U.S. Offers Mix of Advice and Warning in Full Support of Israel

By | Oct 16, 2023
Black and White Images of Joseph Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu are pictured with the Gaza Strip, colored red, in the middle. The image of Gaza overlays white concentric circles.

Jewish politics and power

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1. Influencing From Within

It’s been a week and a half since darkness cast its shadow over Israel, and the Biden administration is fully engaged. Fully, as in almost daily calls between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; a multi-stop shuttle diplomacy trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken; support visits from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others; the deployment of two aircraft carriers to the region; and plane-loads of military equipment landing daily in Israel.

In his speeches, public comments and tweets, President Biden has made clear that his focus on supporting Israel is more than an issue of policy, that it comes from a deep heartfelt sentiment of shock, of grief and of love.

“The Jews have been subject to abuse, prejudice, and attempts to wipe them out for thousands of years,” Biden said in an interview on 60 Minutes on CBS that aired Sunday evening. “For me, it’s about decency, respect, honor. It’s just simply wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It violates every religious principle I have…every single principle my father taught me.”

America’s strategy is driven not only by feelings but also by the understanding that if Israel does not take measures to limit the loss of innocent lives in Gaza, it will face steep international pressure, making it hard to complete its mission.

Biden and his team are treading a very fine line here.

Coming from a position of unquestioning support will ease discussions with Israel on the very sensitive issue of limiting military actions and adopting a more measured response. Netanyahu and most Israelis view Biden right now as a true friend and take his advice and his warnings as valuable feedback meant to help Israel in its time of need.

Pushing too hard could backfire, and lead Israelis to revert to the “we’re not America’s 51st state” rhetoric seen in the past.

So far, Biden has been conducting this dialogue masterfully. But when the ground war begins and the horrible stories of Palestinian victims multiply  dramatically, it will get harder to maintain a double posture.

2. America’s Concerns

The Biden administration’s main interest now is ensuring a safe land corridor, through Egypt, that will allow the exit of foreign nationals and potentially Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip and the entry of basic necessities, including fuel, food and medicine, into Gaza. This corridor, if opened on a regular and well-managed basis, could serve as a pressure valve, alleviating the most pressing needs.

The United States has also reminded Israel publicly and privately about the need to adhere to international laws of war. “It is really important that Israel, in all the anger and frustration…operate[s] by the rules of war,” Biden said Wednesday, addressing a group of Jewish communal leaders invited to the White House.

This issue has come up in conversations Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, military officials and diplomats have held with their Israeli counterparts in recent days. It boils down to allowing as many civilians as possible to leave northern Gaza before Israel rolls in, to ensuring that war plans are focused on known military and government targets, and to recognizing the need to protect civilian life and allowing humanitarian assistance even during fighting.

There’s no way of knowing how a ground operation will play out and therefore no way for Israel to reassure America that its concerns will be addressed. But these ongoing discussions may help Israel understand those concerns and do its best to avoid a clash further down the road.

3. Red Lines or Gentle Guidance?

Biden and his administration are making a point of not declaring red lines or spelling out the dos and don’ts for Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Instead, Washington is trying to outline a general set of principles for Israel to understand, and hopefully follow: Ensuring Gazans’ access to basic necessities; allowing time for civilians to leave the area with the understanding that it will be impossible for all to evacuate; and thinking of the day after, a day in which Israel may end up in control of much of the Gaza Strip. (Biden did say In the 60 Minutes interview that occupying Gaza would be “a big mistake” for Israel.)

These guidelines, if kept, will help the United States help Israel. Adhering to at least minimal humanitarian standards and to basic rules of military engagement will allow Biden to fend off critics of the Israeli military operation at home and in the international community.

4. Hostages First

The hostage issue may be the most difficult of all.

As Israeli forces amass along the Gaza border waiting for their orders, the fate of the now-estimated 199 hostages, as many as 20 of them American citizens, is at stake.

The dilemma Israel faces is clear: Does it use its full force to go after Hamas regardless of hostages who may get hurt or purposely harmed by their abductors, or does Israel temper its response and give the kidnapped civilians and soldiers a better chance of returning home safe and sound?

Biden, who took time Friday for a lengthy conversation with families of the American hostages, has stressed his commitment to bringing them home. As did Netanyahu to representatives of the Israeli hostage families. 

But there may be a point at which the interests of Israel and the United States no longer overlap. In at least one scenario, Hamas negotiates separately the release of foreign and Israeli hostages, perhaps giving priority to reaching a quick deal for the release of non-Israelis in order to split the world’s public opinion.

Will the United States ask Israel to hold off its attacks until such a deal is reached to ensure the safe release of Americans?

As of now, both Israeli and American officials remain silent when asked about work being done to secure the hostages’ release. Addressing the details publicly, they explain, could jeopardize the efforts. Among the hostages are babies, toddlers, Holocaust survivors, men and women, soldiers and civilians.

This non-response may be taken as an encouraging sign that efforts are indeed under way, or, on the other hand, as an indication that no progress has been made. Families in Israel, the United States and across the world, whose loved ones are still being held in Gaza, are hoping and praying that someone, somewhere, is making progress.

5. Mapping America’s Response

Watching the U.S. response to Hamas’s attack has been an emotional rollercoaster for Israelis, with moments of profound gratitude and elation when hearing President Biden pledge his unwavering support and friendship, to lows of rage upon watching videos of pro-Hamas demonstrations or reading nasty anti-Israeli posts on social media.

As of now, this is what the spectrum of American response looks like:

The Biden administration: full support.

Congress: very significant support, almost wall to wall. (Almost.)

Hollywood, professional sports and pop culture: massive backing for Israel.

Donald Trump: a mix of criticism, personal grudges and boasting.

College campuses: some strong shows of support for both Israelis and Palestinians, alongside “neutral” refusals to “take sides,” and in some instances, extremely troubling tolerance to anti-Israel shows of hate.

Top Image: David Eccles (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Jolanda Flubacher/WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch (CC BY-SA-NC 2.0) / Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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