypt or Jordan to assume responsibility for the Palestinians. Don’t ignore the PA. Urban warfare is brutal, and civilian casualties will be high. Some of these lessons were learned during the US experience in Iraq.
But private warnings have never been effective with Netanyahu, a proven political opportunist who prioritises his own survival over all else. He has partnered with the most extreme elements on the Israeli political spectrum, including cabinet members who openly call for “population transfer” in the West Bank — a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. There is little evidence that Biden’s private cajoling has greatly altered Israeli war plans — at best it has delayed them, even while restricting humanitarian aid deliveries.
Gradually, the Biden Administration is becoming aware of Israeli intransigence. Calls for speeding up aid have become more pronounced, and the evacuation of the badly wounded and foreign nationals from Gaza is now underway. Biden has openly called for a pause in the military action, and it seems only a matter of time before worldwide pressure – including from within the US – forces Washington to consider a ceasefire, even if using a different word to save face.
While more Palestinians perish, the US is burning more global political capital, and the risk of the conflict spiralling increases. The fighting must cease, and bold diplomacy must resolve the conflict in the short, medium, and long term. That’s the reality.
Domestic political calculations should not influence foreign policy, even in an election year. But they inevitably do. When Biden was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, the domestic politics of the Middle East were very different to what they are today. Through the prism of the Cold War, Tel Aviv was seen as a strategic regional ally. Americans sympathised overwhelmingly with Israel, and Washington provided overwhelming support to it.
Today, however, there is considerable sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people on human rights grounds. This is especially true among progressives and Democratic Party voters – including many pro-peace, two-state solution Jewish voters who quality their support for Israel. Thus, reverting to unconditional support for Israel, especially in the face of the growing humanitarian crisis, is alienating Biden from key supporters. Most will still vote for him in the 2024 elections, especially considering the alternatives. But polling data already reveal a dip in support among Democrats, and an unquestionable drop in enthusiasm – which is directly tied to voter turnout and grassroots activism.
In 1972, Arab-American voters were largely invisible. Today, with roughly 3.5 million Arab-Americans who disproportionately live in swing states, they cannot be ignored. Moreover, this is a Democratic-leaning voting bloc, especially in the key state of Michigan, which Biden narrowly won in 2020 – arguably winning this industrial state because of overwhelming Arab-American support in Eastern Michigan. A Zogby International poll in the US this week showed that Biden’s support among Arab-American voters has dipped to a mere 17 per cent because of his position on the Gaza war.
Global politics, domestic politics, and national security calculations – including support of Israel and alliances with key Arab states – suggest that Biden would be wise to change course. Only a lasting peace will provide security for Israel and hope for the Palestinians, eliminate the misguided appeal of Hamas and likeminded groups, and reduce disruptive Iranian influence in the region.
Biden also just might find that peace is the best path to bolster his domestic political standing, even in an election year.
The writer is executive director of the University of Central Florida Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives and a distinguished visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo for the Fall 2023 semester.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly