Joe Biden and U.S. Policy Toward Israel

The matter of moral sympathy—who attracts it, who gives it, what action it inspires—can be cruelly fickle. Six months ago, Hamas-led militants killed some twelve hundred people in Israel and took more than two hundred hostages, igniting a war in Gaza, in which Israel has killed some thirty-two thousand people. But it was Israel’s fatal attack on seven aid workers in Gaza, who were part of José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen—all but one of them non-Palestinians, including a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen—that compelled the Biden Administration to issue its strongest rebuke.

W.C.K. had built a makeshift jetty to bring food ashore in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands face the prospect of famine, because Israel had resisted calls to allow more aid in by land. The seven W.C.K. workers were travelling in a convoy of three cars, at least one of which was clearly marked with the organization’s logo, when they were hit by drone-fired missiles, even though the group had coördinated its mission with the Israel Defense Forces. The Israeli military called the strikes a “tragedy,” and blamed them on a drone operator who mistook a bag for a gun, and on officers who did not review details of the convoy’s plans. Two officers were dismissed, and others were reprimanded. But W.C.K. was unsatisfied; in a statement, it called for an “independent” investigation and for “systemic change” toward protecting the provision of humanitarian aid.

Andrés, a Spanish-born chef first known for creating popular restaurants in Washington, D.C., has put together an unusually high-profile relief group, which specializes in preparing local food for people in areas devastated by natural disasters and war. He is a supporter of President Biden, who called him on Tuesday to offer his sympathies. But later, in an interview with Reuters, Andrés urged the Administration to do more to end the war, saying that it is “complicated to understand” how the U.S. could send the “military to do humanitarian work,” while weapons it provides “are killing civilians.”

The attack laid bare the untenable contradictions in Biden’s policy toward Israel. He has called its bombing campaign “indiscriminate” and said that an invasion of Rafah, in southern Gaza, would cross a “red line.” The Administration has air-dropped supplies into Gaza, even as it has furnished Israel with bombs, rockets, and other lethal aid, and pressed Congress to approve the sale of F-15 jets to the nation. In political terms, the contradictions have left Biden in no man’s land—more critical of Israel than its American supporters want, but not critical enough for Democrats and activists who have demanded that he pressure the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to curb the suffering. “What the people of Israel must understand,” Senator Bernie Sanders, an important Biden ally, said last week, is that “they cannot continue to wage this immoral war against innocent people and expect taxpayers of the United States to support them.”

By Thursday, Biden’s frustrations had reached a breaking point. During a tense thirty-minute telephone call with Netanyahu, according to the White House, the President said that an “immediate ceasefire is essential,” described the “overall humanitarian situation” and strikes on aid workers as “unacceptable,” and warned, for the first time, that U.S. policy “will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action” to address those issues. The Administration did not specify any consequences, but officials had signalled before the call that Biden might slow or halt shipments of categories of arms. Hours later, the Israeli government announced new routes for relief supplies into Gaza, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the “real test is results.”

Pressure on Netanyahu to reach a ceasefire has grown in Israel, too. Amos Harel, the senior defense analyst at Haaretz, said that, half a year after the horrors of October 7th, “the biggest conclusion of all is: we had the sympathy of the world because of the atrocities, and we somehow managed to lose that, because of the way the war was handled.” In recent months, Israelis have mostly refrained from protesting the government, but last weekend tens of thousands of them staged the largest demonstrations since the war began; some later tried to break through barriers near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, in what police termed a “riot.” The protesters blamed Netanyahu for security failures that allowed the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, and demanded that he reach a ceasefire deal that could bring the hostages home. (Officially, Israel counts a hundred and thirty still held by Hamas, including at least thirty-four who have died.) On Wednesday, Benny Gantz, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, and his main rival, called for elections in September. Gantz stopped short of resigning, but he is an influential voice, and his decision, as one U.S. official put it, “breaks the seal.”

For months, Biden sidestepped calls to place conditions on military aid. His resistance runs deep: he is viscerally attached to the idea of Israel, which he first visited in 1973, and withholding arms during a war could cost him the support of pro-Israel voters, at a moment when he is straining to rebuild a political coalition broad enough to defeat Donald Trump in November. Moreover, Hamas has threatened to mount further attacks akin to October 7th until the state of Israel is destroyed. But Netanyahu has often seemed intent on stringing Biden along, if not humiliating him. Most recently, as Blinken and other senior officials have shuttled around the Middle East to negotiate possible deals for a ceasefire, Netanyahu’s top intelligence chiefs have not attended some rounds of talks, blunting the chance of an agreement. Whether Biden moves to withhold arms, and with what force, may well hinge on what Israel does in the days ahead.

The President’s ultimatum earned him few immediate political points: Israel’s critics derided it as too little, too late; Israel’s supporters accused him of abandonment. But it has the potential to alter the future of a war that could yet break in multiple directions. Washington’s primary goal has been to avert the spread of a larger conflict, but that risk increased last week, when Israeli planes bombed a building next to Iran’s Embassy in Damascus, killing seven Iranian security officials, including high-ranking commanders who Israel said had directed Hamas, Hezbollah, and other militias. Iran vowed retaliation.

The combination of issues converging at once was alarming, even by the standards of the Middle East. But Andrés was not giving up hope that moral sympathy will win in what he has come to see as “a war against humanity itself.” In such a war, he said, “humanity eventually will always prevail.” ♦

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