Biden’s middle-of-the-road approach to Israel is misguided

Biden’s middle-of-the-road approach to Israel is misguided

Biden and his foreign policy advisers face intense polarization in American responses to the war in Gaza (File/AFP)
Biden and his foreign policy advisers face intense polarization in American responses to the war in Gaza (File/AFP)
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On Friday, aid deliveries began via the US-constructed floating pier connected to Gaza’s coast. While any aid reaching Gaza is helpful, the pier is emblematic of the Biden administration’s efforts to show concern for Palestinian civilians, while maintaining support for Israel. President Joe Biden’s attempts to take a middle-of-the-road position on the war in Gaza expose him to political attacks from all sides.

Nuanced approaches to policy that recalculate in response to new information or events are often commendable. Indeed, some supporters of Biden’s approach argue that that is exactly what the US leader is trying to do — listen to all sides and adjust policy as needed, while holding firm to core principles.

However, Biden and his foreign policy advisers face intense polarization in American responses to the war in Gaza. Pro-Israel Republicans and many older Democrats view anything short of absolute support for Israel, especially in the aftermath of the horrific Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, as a betrayal. Democratic critics, who are mostly younger, see US military support for Israel as directly contributing to the death of many thousands of Palestinian civilians and growing famine; for them, such support equals complicity in severe human rights violations, at a minimum.

In the immediate wake of the October attack, Biden and his senior officials doubled down on support for Israel. However, as Israel pursued an intensely destructive form of warfare in the crowded and isolated Gaza Strip, the US administration faced growing demands to use its leverage to mitigate or stop the violence. To Biden’s frustration, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unwilling to cooperate. The current Israeli government either does not care if it faces consequences in Washington, or is calling Biden’s bluff and simply does not believe that the US government will take serious action against Israel.

Provision of weaponry is perhaps Washington’s greatest source of leverage with Israel

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The Biden administration has shifted its rhetoric and tinkered with some elements of policy in an effort to respond to criticisms that it is too willing to support Israel. During a speech on Sunday, Biden called for an “immediate ceasefire,” a demand he had been unwilling to make earlier in the war. The president and his officials have frequently repeated a call for a two-state solution. Over the past few months, Biden increasingly has criticized Netanyahu, while maintaining his overall support for Israel.

The US provides support for Israel in many forms, but its provision of weaponry is, perhaps, the most important, and is Washington’s greatest source of leverage with Israel. For critics of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, it is essential to place conditions on or altogether halt deliveries of US offensive weapons. For many supporters of Israel, threatening to limit or cut off arms supplies — let alone actually doing it — would be a betrayal.

The US government process of providing or approving the sale of weapons to other countries can be complex — involving multiple funding streams, approval processes, and timelines — which makes it difficult to properly analyze US funding and approval for sending weapons to Israel. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has taken some steps that suggest increased scrutiny of which weapons it sends to Israel.

On May 8, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that the administration had paused a specific shipment of particularly large bombs to Israel, citing the “context of unfolding events in Rafah.” In a CNN interview that aired the same day, Biden said that his administration would stop sending certain types of weapons if Israel pushed into “population centers” in Rafah, though he said that Washington would still provide defensive weapons. He acknowledged that some civilians have been killed by US-provided bombs. In a statement that seemed stunning to many observers, the US leader said: “We’re not walking away from Israel’s security. We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.”

Shifts in US policy that might seem huge to Biden’s team seem completely insufficient to critics

Kerry Boyd Anderson

However, the Biden administration has continued to actively supply weapons to Israel. In March, the Washington Post reported that the administration had approved more than 100 military sales to Israel since the war in Gaza began. On May 14, the administration informed Congress that it plans to proceed with the sale of more than $1 billion in weapons to Israel. Under a 2016 agreement, the US provides $3.8 billion per year to Israel in military aid, and Congress in April approved an additional $17 billion in defense aid for Israel.

The Biden administration has tried to provide aid to Gaza, including via airdrops and now the pier, but has been unwilling to use its full leverage with Israel to allow sufficient amounts of aid into the enclave by road. Biden also suspended funding for UNRWA in January after Israel accused UNRWA employees of supporting Hamas; since then, Congress has ensured that no US aid will resume to the agency until at least March 2025.

It appears that the Washington administration has not come to terms with the fact that some small shifts in US policy that might seem huge to Biden’s team seem completely insufficient to critics. For officials who come from traditional Washington foreign policy circles, pausing even one delivery of weapons to Israel, calling for a ceasefire, or acknowledging that US-provided weapons have killed civilians can feel like enormous changes, but to younger Americans who have a fundamentally different view of the conflict, these barely make a dent. At the same time, for those who unconditionally support Israel, these policy adjustments appear to be an abandonment of Israel. Biden’s efforts to find a compromise position risk angering everyone, while reassuring no one.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch
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