Biden’s Strategy faces a test as Israel pushes into southern Gaza

President Joe Biden walks off Air Force One as he arrives in Boston, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. While the president has backed Israel’s right to defend itself after the Hamas terrorist attack, his team has increased the pressure to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. (Photos: NY Times)
WASHINGTON — For two months, President Joe Biden has strongly backed Israel’s right to defend itself after the Oct 7, in effect banking credibility with Jerusalem to be spent on moderating its response. But as Israeli forces push into southern Gaza, the question is when Biden’s account will be drained and the checks start to bounce.اضافة اعلان

According to the New York Times, administration officials insist they have meaningfully influenced Israel’s actions over the last few weeks thanks to the president’s approach, and continue to do so. But the nightly phone calls between Washington and Jerusalem have turned increasingly fraught and the public messages by some of the administration’s top officials have become sharper in recent days.

The friction was evident Tuesday when the State Department imposed visa bans on Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have committed violence against Palestinians, a rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not doing more to restrain such attacks far from the action in Gaza. At the same time, in defiance of Washington’s warnings, Netanyahu said that Israel’s military would maintain security control over Gaza long after supposedly defeating Hamas.

The stakes are high for both sides. Netanyahu’s Israel needs the Biden administration’s support to continue resupplying its forces and to shield it from international pressure from other corners, including the United Nations. Biden, for his part, has become so closely associated with Israel that he effectively owns its military operation and has absorbed withering political attacks, especially from the left wing of his own party, which has accused him of enabling the mass slaughter of civilians.

For the moment, Biden has left it to subordinates to deliver the tougher messages in public. In recent days, Vice President Kamala Harris declared that “Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians” and sent her own national security adviser to Israel to convey the concerns of Arab leaders she met with during a trip to Dubai.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was imperative for the United States that “the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza not be repeated in the south” and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Israel that “if you drive them into the arms of the enemy you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Good-cop-bad-cop diplomacy
Biden himself, though, has measured his words and said little about Israel’s military assault on southern Gaza since it began a few days ago. At a campaign fundraiser in Boston on Tuesday, he focused again on October 7 rather than its devastating aftermath.

He boasted of his affinity for Israel at a doner event, saying he “immediately got on a plane and went over” after Oct 7 while adding that he had persuaded the Israelis to allow more aid into Gaza. “I’ve been a strong, strong supporter of Israel from the time I entered the United States Senate in 1973,” Biden said.

Sullivan and John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, in recent days have likewise stressed the culpability of Hamas and support for Israel’s response even as they urged care for civilians.

While the words were not inconsistent, the disparity in tone and emphasis reflected to some extent traditional good-cop-bad-cop diplomacy, where a president leaves it to others to lay down a harder line. Aides maintained that “there’s no daylight,” as Sullivan put it, between the president and his team, adding that in private, Biden has been just as forceful with Netanyahu as his vice president and Cabinet secretaries.

“The president wants to avoid criticizing Bibi in public to the farthest extent possible,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former Middle East special envoy. “However, having Vice President Harris speak out so clearly is the closest you can get — one degree of separation.” Likewise, he said, with Blinken and Austin.

“I see it as a very carefully calibrated public campaign made necessary by their concern that the message is not getting through in private,” added Indyk, who worked alongside Biden and Blinken in President Barack Obama’s administration. “I don’t remember a time when so many senior officials spoke out in concert with such a clear warning to Israel.”

Critics of Biden’s embrace of Israel were unimpressed, suggesting he was empowering his team to publicly chide Israel without actually doing anything to stop the war.

“The Biden administration is trying to have its cake and eat it too,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an advocacy group. “It wants to respond to growing public demand to rein in Israeli atrocities, while satisfying donor demands for unconditional military support for Israel. Ultimately, the Israelis will only pay attention to what the Biden administration actually does, not just what it says.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, some conservatives faulted Biden for undermining his own stated support for Israel.

“Up until a week ago, the Biden administration had been pretty solid in its support of Israel’s stated goal of destroying Hamas,” said Enia Krivine, an Israel specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The administration gave Israel about eight weeks of time and space and now is beginning to assert conditions for continued support.”

She added that Israel wants “to keep the U.S. on its side for as long as possible” but may find it impossible to fully accede to the Biden administration’s appeals and so “Jerusalem may eventually have to decide between appeasing Washington and fully accomplishing the goals of the war.”

The clock is ticking
Biden has made a point of regularly calling Netanyahu and continues to send a parade of officials to meet with the prime minister and his officials. Philip H. Gordon, the vice president’s national security adviser, was in Tel Aviv on Tuesday to pass along the anxiety of the Arab leaders Harris had met in Dubai and their insistence on an eventual political path to Palestinian self-rule.

Gordon was focusing on the day-after questions of what will happen in Gaza once Israel completes its war on Hamas. After meetings with Israeli officials, Gordon was scheduled to head to the West Bank city Ramallah on Wednesday to consult with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, which partially runs the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority resists Israeli settlements and compensates the families of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those held for violent attacks, but, unlike Hamas, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and has to an extent coordinated with Israeli security forces.

Biden and Netanyahu are at odds over the day-after question. While Biden agrees that Hamas must be removed from power in Gaza, he opposes an Israeli re-occupation of the coastal enclave. Instead, he favors what he calls a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority taking over Gaza as well. But Netanyahu has resisted that and on Tuesday said only Israel can ensure that Gaza will remain demilitarized after Hamas is destroyed. “I’m not ready to close my eyes and accept any other arrangement,” he said.

While the war continues, the clock is ticking and White House officials recognize that there may be a limit to how long they can preserve the public alignment with Israel.

“I think U.S. policy has a shelf life of four to six weeks,” said Cliff Kupchan, chair of the Eurasia Group, who had just returned from a trip to the region. “If this war is still ongoing in January, dissent within the Democratic Party and strong international pressure will probably cause Biden to pressure Israel to scale back military operations.”

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