The Washington storm over Israel

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

Recent developments in Washington have drawn attention to the growing disagreements between the US and Israel on the conduct of the war on Gaza, writes Hussein Haridy


The never-ending ripples of the savage and relentless Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, now in its sixth month, reached Washington last week in a major development that took many by surprise and deepened the rifts between the two major political parties in the US capital.

The US Congress has been one of the main bulwarks for Israel for decades, providing political support for Israeli policies dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict and staying silent on both the creeping annexation of the Occupied West Bank and the illegal siege that successive Israeli governments have imposed on Gaza since 2007.

However, on 14 March one well-known Jewish-American Senator broke with long-established traditions and delivered a scathing attack from the Senate floor on the Israeli government led by the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat – New York), the Senate Majority Leader, took Israel by surprise, as well as the Washington political establishment and the US media, when he called Netanyahu an “obstacle to peace” in the region, commenting on the way that Israel has been conducting military operations in Gaza and its blocking of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

Schumer said Netanyahu had “lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows.” He also took the ruling coalition government in Israel to task for the same reasons.

The “Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7. The world has changed, radically, since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past,” he said, adding that after five months of war “it is clear that Israelis need to take stock of the situation and ask, must we change course?”

“At this critical juncture, I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government,” Schumer said.

Rarely has any American Senator, particularly a Democrat from New York, spoken so courageously and harshly about an Israeli government.

The speech caused uproar. Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican – Kentucky), the Senate minority leader, went on the offensive in a spectacular way by attacking Schumer and expressing highly biased and unlimited support for Israel. He said that the “primary obstacles to peace… are genocidal terrorists like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad who slaughter innocent people and the corrupt leaders of the Palestinian Authority who have repeatedly rejected peace deals from multiple Israeli governments.”

According to the New York Times, Schumer had called US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan the day before he made his speech, asking if it would endanger the ongoing talks to reach a temporary pause in the military operations in Gaza, to release the hostages, and to allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, he was told that there would be no problem, the newspaper said.

In the context of the palpable disagreements between US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu that have been growing over the last month, the position taken by the Senator from New York is not very different from the position of the White House and especially that of Biden personally concerning the way Israel has been conducting the war in Gaza and the day after, once the war comes to an end. It reflects the frustration felt by the US administration at Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution.

In reaction to Schumer’s speech, Biden told reporters on 15 March who had asked him for his views on it that he was not going to elaborate on the speech but described it as a “good” one and said it was a serious expression of the concerns felt by many Americans as well as by himself at the course of the conflict.

Nevertheless, US support for Israel remains unchanged. White House Spokesperson John Kirby indirectly conveyed a reassuring message to Israel on 15 March, as well as to its backers in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, that the Biden administration will “keep supporting Israel in their fight against Hamas. We are going to keep urging them to reduce civilian casualties, and we are going to keep working to get a temporary ceasefire in place,” he said.

On the same day, news out of Israel indicated that Netanyahu had approved plans for an attack on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. The US administration has declared that it cannot support such an attack in the absence of a “credible” and “achievable” plan for keeping the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Rafah out of harm’s way. Although the Israelis have said that they have such a plan, the White House announced on 15 March that it has not seen it.  

What will be the US position if the Israeli army starts its military offensive in Rafah and thousands of innocent civilians lose their lives as a result, in addition to the 31,000 Palestinians in Gaza who have already been killed and the more than 71,000 who have been wounded since last October?

We should not expect much from the Biden administration. Perhaps there will be some limited and insignificant restrictions on arms exports to Israel, and perhaps there will be a US abstention on a draft resolution brought before the UN Security Council calling for an urgent ceasefire in Gaza.

Schumer said, and I completely agree with him, that the world has changed “radically” since last October. However, the unflinching US support for Israel has not factored in this change. Nor has the relationship between the US and Israel, on the one hand, and the Arab countries, on the other, reflected the changing world and transformed regional scene in the light of the barbaric Israeli onslaught on the Palestinian people in Gaza and the Israeli-Occupied West Bank.

Receiving Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House on 15 March, Biden agreed with his Irish guest, in Washington to celebrate St Patrick’s Day on 17 March, when the latter said that he would talk about the need for a ceasefire as soon as possible in Gaza in order to get food and medicine into the Strip and to free the Israeli hostages.

“We need to talk about [how] to move towards a two-state solution,” Varadkar said, adding that this was the only way we “will have lasting peace and security” in the region.

We will see how genuine the administration is in pushing for this outcome over the months to come in what will be a very challenging election cycle this year in the United States.


The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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