Thursday, 19 October 2023 00:39

Biden came and went to Israel. What comes next?

President Joe Biden joins Israel’s prime minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023.

President Joe Biden’s quick visit on Wednesday to wartime Israel was designed as a show of support for the close US ally, one that inspired confidence in Israel as it pursues its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza. His presence, it was thought, would calm things down.

But that only addresses one side of the conflict. If Biden fails to do everything he can to curtail the violence now, say analysts and insiders, his visit may ultimately damage the United States’ standing in the Middle East and its ability to lead in the world. That’s because the short-, medium-, and long-term implications of Israel’s operation against Gaza, should it continue unabated, will be much worse than the political risks Biden would need to take to secure a ceasefire and invest in a sustainable political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Biden boarded the plane to Israel on Tuesday, an explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City killed at least 471 people. The cause remains unclear and hotly disputed; the Gaza Health Ministry blamed an Israeli strike, while Israel pointed the finger at the armed group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The White House National Security Council released a rare statement on its intelligence-gathering, largely siding with Israel: “our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday.”

In any case, that preliminary conclusion, which has yet to be independently verified, will do nothing to contain the massive demonstrations in the Arab world sparked by the fatal explosion, as well as the ongoing bombing of Gaza. Even as Biden was en route to Israel, anger over the deaths also led Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestine Liberation Organization to cancel a planned summit in Amman that would have been the second leg of his trip. That Egypt and Jordan — close security partners of the US — would snub Biden was a major embarrassment for the president.

In Israel, though, Biden spoke more forwardly about Palestinian rights than he had previously, stating clearly that “we mourn the loss of innocent Palestinian lives.” He pledged $100 million of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. But even that shift contrasted with the US’s efforts at the United Nations, where US diplomats vetoed a resolution calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said it would undermine the US’s diplomatic initiatives in the conflict.

“It’s clear that they don’t have a full appreciation for the humanitarian disaster unfolding before us in Gaza,” Khaled Elgindy of the Middle East Institute told me. Palestinians “have been completely stripped of their humanity, and that’s been normalized.”

Elgindy’s recommendations for the Biden administration are straightforward. “Call for a ceasefire,” he explained. “Tell Israel to turn the lights back on. Electricity, water, food — all of that should be unlimited. Don’t push people out of Gaza. Don’t let Israel go in on the ground. Put some guardrails and clear red lines about protecting civilians.”

Elgindy calls these policies “obvious, minimal stuff” that might have been possible under previous administrations. But the sheer scale of Hamas’s attacks on October 7 and the ongoing hostage crisis, as well as significant fractures within the domestic politics of Israel, Palestine, and the United States, can make even minimal policies seem impossible.

But if the unprecedented scale of human suffering among Palestinians doesn’t get the attention of Washington policymakers, then perhaps the potential for massive blowback across the Arab world will make the difference.

Where US policy stands after the Biden trip

Former US officials who were involved in the Iraq War are already proposing ideas for Gaza’s postwar planning, including reviving the Palestinian Authority’s administration of Gaza. But the focus on the day after misses what is happening to Palestinians right now.

“Nobody knows what the day after is because nobody knows what the day of is,” Elgindy told me.

Israel itself has not articulated its goals beyond getting rid of Hamas, which seems to contradict the vast human toll Palestinians in Gaza are experiencing. The experts I called are particularly concerned that the lack of a strong US perspective on that question is effectively enabling a military campaign based on revenge, not a bigger strategy.

“If Israel’s going to ask the world to support it as it does what it feels it needs to do to root out Hamas, that support should be contingent on understanding what its plan is at the back end,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Israel advocacy group J Street, told me.

Without such clarity, the risks of the war spilling into other countries only grows. And it is dire. Arab citizens came out to protest en masse in the middle of the night in capitals across the Middle East, and Arab governments appear frustrated with Biden’s tepid response to the situation in Gaza. The militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon poses a particularly acute danger should it get involved. And Lebanese citizens are already holding America responsible. Protesters outside the US Embassy in Beirut — an intensely fortified compound — threw rocks and lit fires. “We’re officially off the rails at this point,” Zaha Hassan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me.

Adjusting the administration’s language to humanize Palestinians is an important first step, said Hassan. And the Biden administration is slowly and cautiously tweaking its rhetoric. “Civilian lives must be protected and assistance must urgently reach those in need,” the White House said in a statement announcing the $100 million of aid.

A girl holds a Palestinian flag drawn in marker on white paper. It reads Gaza with a drawing of a heart.
A Palestinian girl holds up a hand-drawn picture of the national flag in the city of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank on October 18, 2023.

But nothing can move forward without a ceasefire, Hassan says, and without urgent humanitarian relief reaching Palestinians in Gaza, where there have been 3,478 fatalities, 12,500 injuries, and 1 million internally displaced people as of October 18, according to the UN.

Only a bigger strategic rethink that focuses on a resolution to the core conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will bring security to the people there. “The festering nature of the Palestinian issue is what brought us to this moment,” Hassan told me. Beyond appointing an envoy to address the humanitarian situation, “the administration needs to start thinking about rolling up its sleeves, and starting to think about how it’s going to build an international or a multilateral coalition of folks to work on a political solution.”

What Biden could do now

President Biden came into office with a team of advisers who were adamant that the US could focus on countering China and Russia in the world, and finally pivot away from the Middle East.

Ten days of unprecedented war have shown how farcical that was. Biden has said before that when it comes to domestic policy, he’s all about going big. Foreign policy is trickier — there’s not a strong domestic constituency for radically changing US statecraft, and the inertia of carrying on with outdated policies is difficult to escape.

But the Israel-Hamas war exposes a basic truth: Ignoring Palestine, as both the US and Israel have been guilty of doing, will make the Middle East more combustible. “There’s no way for this spiraling cycle of never-ending violence to ever end if there isn’t a state of Palestine,” Ben-Ami of J Street told me.

Ben-Ami said that Biden could recalibrate his message. “I think there’s a space here for the president, and perhaps it’s in concert with other world leaders, to articulate where they think things have to go when the fighting stops,” he told me. “And I think that may be important to put out there, even as the fighting is ongoing.” (J Street, for its part, hasn’t called for a ceasefire, and 100 former members of the advocacy group have urged it to do so.)

What Palestinians need is not more economic peace, the main focus of the remarkably unambitious policy of outgoing US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. And it’s not empty talk of a two-state solution that seems further than ever from reality. “Out of this rubble and out of this disaster, the world has to be committed to actually building a real state” for Palestinians, Ben-Ami said. “That may be a 20-year Marshall Plan–style investment, and it means not only rebuilding the physical infrastructure and building out an economy, but building a viable political structure.”

As Biden himself put it in Tel Aviv, “We must keep pursuing a path so that Israel and the Palestinian people can both live safely, in security, in dignity, and in peace.”

Waiting at the trailhead of that path, however, will only make the situation worse. “Neglect isn’t going to make these things go away, and it’s a very explosive situation,” Hassan said. Though Biden has largely stayed out of the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking game, he can no longer avoid it.