What Biden must do in Israel

The exterior of the presidential airplane bears a large seal of the president beside its door, into which Joe Biden climbs.
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on October 17, 2023, enroute to Israel. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The stakes of Biden’s Mideast trip are enormous. Can he pull the region back from the brink?

Biden’s team has gone to the Middle East. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Israel, Jordan, and much of the region in a marathon trip. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Israel to meet with his military counterparts, as has the top US military commander in the Middle East. Two US aircraft carrier groups have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to provide further support.

Now, President Joe Biden is on the way to Israel himself, a rare US presidential trip to what is effectively an active war zone. I asked several Middle East policy experts: What can Biden actually accomplish?

Just in going to the Middle East, Biden has delayed Israel’s decision to send ground forces into Gaza, a move that had seemed imminent for days, according to a source familiar with the administration’s thinking. That fact alone shows that Biden may be able to cool a war that is already flaring out of control. But the visit also carries the risk that the president will become inextricably linked to the ongoing destruction of Gaza — especially amid accusations that Israel had bombed a Gaza City hospital, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, the day before the president’s arrival. (The Israeli military claimed that the deadly explosion had been caused by a malfunctioning rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another armed group in Gaza.)

Herein lies the contradiction of Biden’s approach to Israel right now. Biden is proud of being a staunch advocate for Israel, and his supportive remarks in the wake of Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack have been gratefully received by Israelis. But he is also the one who needs to deliver a hard truth to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s war cabinet: More bombing of Palestinians in Gaza, or a full-scale ground assault, will only make things worse for Israel, for the Middle East, and for America.

Biden’s approach to the Middle East has long been focused on embracing allies in public — and sending sharper messages behind closed doors. But it’s not clear if those private messages always get through. Earlier this year, for example, Biden reportedly urged Netanyahu privately to scrap parts of his judicial overhaul plan, but the Israeli prime minister dismissed the advice and barreled forward with the controversial policy.

The Biden administration’s key foreign policy players now realize just how bad this war could get, and how it could spill over into other countries in the region and even beyond. But if Israel can’t commit to an immediate cessation of hostilities so that water, food, medicine, and humanitarian assistance reach Palestinians in Gaza who are in need, then Biden may need to break from his usual approach and speak up publicly. (A ceasefire would require negotiations with Hamas, which Israel is unlikely to pursue right now, but Israel could unilaterally pause the bombardment of Gaza and allow for humanitarian corridors.) That may include communicating directly to the Israeli people, as President Barack Obama once tried to do in going around Netanyahu and make a plea for a two-state solution. And Biden needs to speak directly to the Palestinian people to convey that he sees the photographs of Palestinian suffering and is doing everything he can to stem the violence. If he fails to do all this, the Middle East and much of the world will not only see the US as complicit in Israel’s military campaign — as it already does — but it will be seen as of a piece with it. The larger consequence: the sapping of America’s credibility on the world stage.

No country has more leverage over Israel than the United States, which has extended hundreds of billions of dollars in aid over the decades, along with bipartisan diplomatic support. Biden must turn the “bone-deep” alliance with Israel into a moment where Israel can listen.

Why Biden is going to Israel

Since 2008, there have been five major rounds of conflict between Israel and Hamas, and each time the United States has worked to negotiate ceasefires, both to protect civilian lives on the ground and to ensure that the war does not expand to other parts of the Middle East. This time around, the war is already on a much larger scale: Hamas’s surprise attack has annihilated Israel’s sense of security, and Israel’s response has already left a remarkably high death toll for Palestinians in Gaza. The situation is further complicated because any ceasefire would require negotiations with Hamas, and Israel is unlikely to participate in even backchannel talks with them after the attacks.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, understands from experience how negotiations toward such a truce would work. In May 2021, he helped secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after 11 days of conflict, in which Hamas and militant groups launched rockets into Israel and the Israeli military struck Gaza.

But the fact that May 2021 wasn’t the first time that Sullivan had worked to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza shows a troubling dynamic in US Middle East policy, which seems to revolve around putting out the occasional fire rather than addressing the root causes of these conflagrations. In a 2019 podcast, he described brokering such ceasefires as “a recurring episode in American foreign policy.”

In the middle of a war of this scale, the root causes of the conflict between Israel and Palestine will not be addressed. But there has been a slight change in the tenor of the Biden administration’s approach over the last week. The main focus has been on opening the Egyptian border crossing of Rafah in Gaza to let in humanitarian aid and allow for people to leave Gaza. Blinken appointed David Satterfield, a career diplomat, as a special envoy to “urgently address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Sullivan went on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend to talk about the humanitarian situation for Palestinians and said that Israel has “in fact turned the water pipe back on in Southern Gaza.” (Reporting from Business Insider disputes this and quoted a US official saying that water access remains “limited.”)

This recognition of Palestinian rights and needs, however limited, may stem from Blinken’s shuttling to Arab capitals, where leaders reportedly rebuked him in public and private for a de-emphasis on Palestine. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi condemned the death of Israeli and Palestinian civilians and said, “This is the result of accumulated fury and hatred over four decades, where the Palestinians had no hope to find a solution.” Blinken’s efforts to get Saudi Arabia to denounce Hamas’s attack have not yet been successful, according to the Washington Post.

The Biden administration requires the support of Arab partners in determining Gaza’s future after the Israeli military campaign. A visit to Tel Aviv in which Biden endorses an Israeli policy that includes ongoing attacks that have resulted in significant civilian deaths in Gaza would backfire. It will be harder and harder to say that what Israel is doing to Gaza is self-defense.

Biden told 60 Minutes this weekend that Israel choosing to invade and actively occupy Gaza would be “a big mistake” and that “there needs to be a Palestinian authority. There needs to be a path to a Palestinian state.” Yet he still expressed full support for Israel. A busy week of diplomacy has alerted the Biden administration of the urgency of playing both sides against the middle, but that can sound like contradictory policies. “Biden has said he supports Israel destroying Hamas, but he doesn’t want a civilian catastrophe, a humanitarian disaster,” Mairav Zonszein, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told me. “I don’t know if those two things can coexist.”

Israel also faces a contradictory crisis of its own: whether the provision of badly needed water, food, and medicine to Gaza would reinforce Hamas. “Israel — they’ve done this before, and they’re continuing to — use humanitarian aid as a tool, and they’re very, very concerned that Hamas will try to take advantage of those openings and use those materials,” Zonszein explained. “Paradoxically, if Israel wants to have freedom of operation, per se, to continue, then it has to deal with the humanitarian aspect. It can’t just ignore it completely because then it really will lose its ability, I think, to have any legitimacy in acting.”

What could Biden accomplish

Biden may have already achieved something just by going to the Middle East: slowing the ground offensive. But given the stakes of the current war, the depth of US involvement in support of Israel, and the potential risk of a catastrophic regional conflict, that’s not enough.

Experts I spoke with say he’ll need to convey to Netanyahu that each day the military campaign goes on in Gaza, Israel is raising the potential for militant groups like Hezbollah to join the war; pushing away potential Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, eliminating any prospect of normalization with Arab states like Saudi Arabia; and ending the decades-long stalled peace process once and for all.

Biden could call for clear ground rules for the occupied West Bank, where settler violence against Palestinians, already at unprecedented levels, is rising. And he must emphasize the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who face a surge of discrimination.

Experienced Middle East analysts and grassroots activists agree that an immediate truce is needed so that urgent humanitarian aid can reach Gaza. “We strongly urge the Biden administration and US partners to seek, at a minimum, a temporary cessation in fighting to allow for the delivery of direly needed food, water, medical supplies and other critical aid immediately necessary to the preservation of life,” the Center for International Policy, a progressive Washington think tank, said in a statement.

Biden might also convey the extent to which Israel bombing Gaza won’t work because it hasn’t worked. Eliminating Hamas isn’t really a policy. If it were one, then Israel might have been successful in the previous rounds of intensive conflict since 2008-2009.

At the same time, Biden surely understands that in the wake of the Hamas attacks, Israel needs to establish a sense of security for its citizens. “Israel has to be able to restore its military deterrence superpower because if it doesn’t, then Israel will appear weak; by extension, the US will appear weak,” Zonszein told me. “On the public level and on the leadership level, it’s an existential war — not because the attack itself presented an existential threat, but because the level of success it had in undermining the basic safety and security of Israelis is so deep that they can’t remain there.”

But he also must know that an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza won’t solve that calculus and will instead cause irreparable damage to Palestinian life, while setting back Israel and the United States for decades in the Middle East.

On his Substack, Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, has detailed how such an invasion would be a “humanitarian, strategic and moral catastrophe” — one that Biden could be in the sole position to prevent.

“And I would beg the White House,” Lynch continues, “to step back and reconsider whether granting Israel blanket immunity in the coming days really serves the interests of either Israel or the United States, or if what Israel really needs right now is an external hand to impose restraint and save it from its own worst impulses.”

“The coming days look likely to be filled with horrific images and a horrific reality. It’s not too late to avoid that… but it’s getting there.”

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