On Israel, Biden’s quest for balance - Hindustan Times
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On Israel, Biden’s quest for balance

May 14, 2024 10:26 PM IST

A glance at public debate in America on Israel shows why the White House is struggling to manage the politics and optics of the war

To grasp the impossible political trap that Joe Biden finds himself in Israel, sample these four distinct moments, from four distinct sites, in Washington DC.

(FILES) Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Biden spoke by phone with Netanyahu April 4, 2024, the White House said, amid growing outrage over an Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers in Gaza. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)(AFP)
(FILES) Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Biden spoke by phone with Netanyahu April 4, 2024, the White House said, amid growing outrage over an Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers in Gaza. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)(AFP)

Emancipation Hall, Capitol Hill: May 7 was the Holocaust Museum’s Annual Day of Remembrance. Survivors attended a moving event marked by the spirit of Never Again. In New York, Columbia University had just called in the New York Police Department to remove student protesters outraged by Israel’s brutality in Gaza. But the political consensus on the issue, where the leadership of neither major American party deemed the protests as a legitimate political act, was striking. In an otherwise divided polity, the Democratic Biden and the Republican (House Speaker) Mike Johnson slammed what they saw as anti-Semitism in the campus protests.

Sitting in the hall, Irvin, whose grandparents died in Auschwitz and whose parents migrated from Hungary to the United States (US) in 1956, explained what, for him, was the line dividing criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. “I have no problem with criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu or the Israeli government. I support a two-State solution. But when you criticise the Israeli State, its right to exist, and chant slogans seeking its destruction, you attack the only Jewish State in the world. That’s anti-Semitism.” For Irvin and many Jewish Americans in the hall that morning, Biden — whose political socialisation happened in the two decades after World War II and for whom liberalism meant standing up against anti-Semitism — was a hero.

Starbucks, Pennsylvania Avenue: House Representative Ro Khanna, a rising Democratic Party star likely to throw his hat in the presidential primary for 2028, is a surrogate for the Biden campaign, especially in swing states with sceptical voters on the Left.

Over coffee, a short walk from the Hill, he elaborated on what he saw was Biden’s biggest mistake. “We gave too much of a blank cheque. We should never have bear-hugged Netanyahu given his history of having insulted President (Barack) Obama, having been an anti-democratic voice within Israel trying to get rid of the Supreme Court autonomy, and having never been a partner for peace.” Khanna added that while condemning the terror attack and supporting Israel’s right to get the Hamas perpetrators, the US should have insisted there could not be “indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and refugee camps”, that there could not be “denial of sufficient aid”. “We should not have isolated ourselves in the UN in calls for a ceasefire. We should have made it clear our weapons would be contingent on Netanyahu not defying the American assessment of what it will take to preserve Palestinian lives.”

As protests continued in universities, Khanna admitted that the war was hurting Biden not just among Muslim-Americans and Arab-Americans but also the young and progressives and voters of colour. Biden needed to have a more balanced approach and was coming around to it, the lawmaker insisted.

Dirksen Building, Capitol Hill: After seven months of standing up for Israel’s right to respond to Hamas and destroy the terror outfit in the manner it deemed fit and defending Israel from Iranian strikes, Biden finally did attempt to strike a “balance”. On Thursday, Biden told CNN that if Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Rafah, the US would withhold offensive weapons, soon after reports that it had withheld some bomb shipments.

On the Hill, there was fury. Johnson now attacked the President. At a hearing of a Senate committee in Dirksen, Lindsey Graham rebuked defence secretary Lloyd Austin for daring to tell Israel how to fight its war “when everyone around them wants to kill all the Jews”. A set of Democratic lawmakers opposed Biden. Speculation swirled in DC about how Biden risked losing the centrist, centre-Right and Jewish support, which was much larger than the anti-Israel, Left and Muslim vote. And Netanyahu publicly defied Biden saying Israel will go it alone.

White House press briefing room: Biden was now getting hit from all sides — the pro-Israel crowd for betrayal and the anti-Israel crowd for doing too little. And so, this Monday, Jake Sullivan offered a policy overview of what Biden believed.

The war began due to Hamas and the US wants the terror group defeated. Palestinian civilians are in hell. Israel should do more to protect civilians but what is happening isn’t genocide. The US will surge humanitarian support. The US is sending “a massive amount of military assistance” to Israel to help it defend itself against Iran and its proxies. But it has stopped the delivery of 2,000 pound bombs since the US believes these should not be dropped on densely populated cities. The US also believes Israel shouldn’t do a “major military operation in the heart of Rafah”. Biden won’t provide offensive weapons for such an operation were they to occur, but it hasn’t occurred yet and US and Israel are talking about other ways to defeat Hamas.

Biden also believes that military pressure is necessary but not sufficient to defeat Hamas and Israel needs a political plan for the future of Gaza and the Palestinians, or terrorists will return as they are in Gaza City. Israel’s future rests in greater integration with the region, including normalisation with Saudi Arabia, and this was a historic opportunity. The US is working on a ceasefire and hostage deal; this can happen immediately if Hamas releases wounded, old and women hostages. Iran and its proxies represented a threat to Israel, regional stability and the US, and Washington is working to prevent an escalation into a wider regional war.

Whether Biden’s latest policy approach is enough to satisfy antagonistic constituencies within America, while shaping Israeli behaviour and carving out a wider regional accord, is to be seen. The recent track record doesn’t offer much hope. But just listening to these voices reveals the complexity of the public debate on Israel in America and its multiple drivers, and offers some tentative understanding of why Biden is acting the way he is.

The views expressed are personal

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