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Biden’s visit to Israel rich in gestures but light on achievement

It appears that Washington punched much below its weight vis a vis Israel despite all the military aid and diplomatic protection Israel has been receiving since its inception

Biden’s visit to Israel rich in gestures but light on achievement

US President Joe Biden’s seven-hour visit to Israel on 18 October 2023 generated significant attention and debate amid the ongoing war in Gaza. The media initially labeled it as the first-ever visit by a US President to a war zone, which is factually incorrect. Earlier in February 2023, Biden had visited Ukraine to commemorate the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, traveling by train from Warsaw to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Given the protocol agreed to with Russia, it is safe to assume that the Kremlin would have been given prior intimation. Obviously, there was no question of informing Hamas even as German Chancellor Scholz, in Israel before Biden, had to seek cover for a while.

On return from Israel, Biden addressed the nation from the Oval Office, where he stood behind the historic Resolute Desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. Let’s do a holistic analysis of what was achieved and what wasn’t during President Biden’s visit, starting from his 15-minute speech.

Let us look at the salient points made in the speech:

  • Biden emphasized that the world is at an ‘inflection point’ and American leadership keeps the world together.
  • His top priority in Israel was to secure the earliest release of American hostages.
  • US stands with Israel, but it must carry out military operations within the laws of war.
  • Egypt and Israel have agreed to the entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza through the Rafa crossing.
  • President Biden plans to propose $100 billion to Congress for national security, including support for both Ukraine and Israel.
  • He alleged that both Vladimir Putin and Hamas are seeking to ‘annihilate’ democracies.
  • Biden asserted that Israel was not responsible for the bombing of Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza killing about 500.

The reference to the ‘inflection point’ is rather elliptical but the intended meaning is quite apparent. Biden has strong reasons to be concerned that Netanyahu, in his typical style of decision-making, would send his military into Gaza with unpredictably disastrous consequences. The presence of underground tunnels, Hamas militants’ unwavering commitment to their cause, and the risk of Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanon, supported by Iran, all contribute to the complexity of the situation, and the Israeli military would be getting itself into a quagmire. If Iran and Syria intervene militarily, Biden will have no choice but to order his naval task force to get engaged with unpredictable consequences, unlikely to improve his chances for a second term. He does not want to see ‘body bags’ return home during his presidency.

At the time of writing, there has been no assurance from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that his military will refrain from entering Gaza. The presence of over 300,000 troops near the border, along with the firm stance of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whose support is essential for Netanyahu’s survival in the office, indicates an intent to move into Gaza.

Unfortunately, President Biden made no progress in securing the release of American hostages during his visit. While two American women hostages were released by Hamas on Saturday, it is unrelated to Biden’s visit as Qatar had been working to get hostages freed for “humanitarian reasons”.

Biden’s efforts to dissuade Israel from violating laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, also proved unproductive. The civilian entities and the population in Gaza continue to face devastating attacks. This includes the bombing of St. Porphyrius church, where several innocent civilians, including Christians, who sought refuge in the church lost their lives.

The issue of humanitarian aid also remains unresolved. Netanyahu told Biden that there was no question of any relief material being sent from or through Israel unless all the hostages were freed.  Israel’s conditional approval of permitting 20 trucks from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, provided Hamas does not access the supplies, falls short of addressing the dire humanitarian crisis. Netanyahu had rejected sending fuel through Rafah though it was pointed out to him that hospitals were running short of it.

Two days before President Biden’s arrival, Israel had bombed the Gaza side of the border crossing, leaving the roads in need of repair. It’s important to note that, previously, a hundred trucks used to come from Egypt daily to cater to the needs of 2.3 million human beings in what is the biggest open-air prison under the moon. In comparison, 20 trucks are peanuts. The Israeli stipulation against Hamas’s involvement in distribution can potentially be exploited to slow down or frustrate the entire aid process.

Of the $100 billion national security package proposed by Biden, it is understood that $60 billion is allocated for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel. It is a clever political move to combine the two as support for Ukraine is plummeting while there remains strong backing for Israel in Washington. However, with the current Speaker-less House of Representatives, we do not know when and whether Biden will get all that he is asking for.

President Biden’s assertion that Putin and Hamas seek to ‘annihilate’ democracies does not hold water, particularly concerning Israel. Hamas made significant changes to its constitution in 2017, accepting a state of Palestine with the boundaries prior to the 1967 war.  By implication, Hamas accepts the existence of the State of Israel. Nonetheless, Netanyahu has been carrying out a disinformation campaign about Hamas’s intent to destroy Israel, and this narrative has been remarkably successful. Hamas won a majority in the 2006 election certified as free and fair by the European Union. The Fatah party of Palestine Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas was beaten. Israel and Abbas maneuvered, and Hamas could only assume rule in Gaza.

As for the horrendous attack on Al Ahli Arab Hospital that occurred before President Biden’s departure from Washington, his declaration absolving Netanyahu of responsibility has been met with widespread rejection by Arab governments and the Arab population out on the street. The King of Jordan was compelled to cancel the summit Biden was to attend post his visit to Israel. The presidents of Egypt and Palestine were also expected to be present at the summit. This is indeed a rare snub to a US president.

In conclusion, it appears that Washington punches much below its weight vis a vis Israel. The influential Israeli lobby in the United States has historically played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy towards the region. For further insight, interested readers may explore the book “The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2007).

An additional noteworthy development. Owing to Netanyahu’s overreaction, the support for Israel has started plummeting with demonstrations against the killing of civilians in the West and elsewhere. Both President Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have called on Israel to adhere to the rules of war, but Netanyahu has yet to show a willingness to change course.

Views are personal.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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