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OPINION

Biden’s bungled response on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

If an American president cannot leverage the US’s extraordinary political clout to advance core American values, what hope is there for succeeding anywhere else?

President Biden salutes as he boards Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base to go to Michigan on May 18.
President Biden salutes as he boards Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base to go to Michigan on May 18.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

No one expected President Biden to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority of his administration. He has had his hands full with critical priorities, including the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and racial justice. Even on the Middle East, his priority has been to negotiate a return to the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposed, thus inclining him to forego a new front with Israel over Palestine, especially as the prospects of peace seemed remote.

But once the latest confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians erupted in April, few expected what was to come from the Biden administration: resistance to condemn even the clearest violation of international law and human rights by Israel — such as the plans to evict Palestinians from their homes in a Jerusalem neighborhood — even before the condemnable Hamas rockets began flying into Israel. In the process, Biden’s image, his agenda to lead on human rights and international law, and his support from key Democratic constituents at home have been badly damaged.

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To put this in perspective, George W. Bush, who was considered a strong pro-Israel president, condemned Israel for “heavy-handed” action in 2002, when it launched a Gaza strike that targeted a Hamas leader but also killed 14 others, including children; this came at a time when Hamas was carrying out horrific suicide bombings that killed many more Israelis than the rockets fired on Israel in the past week. In contrast, Biden, who aspires to be a “beacon for the globe,” couldn’t bring himself to condemn planned Israeli evictions of Palestinians from their Jerusalem homes, an act that the United Nations said could constitute a war crime, or criticize Israeli bombings that killed more than 200 Palestinians, including scores of children, and brought down many high-rise buildings, including one housing the Associated Press and other media outlets.

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The net result is that Biden has badly damaged his credibility. But that’s only part of the story. The United States is not a bystander in Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it is part and parcel of the overwhelming asymmetry of power favoring Israel. When the United States does nothing, it is further implicated in what Israel does, which is directly enabled by decades of American support.

When thinking about US clout with Israel, most analysts, and an increasing number of critics within the halls of Congress, focus on the quantity of financial aid to Israel, now amounting to $3.8 billion a year, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of US assistance since WWII. That’s a lot, but that’s not what enables Israel the most. Three other American gifts are more central to Israeli superiority.

The first is shielding Israel at the United Nations, by discouraging, often vetoing, UN action against Israeli occupation. It is fair to say, that this shielding of Israel is one important reason that Israel has been able to maintain its 54-year-occupation of Palestinian territory. Even in this crisis, we saw elements of this as Biden moved to prevent even UN Security Council statements calling for a cease-fire.

Second, a principal reason that Israel maintains military superiority, not only in relation to Palestinian residents of occupied land but also in relation to any other regional power, is that it has been US policy to uniquely provide Israel with qualitative military edge to maintain its supremacy.

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A third reason for the imbalance of power is that the United States has used its clout and resources with Arab countries to make deals with Israel, without serious concessions on Palestine, from the Camp David Accords to the Abraham Accords — taking key Arab states out of the equation of Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians.

If an American president cannot leverage this extraordinary and unprecedented support to advance core American values, what hope is there for succeeding anywhere else?

At home, Biden has also badly misread his own Democratic constituency, taking an approach that’s been a throwback to another era of Democratic culture, seemingly disconnected from the dramatic shift that has taken hold in Democrats’ attitudes on Israel/Palestine.

Contrary to prevailing views, this shift is not only among progressives; it’s far more pervasive.

A recent Gallup poll, for example, showed that 53 percent of Democrats supported putting more pressure on the Israelis to advance peace, “up from 43% in 2018 and no more than 38% in the decade before that, marking a substantive change in Democrats’ perspective on U.S. policy.” Our own University of Maryland polls have for years shown that most Democrats support applying sanctions or even more serious measures on Israel over its settlement policy in the West Bank. Two-thirds of Democrats (and 60 percent overall) say their congressional representatives are leaning toward Israel more than they are (when we exclude those who say they don’t know). Overwhelmingly, 78 percent of Democrats favor a democratic Israel, even if it would no longer be a Jewish state, over a Jewish state without full equality for all its citizens. These trends have been solidified by the Democrats’ fear of Trumpism and threats to democracy and social justice that helped mobilize them in the 2020 election.

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Without a push to arrange for an earlier cease-fire, more Israelis, and many more Palestinians (the ratio of dead has been 1:20), have been killed, thousands of Palestinians made homeless, and a besieged, impoverished, occupied population has been thrown into even more misery.

Neither Israel nor Hamas wants a bigger war, and neither has a military solution; this round will likely end soon, even as each wants to reach a point of claiming “victory.” Palestinians and Israelis will go back to what was an abhorrent status quo, bad for both sides, but overwhelmingly bad for the Palestinians who, after 54 years, remain under intolerable conditions of occupation. And Biden will turn his attention farther away — until the next inevitable round of killing and destruction.

But make no mistake: Biden’s bungling of this crisis will impact the way he is seen, at home and abroad

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.