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How Biden’s Israel Mistakes May Actually Help the U.S. Restrain Netanyahu

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The close Israeli ally with which America once shared key values no longer exists. The Israel to whose defense Joe Biden immediately stepped up on Oct. 7 is a phantom, a memory of a country that was during the Cold War a dependable U.S. friend, a reliable defender of U.S. national interests, and an enemy of anti-U.S. forces in the region.

It would make sense to offer the instant and comprehensive support Biden offered Israel in the wake of the brutal Hamas terrorist attacks to that illusory Israel, the one he and many of us remember from the 1960s and 1970s.

But that Israel, as manifested by its government—the region’s David to the Arab Goliath that threatened it, a country that was not only turning the desert green but was nurturing democracy from soil that had not produced it before—is no longer real. Thus, Biden’s response was too robust. It made the U.S. appear to be a full partner in whatever Israel would choose to do in response to those attacks. Worse, for many, it evoked an era in which Israel was seen as a U.S. proxy and its actions were seen as a direct extension of U.S. foreign policy. (I should add that the ties between the people of the United States and those of Israel remain, as they should, largely unchanged.)

As I wrote at the time, such a stance posed significant dangers. Giving Benjamin Netanyahu’s government carte blanche (or appearing to do so despite also offering warnings and cautionary statements) would inevitably lead to America being blamed for what would certainly be brutal Israeli tactics in Gaza, and later to deep tensions in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.

That is precisely what has happened—with all the international and domestic political consequences such a miscalculation would entail. But, having said that, it is also increasingly clear that there may be some silver linings associated with how President Biden has handled this crisis.

Today’s Israeli government does not share close values with the U.S.

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Netanyahu and his coalition have repeatedly shown authoritarian tendencies and have sought to weaken democracy, such as it exists, in Israel. They have deepened apartheid policies that have made second-class citizens out of many of the Palestinians living within the borders controlled by Israel,and they have actively worsened the treatment of those Palestinians both in the West Bank and Gaza.

They have also actively distanced themselves from U.S. foreign policy objectives in Ukraine. Further, Netanyahu has warmly embraced key antagonists to the policies of America and its true allies—Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Ahmet Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping in China, and the far-right across Europe.

In the U.S., Netanyahu’s government has behaved even less ally-like, if that is possible. It has openly rejected the positions of one entire political party in the U.S., the Democrats, and actively joined with the MAGA Republicans.

True allies are well-advised to try to remain nonpartisan, given the ebb and flow of U.S. politics. Netanyahu decided he would like to try to influence that ebb and flow.

Time and again, Netanyahu has proven to be unreliable. He has often lied to U.S. leaders and the American people. And the most recent cabinet he put together is full of truly execrable characters, former terrorists, Israel nationalist extremists, racists—even some with a taste for genocide.

Given all of the above it was not difficult to see that Netanyahu would be a bad partner in whatever operations were to follow the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. That he was also being blamed for those attacks by a majority of Israelis—and the fact that it was (and is) widely thought that his political career might end once military operations in Gaza cease—also created incentives for him to prolong the fighting that were directly at odds with U.S. interests.

Nonetheless—even as Biden sought to couch his support for Netanyahu in caveats concerning Israeli conduct in Gaza, and sound admonitions that Israel not make the same mistakes we did post-9/11—the U.S. support for the Netanyahu government was too broad. We promised to give them whatever military and economic aid they needed. Biden and some on his team even embraced Israeli propaganda overstating the care with which Israel was waging its war in Gaza, and minimizing the cost of that war.

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Now, the enormously high toll taken by that war is widely attributed to both Israel and the U.S. Many thousands of innocent Palestinians are dead. Credible estimates suggest that nearly 15,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have already died. In fact, the toll according to a recent Axios article may be “outpacing those of other conflict zones in the 21st century.” Much of Gaza is obliterated, uninhabitable. The cost of rebuilding will be billions and billions.

What is more, the growing devastation and human suffering in Gaza is fueling ever-greater tension between Israel and the U.S. and, according to reports, even hot debate within the U.S. government itself.

The president’s own party includes an increasing number who are uncomfortable with aspects of his policy although according to polls the vast majority of Democrats (and a majority of Americans) still support it.

That said, Biden’s unflinching support of Israel has made him enormously popular in that country and given him great political clout. Indeed, combined with his “bear hug” approach, that has given him considerably more leverage with Israel’s leaders than he might otherwise have had.

Biden has used that leverage to directly and significantly ameliorate the human costs of the war. Biden and his team led efforts to prioritize the release of the hostages from Hamas. Biden and his team have been constant advocates of providing ever greater amounts of humanitarian aid to Gaza. And Biden and his team are actively (both publicly and privately) urging Israeli restraint in its operations in Gaza, advocating more targeted tactics.

Further, in being seen as close to Israel, Biden has gained the ability to advocate for outcomes that have fallen out of fashion. Just a few months ago, many scoffed that a two-state solution was even plausible as a resolution to the tensions between Israel and Palestine. Today, advocated by Biden and his team, it is once again seen as the only possible lasting path to peace in the region. That is a profound change.

None of these things could have been as effectively achieved had Biden taken another course. It is impossible to weigh their relative benefits to those costs of the war so far. But knowing Israel’s past actions and the views of its prime minister and cabinet, it is fair to suggest that the devastation in Gaza would have been even higher under a different U.S. policy or president. Biden’s team has even been explicit that taking an approach more like that of Biden’s former boss, President Barack Obama, would have resulted in the U.S. having less influence.

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It is inarguable that former President Donald Trump would have offered no checks on his friend Netanyahu’s plans, and that the toll under a Trump administration would have been much higher. Indeed, the notoriously Islamophobic 45th U.S. president would likely have been egging Bibi on.

So, at this moment, we are left with speculation about what might have been under a different president and Biden policies that have been both maddening and deft. The final judgment as to whether Biden’s approach—miscalculations and all—will have worked lies in the weeks ahead.

Can more hostages be released? Can the truce be extended? Can the period of the truce be used to help better frame ultimate outcomes and bring the war to a close sooner rather than later? Will Israel adopt more targeted approaches in its efforts to dismantle Hamas?

If months from now, Netanyahu is out of office, Hamas is gone, and a process is developing that might lead to a lasting political settlement—and free and secure homes for both Israelis and Palestinians—we may well look back and emphasize the positives of Biden’s handling of this horrible situation. If Bibi manages to maintain his power and ultimately imposes his brutal will over Palestine—or his tactics result in a resurgence for Hamas and other adversaries to Israel—we will have a very different view.

Which, in the end, offers a reminder that managing crises like this one is a complex business in which the consequences of certain actions are often unclear. As a result, no one position nor any particular tactic may necessarily define a longer term approach.

One can begin with a misstep or a misplaced emphasis and still end with a comparatively positive outcome—if one learns from those mistakes, rather than denying them. Biden, given his long experience, both knows and lives this every day. Tragically, it will not bring back the lives that have been lost on either side of this war. But perhaps it will save precious lives in the years and decades to come.

Source: The Daily Beast

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