Opinion: Biden sets US policy towards Israel on an unpredictable path

Joe Biden speaks before signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 20, 2021.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

When it comes to US-Israeli relations, you’re not much more old-school than Joe Biden. Throughout his political career, the American president has tirelessly defended Israel’s interests in Washington.

So it says a lot about the shift taking place within the Democratic Party that Mr. Biden now finds himself bowing to insurgent political forces bigger than himself.

Since his first encounter as a young senator with a chain-smoking Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973 – an encounter he later called “one of the most important” of his life – Mr Biden has been guided in his approach to Israeli politics. Palestinian conflict because of what he sees as its asymmetrical nature. Israeli is surrounded by hostile neighbors determined to destroy it. Peace is only possible, he said, if Israel’s enemies understand that the United States would never let this happen.

“Progress happens in the Middle East when everyone knows there’s just no space between the United States and Israel,” said Biden, then Barack Obama’s vice president. during a 2010 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Obama saw things differently. He believed Mr Netanyahu had taken US support for Israel for granted as the prime minister authorized new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which poisoned peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. He preferred to put some space between Washington and Israel.

Mr Netanyahu responded by campaigning against Mr Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and accepting an invitation from Republicans to trash the deal in a 2015 speech to the US Congress. Throughout, Mr. Biden remained on good terms with Mr. Netanyahu and served as a buffer between his own boss and the right-wing prime minister.

As president, however, Mr. Biden finds himself increasingly torn between his longstanding sympathy for Israel and progressive forces within the Democratic Party. Slowly but surely, these forces are bending Mr. Biden’s will.

Prominent progressive voices such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now equate the Palestinian cause with that of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the heart of both is a struggle against racial oppression and supremacy. Palestinian and BLM supporters are on the side of good. Israel is not. They took advantage of Mr. Netanyahu’s close alliance with Donald Trump to portray the Israeli prime minister in the same authoritarian light as the former Republican president.

“We can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior,” Mr. Sanders wrote last week in a blunt op-ed in The New York Times. “We must recognize that Palestinian rights are important. Palestinian lives matter.

Mr. Biden has discovered that the old approach is no longer accepted by the Democratic base. As Israel retaliated in recent days to missile attacks launched against it by Hamas militants in Gaza, Mr Biden changed course. Instead of simply declaring that Israel has the right to defend itself and veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council, it has been forced to hone its tone with Mr Netanyahu as the number civilian deaths in Gaza exceeded 220 people.

On Wednesday, White House officials informed several US media outlets that Mr Biden had told the Israeli prime minister that he “expects a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire”. The statement came closest to Mr Biden’s repudiation of Israeli attacks aimed at destroying Hamas’ military and intelligence capabilities, but which had also claimed the lives of dozens of children and caused extensive property damage in the territory. impoverished Palestinian.

Mr Netanyahu, who is reluctant to leave Hamas’ capabilities untouched now, wonders if his old friend has become a fair weather friend.

Israel’s advocates fear the change in tone in Washington will embolden Hamas and Hezbollah, its sister terror organization in Lebanon. After all, both can count on progressive Democrats like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to cover them in seeking to discredit any Israeli counterattack.

“Do the Palestinians have the right to survive? Ms. Ocasio-Cortez asked her colleagues in the House of Representatives last week. “Do we believe it? If this is the case, we also have a responsibility in this regard.

The Middle East was not on Mr Biden’s radar when he took office in January. But just as his party’s progressive wing forced him to pass economic measures he would otherwise have rejected, the new president is now adjusting US policy toward Israel based on the demands of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. .

It could make the Middle East an even more dangerous place.

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