Is Biden Shifting His Stance on Israel? Is It Too Late?

The president needs to focus on results, period.

President Joe Biden listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They are seated next to each other, each flanked by the flags of their respective nations.

President Joe Biden meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. Miriam Alster/AP

Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter comes out twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories and articles about politics, media, and culture. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here.

After the recent drone attack on a US military base in Jordan that killed three service members, Politico examined the possible Biden administration response. Could he thread the needle? Strike back against the Iran-backed militias that were, according to the White House, behind this assault and deter future attacks without inflaming the conflicts already underway or brewing in the region? (On Friday, the US military launched strikes against Iran-backed militants at sites in Iraq and Syria.) One sentence in the article stuck out for me: “[President Joe Biden’s] senior advisers believe that foreign policy presents an opportunity to show his decades of experience, which they believe they can contrast with Trump.”

The first thought that popped into my head upon reading that line: Jimmy Carter.

To put a finer point on it: Do voters care about experience or results? Carter was the more experienced statesman when he ran for reelection against Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the Iran hostage crisis tarred him as a failure in foreign policy. Democrats attempted to depict Reagan as a far-right extremist eager to push the button (perhaps in part because he seemed to believe in end-times prophecy). Yet these scare-’em tactics did not persuade a majority of Americans. Carter was judged on results, not experience. And Reagan’s lack of experience and hawkishness did not trigger sufficient worry.

Trump’s narcissism, erraticism, authoritarian impulses, and embrace of chaos raise more troubling questions than Reagan’s stances did. His is a far from steady hand. But I’m hoping that Biden and his crew realize that Biden’s years of experience don’t on their own win the day for him. Voters will look at what he has done with that experience. The disorderly Afghanistan withdrawal—which was set in motion by Trump—did not assure the American public of Biden’s abilities. More important, his response to the Hamas-Israel war has disappointed and enraged voters in key Democratic constituencies: young adults, progressives, people of color, and Arab Americans. These voters don’t give a damn about his experience. They are looking at the results.

For the first months of this war, those results have been gruesome and heartbreaking. The destruction and civilian death toll in Gaza—following the horrific October 7 Hamas attack—have been horrible. Though the flow of nightmarish stories and images out of Gaza has lessened, as the war becomes less newsy, the reports remain harrowing and profoundly upsetting. Half of all buildings in Gaza have been damaged; the area is uninhabitable. Its health care system has all but collapsed. Experts are predicting widespread starvation among Gazans. The body count grows.

Israel’s brutal campaign has been supported by Biden and our tax dollars. For the millions of Americans pained by this cruelty and suffering, Biden’s experience is no selling point. For all the effort Biden and his aides have made to restrain the response of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, they have enabled this savagery and co-own it. Certainly, if Trump had been in the White House the past few months, things would be far worse, as David Rothkopf noted in Haaretz. But Biden is responsible for what has occurred on his watch.

As I write this, the ground may be shifting. The Biden administration has been endeavoring to strike a combined ceasefire-hostage deal. Perhaps by the time this newsletter reaches you, such an accord will be realized. And on Thursday, Biden issued an executive order sanctioning Israeli settlers in the West Bank accused of attacking Palestinians and Israeli peace activists. The order imposes financial penalties and visa bans on only a few people, but it allows for a much broader use against individuals responsible for or who engage in “actions that threaten the peace, security, or stability of the West Bank.” This could cast a wide net for far-right Israeli extremists, including members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, and their supporters in the United States.

These moves are positive ones. But it’s also necessary for Biden to break with Netanyahu. The Netanyahu administration is dominated by extremists who are delighted with the war and see it as an opportunity to conquer Gaza and the West Bank. That is, to get rid of the Palestinians. Last Sunday, an event in Jerusalem called “Conference for the Victory of Israel—Settlement Brings Security: Returning to the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria” drew five ministers in Netanyahu’s government and 27 lawmakers in his coalition to a far-right messianic hoedown that called for full Jewish settlement of Gaza and the West Bank. As Israeli columnist Alon Pinkas wrote,

What you saw there was a religious-nationalistic sect in a state of thrall. Even if you’ve seen one before, it’s not the same. This was not a fringe opposition group: it was the government of Israel in all its political splendor , unabashedly showing its true colors. This was the governing coalition in an orgy of anti-state and antidemocratic euphoria.

This was, he added, a display of the “theocratic-fascist strain in Israeli society and politics,” and it represented “almost half of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition.”

As Biden and his aides talk of moving past the hell of Gaza to a two-state solution, Netanyahu is outright rejecting that path and is more attuned to the religious rantings of the right-wing extremists, upon whom he depends for his employment. Biden has to dump Netanyahu—or dramatically distance himself from this scoundrel.

There are plenty of ways to do this. Some Democrats in Congress have called for conditioning assistance to Israel and forcing human rights evaluations of Israel’s actions in Gaza. The Biden White House did consider going further with its executive order and imposing sanctions on two ultranationalist ministers, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. But it held back on that for now. Yet here’s a sign of the intractable conflict at hand: Smotrich, the finance minister, declared he would continue to bolster Israeli settlements in occupied territories, noting, “If the price is U.S. sanctions against me—so be it.” Biden ought to realize that partnering with a government controlled or influenced by such men is morally wrong, as well as a big political problem for him at home.

To return to where we started: Biden needs results. A ceasefire-hostage agreement would count. More must come after that. His association with the inhumane annihilation of Gaza cannot be wiped away—and it could well undermine his effort to remain in the White House and prevent its occupation by an authoritarian demagogue flirting with fascism. A significant number of Democratic voters will neither forget nor forgive. There are far too many dead Palestinians for that. But it is not yet too late for Biden to demonstrate that he can learn from recent experience and change course by breaking with the apartheidists and fanatics of Israel. Doing so will help those seeking democracy and dignity in Israel and the Palestinian territories and those seeking to protect democracy in the United States.

David Corn’s American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, a New York Times bestseller, has been released in a new and expanded paperback edition. 

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