President Biden’s Netanyahu burden - Hindustan Times
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President Biden’s Netanyahu burden

Apr 17, 2024 10:00 PM IST

By allowing Israel to set an impossible war aim, ignore humanitarian concerns, and risk a wider war, Biden has made the biggest mistake of his political career

In foreign policy, like in life, never let friends dictate your posture. The interests of your friends, even your closest ones, will not be identical to yours. At times, there can be a trade-off involved, for give-and-take is essential in diplomacy just like in any human interaction. But letting friends force or manipulate you to agree to their objective and get you to endorse and enable actions to achieve that objective — even if you know that objective is unattainable and is destroying your reputation globally and weakening you internally in the process — defies common sense.

President Joe Biden (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli and US government officials, in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday. (AP)
President Joe Biden (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli and US government officials, in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday. (AP)

Yet, that’s exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in doing to United States (US) President Joe Biden. Or, to put it more accurately, that is what Biden has allowed Netanyahu to do to him and the US.

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A caveat is essential here. America’s relationship with Israel is intimate for a range of historical factors and cannot be understood through a narrow State-centric, interest-centric or sovereignty-centric frame. Biden is neither the first nor will he be the last US president to maintain a special relationship with Israel. After Hamas’s terrible terror attacks on October 7, any US administration would have supported Israel unconditionally, unhesitatingly and fully. And Israel isn’t the only actor at fault in what has happened in West Asia.

But just see a sample of what Netanyahu has got the US to sign on to in the past six months.

First, Israel decided that its war aim was to destroy Hamas altogether. This required the full invasion of Gaza. It was always clear that this would result in Israel killing thousands given how embedded Hamas was in Palestinian society, even if the astounding nature and scale of what would turn out to be Israel’s war crimes wasn’t known. Biden endorsed this objective instead of telling Netanyahu on day one that the US was with Israel, but Tel Aviv needed to have a target that was more achievable and didn’t entail this degree of human suffering.

Instead, Netanyahu used Biden’s genuine ideological commitment to Israel’s security and the surge in public sympathy for Israel to extract an American commitment to the goal of fully eliminating Hamas. If Biden thought Israel could pull this off, his judgment was wrong; if he thought Israel couldn’t achieve the aim, yet went along with it, he was being dishonest; if he thought human lives lost in the process didn’t matter, it was cruel; and if he didn’t realise that Netanyahu was setting up this aim with the intent of prolonging his own stint in power, the veteran American politician didn’t read the Israeli leader’s intent correctly. This was the first mistake.

Second, Netanyahu then refused to make space for any humanitarian concession for Palestinians in Gaza. In the last six months, the US has had to exert tremendous pressure on Israel at every juncture — from the opening of Rafah and then the Kerem Shalom crossing to enable food and aid to Gaza to air-dropping aid directly to announcing its intent to establish a port to provide aid directly into Gaza to forcing Israel to promise more aid through other crossings in northern Gaza after a direct and blunt message earlier this month to forcing Netanyahu to pause his plans to attack Rafah.

The fact that Netanyahu hasn’t cared about the plight of Palestinians one bit reflects poorly on Israel. But the fact that the US has had to invest so much for so little at every stage, and yet has protected Netanyahu and not called him out, reflects poorly on America and Biden.

Third, Biden allowed Israel, its proxies and the wider Jewish lobby in the US to paint any criticism of Israel’s war aims or conduct as anti-Semitic instead of firmly defending the political space to criticise Israel. This enabled Netanyahu to have much greater sway over American public opinion even as he was being inhuman on the ground. Biden also allowed Israel to ignore global public opinion for months by offering him a blank cheque at the UN. This enabled Netanyahu to ignore the criticism across not just the Arab street but the wider Global South and even among people of conscience and colour in the West.

Biden thought this public display of solidarity with Israel would allow the US to privately shape Netanyahu’s conduct. Instead, the US lost tremendous goodwill and credibility across the world, Biden got much weaker at home politically as his own base turned against him for being complicit in the war crimes, and all of this actually diminished American leverage over Netanyahu.

And finally, while there can be no defence of what Iran and its proxies have done across the region, Netanyahu stirred the pot by directly killing Iranian commanders at an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria. Given that the US has been so focused on preventing a wider regional escalation, if Netanyahu did this without telling the Americans — and the US insists it didn’t know — he was once again forcing Biden’s hand by sharpening the Israel-Iran conflict. If Israel did this while keeping the Americans in the loop, Biden allowed Israel to gamble with the possibility of a wider war. The US may have succeeded in helping Israel repel Iranian strikes for now but the situation remains fragile and continues to require a deft American balancing act.

Biden has been America’s most effective president of this century. He rescued American democracy, brought the country out of the pandemic, offered a new economic blueprint, has been internally inclusive and offered a methodical and thoughtful approach to several foreign policy questions. He may still win the next elections too. But by allowing his Israeli friend, and a deeply unreliable and cynical friend at that, to set American policy, he has made the biggest political mistake of his life.

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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