Biden’s very Trumpian Israeli policy

It may sound naive, but some of us were a little surprised by the fervently pro-Israel response coming out of the White House during this latest round of violence in Gaza. After four years of nonsense policy from the Trump administration, there was some hope of a return to reason under Joseph R. Biden. Last week, it appeared as if that may finally be happening when Biden reportedly demanded that Israel de-escalate its attacks on Gaza and seek a ceasefire. The move came after horrific violence perpetrated against the civilians in Gaza during which Biden had hewed faithfully to the Trumpist line of “unwavering support” for Israel. That loyalty to a regime clearly engaged in, at best a disproportionate response to Hamas rocket attacks and at worst war crimes, was an unsettling departure from the Obama years, when Biden was Vice President. At that time, the White House warned Israel repeatedly over settlement expansion and publicly condemned the heavy-handedness and disproportionality of its security forces. Why did it take so long for Biden to come to his senses?

Adnan R. Khan: Can you put Biden’s early reluctance to condemn Israel in context for us?

Ilter Turan: Several factors contribute to the formulation of his position. To begin with, Biden appears to be exceptionally responsive to ethnic minority lobbies in the U.S. He himself is a native of Delaware with a considerable Greek constituency. Partly because of that, he has demonstrated unusual sympathy to Greece and Cyprus. He has also demonstrated high sensitivity to Armenian issues, in part through the intermediation of Kamala Harris who represented a large Armenian constituency in California. And he favors Israel that has considerable organized support among American Jewry.

Second, there is the political calculus. Biden may be thinking about the next congressional elections in 2022. He is concerned that his party may lose the very thin congressional majorities it enjoys in the House and the Senate. Because of the highly individualized nature of American congressional politics, suffice it to say, even with the current Democratic majorities, Biden is finding it difficult to implement his policies.

Lastly, if we turn to international politics, Biden has made a commitment to working with and extending protection to the traditional and authoritarian Arab regimes. In return, these regimes have improved their relations with Israel. By being critical of Israel, he does not want to give a green light to Arab regimes to do the same. He says that he is using quiet diplomacy. In dealing with Netanyahu, he has presumably employed a sterner tone in private conversations, of the kind that has now gone public. Going public with this tougher tone is more likely to be effective in forcing Israel’s hand than quiet conversations.

Adnan R. Khan: It’s a double-edged sword: On the one hand, Biden needs to show support for Israel for a domestic audience, but in doing so, he alienates Arabs in the Middle East. His audience there, however, isn’t the civilian population, it is essentially the authoritarian leaders. Why don’t we hear more criticism from them?

Ilter Turan: What we have is a number of highly dictatorial regimes that do not command extensive popular support. Traditional regimes are reluctant to accommodate rising critical voices from society; others are plain dictatorships. They are all reliant on the U.S. to maintain their power, security and, in some instances, their economic well-being. They have to accommodate American preferences to a much greater extent than their own publics want. America needs dictators and authoritarian leaders in the Middle East to maintain its current policy toward Israel.

Adnan R. Khan: Israel has its own authoritarian Prime Minister now. Has America’s tolerance of Israeli extremism helped undermine Israeli democracy?

Ilter Turan: We may look at it from a short and long term perspective. In the short term, Israeli politics is deadlocked. Repeated elections have failed to produce a viable government. In the latest round, Netanyahu could not muster a majority to continue as prime minister. But now, with the onset of violence, it will be extremely difficult for a rival government to partner with Palestinian Israelis to form a government, which would have been the easiest way to put an end to Netanyahu’s premiership. It appears that the latest round of violence may have saved Netanyahu politically.

In the long run, however, it is impossible for Israel to keep ignoring Palestinians, to dehumanize them, and to constantly use threats of terrorism as an excuse for annihilating them. If the ultimate goal is peace, the American position of unconditional support for Israel, is undermining Israel’s security by rendering it more difficult for Israel to accept the reality that there is a population of human beings called Palestinians, who have to have their own state rather than being isolated and kept in camps and constantly targeted with bombs.

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