Biden pretty much nailed it with his efforts to achieve a cease-fire, but his critics miss the big picture and do not understand how diplomacy works
By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) May 27, 2021; also published May 31, 2021, on The Times of Israel Blogs; see my related article: Death, Stupidity; Rinse, Repeat: What Is New, What Is Old in Latest Israeli-Palestinian Tragedy
SILVER SPRING—When horrible things start happening around the world—especially in the Middle East, and especially in Palestine and Israel—it often seems as if the U.S. cannot win when it comes to the cries of various mobs, both in the street and online, claiming—sometimes accurately, other times not—to represent various factions: “America, how come you don’t to more to stop X horrible thing by Y horrible people, do more to help Z people?” often concurrent not only with opposite cries switching X and Y but also “America, why don’t you just stay out of such-and-such conflict, all you do is make things worse” and even “America, why don’t you just completely stay out of the entire region?”
To be fair, it would be an understatement to note America has made grievous mistakes in the Middle East, from former disgraced President Donald Trump’s rapid betrayal of the Kurds in late 2019 to assisting the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen and the cataclysmic 2003 invasion of Iraq. But a fairly consistent, longer-term problem has been America’s unbalanced position in the Israeli-Palestinians conflict, in particular, not doing enough to stand up for Palestinians as a people and allowing certain Israeli abuses of Palestinians to continue with impunity (abuses that are also self-destructive for Israel and Israeli Jews).
With any of many outbreaks in violence (Israeli-Palestinian or otherwise), real-world practicality demands that the priority be bringing about a swift end to violence in an effort to save as many lives as possible. There are some well-meaning but idealistically naïve or blinded folks who will demand, before we even talk about stopping the violence, that we settle the root causes—even calling for a complete surrender of one side on all core issues about which it is fighting—but this is an obscene waste of time while fighting is erupting and the focus needs to be on immediately prioritizing individual human life. During longer wars, negotiations over longstanding core issues are, of course, to be encouraged, but with individual rounds of bombs falling or gunshots ringing around civilians, the exact same issues that have driven the conflicts of which they are a part will almost invariably be there when that particular round of violence stops.
The only serious exceptions to this are when overwhelming force can actually bring about a decisive end to most of a conflict, but this is rare and in the case of Israel and Palestine, no glorious Saladin-like armies from Arab states will destroy the Israeli state—certainly Hamas has no such capability—while Israel invading and occupying Gaza in a bid to totally wipe out Hamas would certainly not go as Israel would intend and would see such terrible level of casualties and an inflammation of tensions and violence in the region that pressure for it to stop short of such a goal would be unlike anything we have seen with any of Israel’s other major campaigns against Palestinians. So Israel is not going to wipe out Hamas in Gaza and neither Hamas nor any Arab or Muslim state (let alone any other) is going to invade and dismantle the Israeli state, nor end by force Israel’s control over holy sites in Jerusalem, military occupation of the West Bank, or siege of Gaza. Thus, the idea that violence is somehow going to address the root causes is absurd.
So, again, it is not that dealing with the root causes is not essential, is that they are going nowhere fast during any particular round of violence and ending the violence is, therefore, both the moral/ethical and practical consideration that must take precedence. Having said that, once the violence has stopped, the imperative very much should be to then focus on the root causes to avoid further violence and achieve justice, security, and peace for the greatest number of people.
What Biden’s Critics Miss
I have followed President Joe Biden’s career for decades (I even interned in his Senate office in 2006), and I do not think any of this is lost on him. My gut feelings on this are at least partly validated by the heartening conduct of his Administration throughout the eleven-day crisis between Israel and Hamas and its spillover conflicts between Israeli security forces and other Palestinians and between Arabs and Jews in Israel’s internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders.
A good chunk of the media coverage has framed Biden and his team as haplessly overcome by events in the Middle East, with some takes stating that he is all but ignoring the plight of Palestinians and is simply reflexively supporting Israel and still others that Biden’s supposedly weak support for Israel or even supposed hostility to it is to blame for the latest round of violence. All of these are deeply myopic takes that cannot see the forest for the trees at best or are bad-faith propaganda and disinformation at worst. In fact, Biden’s approach seemed relatively fairly balanced and nuanced in ways that, more important than anything else, yielded results and saved lives.
First, let us be clear about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: he has had no problem defying or embarrassing American presidents and senior officials in the past, including this one in the month before the recent hostilities, when he rejected repeated criticism from Biden Administration officials—including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan—for plans to dispossess Palestinians in East Jerusalem and expand and create Jewish settlements there and in the West Bank (the very day before Hamas began its rocket fire into Israel, Sullivan expressed to his Israeli counterpart that the White House had “serious concerns” about efforts to unjustly evict Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, part of a larger campaign of demographic engineering by Israeli right-wing nationalists).
With the reality that Netanyahu and his country have increasingly embraced right-wing nationalism, if Biden had publicly and loudly chastised Netanyahu and Israel, Netanyahu would have felt compelled to not look as if he was cowing to American pressure and would have only continued Israel’s military operations longer to demonstrate his independence and strength to his domestic audience (remember he is in the fight of his political life to hold onto power while he is simultaneously on trial for corruption). This would have meant the Israel Defense Forces (Israel’s military, or IDF) killing and wounding many more people and possibly causing the conflict to both intensify and spread while also risking more Israeli lives, even if far fewer. And Biden has known “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is often called, for decades, knows him relatively well, and has a far better sense than most politicians of how the embattled Israeli prime minister will and will not react to things, including public pressure.
Yet many foreign critics and those to Biden’s left vocal in their anger about his support for Israel—the left’s sometimes raucous “progressive” crowd (Progressive being a much older label for a far more productive historical movement)—seem not to understand this. Their outrage that Biden was not more vocal in condemning Netanyahu betrays their lack of understanding of basic politics and diplomacy, missing how there is usually far more to politics than speeches and noise (that should not surprise considering that Bernie Sanders is essentially their spiritual mentor and the tactic of screaming at and shaming Democratic voters into nominating a “progressive” for president in 2016 and 2020 failed miserably; to Bernie’s credit, his crushing loss in 2020 seems to have humbled him into a more practical and productive approach). After all, America is one of the few counties where public opinion favors Israel strongly, so even as support for Palestinians has increased significantly (especially on the left), there is not the political support for a sharp turn away from or reducing support for Israel and such a move could not only cost Democrats the House in midterm elections, but the White House two years later, rendering any major shifts by a Biden Administration moot as a new Republican administration would surely undo those changes and become even more pro-Israeli and less supportive of Palestinians, as was seen under Trump.
Speaking of, to his right, Biden’s critics insanely claim he and his policies are the reason for the outbreak of violence when Biden has done very little other than restore formal diplomatic relations and to reinstate some $235 million in humanitarian, economic, and development aid to Palestinians—aid that the Trump Administration, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, had cruelly, spitefully, and needlessly cut—while also separately adding COVID-19 aid.
If any American approach has failed recently, it is the incredibly one-sided “pro-Israel” policy of the Trump Administration—including Kushner’s “absurd” “peace” plan—that has deepened the anger, resentment, and helplessness already pervasive among Palestinians while letting Israel feel it could act against Palestinians with impunity, furthering overall division, which intensified and accelerated the dangerous dynamics that exploded over the past few weeks, as I noted just recently.
Biden’s Practicality and Early Results
If anything, critics to both Biden’s left and right seemed to not be aware of what was really happening behind the scenes even as they missed some very public cues.
Instead of starting a public feud with a longtime (if very problematic) ally, Biden refrained from antagonizing Netanyahu in ways that would have been counterproductive and resulted in more death and destruction and instead had himself and his administration act in ways that worked to preserve and exercise leverage over Israel while working intensely when they felt the time was right to rapidly bring about an end to the violence. In doing so, they consciously tried avoiding what they now saw as a counterproductive approach taken by the Obama Administration during the last major Gaza conflict in 2014 (which I analyzed in detail at the time).
Early in this most recent flare-up, Biden publicly asserted that “Israel had a right to defend itself”—for all the flaws of any particular nation, virtually no nation would not respond with military force against a terrorist group firing rockets into its cities—even while he and top officials also early on expressed a desire for a quick end to the Israeli operation (Biden himself said “My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later)” and that it was their position to “urge…de-escalation of violence” (this from Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken) and to still pursue a state for Palestinians.
Top officials also early on framed the conflict as very much in part about the systemic issues faced by Palestinians, especially the evictions going on in East Jerusalem, which were raised in conversations throughout (in spite of the efforts of some Israelis to pretend or delude themselves into thinking that the structural issues had nothing to do with the latest round of violence).
As the conflict dragged on, other concerns about civilian casualties and the safety of journalists in Gaza were publicly aired by the Biden Administration, and specific calls for lessening Israeli restrictions on and increasing freedom for Palestinians were also made. Eventually, calls for a cease-fire—at first gentle, then firmer—made clear that Biden and his people felt it was time for Israel to let up. And Biden has long made clear he generally did not intend to air America’s dirty laundry with Israeli in public. That there even were these milder public statements, then, made it clear there was serious pushback going on behind the scenes, and the softer public statements were concurrent with a series of calls—six between Biden and Netanyahu and many others between American and Israeli officials—that were the key parts of the more private pushback. This was not unqualified support or one-sided; far from it, and throughout and after there were statements along the lines that Palestinians, too, deserved safety as well as dignity and freedom and that reiterated American commitment to the two-state solution (by far the most sane of the various “solutions” that are bandied about) that would result in a Palestinian state, a long-held U.S. position Trump, Kushner, and Blinken’s partisan-hack-predecessor Mike Pompeo had all but abandoned.
Having long made clear he would not lean towards slamming Israel in public, Biden effectively worked behind the scenes to pressure the right-wing Netanyahu—who has not shied away from crisis exploitation and punishing military operations with heavy civilian casualties—to wind down military strikes on the eleventh day when Netanyahu’s security cabinet voted unanimously to agree to a cease-fire; if you think Biden’s quiet but strong diplomacy did not play a major and leading role, consider two points here: one, that Israel’s government is pretty right-wing and anti-Arab in policy and sentiment, and two, that the a plurality to a vast majority of Israelis were against a cease-fire and wanted the IDF to continue operations against Hamas in Gaza (in three Israeli polls, Israelis opposed the cease-fire 72 to 24, 47 to 35, and 48 to 40 percent). Taking all this into account—that Netanyahu and many of his people would not be generally inclined to keep the IDF operation as short as it ended up being, that stopping it as early as they did was actually a liability domestically when it came to public opinion, and that the cabinet vote was still unanimous—it is hard to argue that Biden Administration’s role in the timing of the cease-fire and shortening of the conflict was not decisive.
And since the cease-fire has taken hold, Biden and his top diplomat Blinken have continued to emphasize America’s commitment not simply to Israel but to “equal” treatment and respect for Palestinians. As Biden noted in his address just after the cease-fire took hold:
“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy. My administration will continue our quiet and relentless diplomacy toward that end. I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress, and I’m committed to working for it.”
Focused on rebuilding America after a devastatingly bungled pandemic response under the Trump Administration, Biden has not been keen in his first few months on the job to dive into dramatic foreign engagement on the part of the U.S., but now that America is beginning to hit its stride again amidst his administration’s exemplary handling of the pandemic and with a crisis erupting between Israelis and Palestinians, he and his competent people have shown themselves capable of addressing sudden crises and of recognizing that such crises demand U.S. engagement not only to calm the waters but to take serious if not rushed or frantic steps to try to address root causes.
Thus, just months into his presidency, Biden has passed his first major international security crisis with a deft yet subtle approach, the type of qualities that were utterly lacking in the White House for the entirety of Trump’s residence there. And rather than treat the crisis as a distraction, he has, as noted, rightly recognized it as “a genuine opportunity to make progress,” dispatching to the region his top diplomat in Blinken, who is already working to restore a sense of balance after the clear failure of Trump’s gratuitous neglect of Palestinians.
As case in point: Netanyahu does not want to hear anything about the two-state solution, which he has worked for decades to undermine, but that is exactly what Blinken doubled down on after meeting with Netanyahu and in Israel and, later that day, Palestinians President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank:
“Ultimately, there’s a possibility of resuming the effort to achieve a two-state solution, which we continue to believe is the only way to truly assure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and of course to give the Palestinians the state they’re entitled to.”
He also made clear that America will seek “to address some of the underlying causes that could, if not addressed, spark another cycle of violence.” Furthermore, Blinken met with Palestinian activists, pledged significant new aid to Palestinians, reiterated strong opposition to the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, and announced the reopening of a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that had been closed by Trump and was a significant venue for separate engagement with Palestinians. Few of these moves are welcome ones to Netanyahu or many other Israeli officials or citizens, so, despite claims to the contrary and accusations of being one-sided, the Biden Administration is sharply departing from the extremist approach of its predecessor and will do a lot more to stick up for Palestinians even if many Palestinians would desire further, more immediate, more dramatic action.
Too Early to Write off Biden’s Efforts; Cease-fire Orchestration Reason to Hope
Cynicism, understandably, abounds when it comes to the struggle between Israeli and Palestinians, but Biden’s critics miss the mark in failing to see his and his administration’s major role in shortening this latest round of fighting and in taking both symbolic and substantive steps away from Trump’s one-sided policy towards far more engagement with and support for Palestinians. Additionally, the commentary that Biden will do little-to-nothing to address the deeper issues is wildly premature, just like the initial commentary on his involvement (or supposed lack thereof) during this latest round of fighting.
Both in clear public actions (if not dramatic or bombastic) and in even more “intense,” to use Blinken’s word, behind-the-scenes efforts, we are seeing Biden and his administration engage in this most intractable of issues and he may yet surprise us with far greater results over time regardless of the verbal gymnastics of critics to his right and left, of Palestinians and Israelis alike as well as their supporters unhappy with his approach. For most of these critics, a lesson in how real diplomacy works has just been given by Biden and his team.
© 2021 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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