The Crisis in Israel and Gaza Tests Biden’s Foreign Policy*

On Sept. 29, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a conference audience that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” Sullivan conveyed the Democratic administration’s satisfaction and confidence with the apparent success of its approach to the area, where U.S.-sponsored negotiations were moving forward between Saudi Arabia and Israel seeking to normalize relations and secure a “more stable, more integrated region.” It was a path that followed in the wake of the Abraham Accords that forged agreements among the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan during Donald Trump’s term, and with which Joe Biden intended to halt both Iran and China’s progress.

Sullivan also hedged his remarks and admitted that his assessment needed to add an emphatic, “for now, and that it could all change.” And eight days later, everything changed indeed.

Hamas’s attack against Israel on Saturday and the strong military response by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have brought about the area’s worst crisis in decades. Biden’s strategy—basically ignoring the Palestinian issue and retaining the two-state solution, yet not doing anything to encourage it either—has proved to be unsuccessful. And now, a little over a year from the 2024 presidential election, Biden’s entire foreign policy is being tested. After Trump’s unilateralism and isolationism, Biden had opted for multilateralism, but now this crisis adds to the one caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine and the tension with China.

Full Support

After the attack by Hamas, Biden put aside his disagreements with Natanyahu, particularly with Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms, which increased the power of far-right religious parties and expanded settlement in the West Bank. The relationship between Netanyahu and Biden has been tense since they met in the 1980s when Netanyahu served at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, then later, as vice president under Barack Obama Biden watched Netanyahu try to torpedo the nuclear agreement with Iran, and more recently since Biden took office. The strained relationship is evident from the fact Biden has taken months to call the prime minister and has not yet received him at the White House, holding his first meeting with Netanyahu in September during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Biden, who asserted in March that Israelis “cannot continue down this road,” in the last few days has repeatedly expressed in with both words and actions a strong and unequivocal support for Israel. He has deployed the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier and its fleet to the region, and in the following weeks, he will add the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group. He has expedited the delivery of equipment and arms to Israel, a country the U.S. already supplies with $3.8 billion a year in military aid. And he has also sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Middle East.

Although Biden and his envoys have acknowledged U.S. respect for international humanitarian law, currently they are not focused on asking Israel to use restraint in its attacks on Gaza, but focused instead on Israel’s right to self-defense. And the president, who compared Hamas to the Islamic State, has earned the support of people not prone to offer Biden such praise, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has links to the Republican Party and is its top donor, and David Friedman, who served as U.S. ambassador in Israel under Trump and who said that the “moral, tactical, diplomatic and military support that [the U.S.] has provided Israel over the past few days has been exceptional.”

Numerous Challenges

Biden is facing numerous challenges. There are American citizens among Hamas’ hostages. The greatest fear is that a new battlefront will open up with Hezbollah and a regional conflict will break out, pitting the U.S. against Iran. And although the administration hopes to revive the talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, for the moment Riyadh is not responding to Washington’s calls to condemn Hamas’ actions. And experts like Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies are certain that “all efforts at normalization are on hold for the foreseeable future.”

The longer the conflict continues, and as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties grow and the humanitarian tragedy increases, the more Biden will struggle to keep ally support for Israel airtight. And James Steinberg—dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and who served in the administrations of Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton—said the greatest diplomatic challenge is not finding support during this initial moment, but maintaining the focus on what will happen when it is over. “The challenge here is how do you both reassure Israel and send an unmistakably tough message to Hamas and Iran without leading to an escalation in this crisis,” he told The Atlantic.

Biden restored funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency that provides humanitarian and development aid to Palestinians, which Trump had frozen (involving $150 million in aid in addition to another $75 million for economic and development funds for Gaza and the West Bank). Until now, the president has been able to rely on more or less consensual and firm support for Israel within the Democratic Party than what was customary. In recent years, the voices daring to question Israel and highlight the Palestinian cause have grown louder. This turn reflects a movement that has also taken place within the party base. According to a Gallup poll taken in March, for the first time more Democrats are showing sympathy for Palestinians than for Israelis (49% vs. 38%).

Moreover, this crisis comes at a moment of radicalized political polarization and a presidential election campaign in the United States. Ultra-conservative Republican voices are pressuring Biden to persevere in his support for Israel no matter what (although the approval of any new aid is now impaired precisely due to the paralysis sown by the Republicans, plunging Congress into chaos as it leaves the House without a speaker. And there is Sen. Tom Cotton, who has said, “If President Biden can stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes, I hope President Biden can stand with Israel for as long as it takes.”

Republican presidential candidates such as Sen. Tim Scott have accused Biden of having “blood on his hands,” linking without evidence Hamas’ attack to the $6 billion in humanitarian aid to Iran that the U.S. unfroze as part of an agreement to release five American citizens. (Washington and Qatar reinstated the hold on Tehran’s access to those funds on Thursday).

The one person who has done Biden an election favor is former President Trump, the overwhelming Republican favorite for the 2024 race, by criticizing Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence and praising Hezbollah, something that has earned Trump disdain from across the entire political spectrum.

*Editor’s note: The original language version of this article is available with a paid subscription.

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