Up to this point, US President Joe Biden has confused his left-wing critics, testing a domestic agenda that is remarkably bold for a longtime centrist and traditional Democrat. His stimulus and infrastructure bills push an overtly liberal agenda. And while the voting rights and environmental bills he favors depend on the cooperation of more conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, the direction is unambiguous.
Obviously, Biden has absorbed important lessons from the Obama years. Tactically, it appears that he does not want to be embroiled in fruitless negotiations with bad faith Republicans. Basically, it is not apologizing or diluting policies that are popular with both the base and median voter, such as increases in the minimum wage or higher taxes on those who earn more.
In both respects, Biden represents a departure from his two more immediate Democratic predecessors in the White House, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who often ruled as if their main concern was getting approval from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
This is all good news. And yet, in the realm of foreign policy, at least in Israel-Palestine, Biden remains a Democrat of the 1990s, that is, an unqualified and uncritical supporter of Israel. His administration’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the latest round of Israeli atrocities, from forced evictions to the demolition of residential apartment blocks and media offices, is outrageous.
The Palestinians, Israel, the Middle East region, and US foreign policy in general would be in a healthier place if Biden takes the same stance on Israel-Palestine that he has taken more generally since his inauguration: without fear. , moving with the times and responding to the base.
The Moral and Strategic Failure of Israel’s Policy in the USA
Certainly, if there was ever a humanitarian or moral reason for the United States to stand unequivocally by Israel’s side, it is long gone. Despite propaganda talking points to the contrary, the image of brave little Israel, beset by enemy states wanting to wipe it off the map, was last accurate more than half a century ago.
The brutality of Israel’s occupation and the relentlessness of its settlement project, not to mention its status as the sole nuclear power in the Middle East, make it an indifferent thug, not a hapless victim. It never fails to appreciate hearing staunch supporters of Israel in the United States and elsewhere employing the language of victimhood when such rhetoric is most appropriate for Palestinians.
Aside from the obvious and palpable moral blemish, there is little strategic benefit to the United States continually subsidizing Israel’s misbehavior; the only thing that wins is the bad press.
Washington’s reluctance to be more balanced in its handling of the conflict, or even to suggest that it submits Israel to the usual transactional nature of international politics, should come as a surprise to few. There is simply no collective appetite within the Beltway to publicly criticize Israeli actions like the ones we saw last month. And while American backing for Israel turned comical, almost maudlin, under the Trump / Kushner approach, blank checks have characterized the modus operandi of the United States’ relationship with Israel since long before 2016.
National and international incentives for fairness
If Biden wishes to turn the tide on these long-standing strategic and moral failures, three developments together provide an opportunity to do so.
The first is geopolitical: the last decade has improved many traditional alignments in the Middle East. The Arab Spring, the rise of ISIL (ISIS), the Iran nuclear deal, and changes in internal administrations in major regional powers like Turkey have combined to leave old alliances in disarray, leading to alternative deals. Are Turkey and the United States friends, due to shared NATO membership, or rivals, due to the Syrian civil war? Are Saudi Arabia and Israel enemies, due to the continued absence of formal diplomatic relations, or partners, because of how they view Iran?
Precisely because the Palestinian issue has less resonance and is no longer the central fault in the region – at the very least, Trump’s much-applauded “Abraham Accords” confirmed the symbolic relegation of Palestinians to Arab capitals – the Biden administration should have more room to maneuver.
The second structural change is in the internal politics of the United States. Israel has transformed from an issue on which there was a fierce and strident bipartisan consensus to one with more partisan implications. This is partly because a new generation of liberals has incubated their political mobilization in an era of Blacks Lives Matter and systemic inequality, and partly because of the obnoxious figure of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose antipathy towards Barack Obama and total embrace of Donald Trump. , from one right-wing nationalist to another, has not been easily forgotten by Democratic voters. Taken together, these developments mean that Israel can no longer count on broad-based support from across the political spectrum.
Alongside the partisan angle, the media and cultural environment in the US is more conducive to a more balanced approach.
To be sure, the dominant weight of coverage continues to favor Likud-style or AIPAC-style talking points. But there have been green shoots in print, television and social media. The New York Times and MSNBC are broadcasting Palestinian voices. Mainstream Democrats like Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy are joining with people like Bernie Sanders and members of the so-called Squad (Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib) in rejecting America’s unconditional support for Israel. Supporting the rights and dignity of the Palestinians is no longer a marginal position.
The third force driving a turnaround on Israel is America’s global reputation. The Biden administration has gone to great lengths to highlight, especially to outside audiences, that Trump was an aberration. The veracity of this claim aside (on major national and international arenas, Trump was a continuation, not a contradiction, of American policy), Trump’s near-performative lack of emphasis on human rights provides Biden with an excellent opportunity. If you really want to show that “America is back” and that nothing like Trump or Trumpism will ever be seen again, then what better way than to hold Israel accountable?
Biden’s terrible record in Israel
All that said, even if the political costs of a change in Israel’s policy have come down, Biden would be one of the leaders least likely to take advantage. Simply put, he has a gruesome record when it comes to confronting Israel.
As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden publicly or privately undermined his boss’s policies on Israel on numerous occasions. For example, throughout 2009 and 2010, Biden counseled Obama against his strategy of publicly pressuring Netanyahu to freeze settlements, urging instead that there be “no daylight between” the United States and Israel.
When in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured Netanyahu in a phone call to freeze the settlement entirely, as well as to obtain credible assurances that he would move forward with negotiating a two-state solution, Biden followed up with a More conciliatory call, one that encouraged Netanyahu to ignore what he saw as a divided administration. Similarly, Biden opposed Obama’s wishes to abstain, rather than veto, UN resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in 2016.
More recently, in the run-up to the 2020 elections, progressives believed they had obtained assurances that the party’s platform at the convention would contain references to Palestinians undergoing an “occupation,” a historic first. But Biden personally intervened to ensure that the word was erased.
Go bold Joe
In general, Biden has been reluctant to exert even the slightest pressure on Israel. His actions have reflected his persistent view that the Palestinians do not deserve to spend the political capital that would be needed to genuinely advance their aspirations.
Such shyness would be wrong in 2021. No one expects the United States to make a radical turn and support Palestinian statehood as vociferously as it did Kosovo, or to sanction Israel as if it were Venezuela.
But at the very least, the United States can condition its billions in aid and advanced military equipment on Israel not challenging official US policy. He can point out in his rhetoric that he cares as much about the lives of the Palestinians as he is about “Israel’s right to defend itself.” It can stop providing diplomatic protection to Tel Aviv at the UN, where it constantly vetoes resolutions condemning Israeli actions. And it can stop participating in the charade that sitting idly by while a client state commits gross rights violations and war crimes is even remotely consistent with its self-proclaimed values or interests.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.