Opinion: Why Biden won’t do more to restrain Netanyahu

Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

After six weeks of the deadliest violence in an already blood-soaked history of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, I’ve been asked repeatedly why President Joe Biden remains so staunchly pro-Israel. Why hasn’t the president done more to restrain the Netanyahu government and address the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza?

Aaron David Miller - Courtesy Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller - Courtesy Aaron David Miller

Israel and the US may share the same goal — the eradication of Hamas’ military organization in the wake of the sadistic, inhuman and indiscriminate terror surge against Israel on October 7. But US and Israeli views are clearly diverging on issues relating to humanitarian assistance, the exponential rise of Palestinian deaths and what comes on the proverbial day after Israel’s Gaza campaign ends. And tensions are surely rising between the US president and an Israeli prime minister with a shaky track record.

Still, anyone expecting a major rupture between the two ought to lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passes. If needed, they should keep Biden’s Washington Post op-ed from the weekend handy: In it, he indicated no change in the staunchly pro-Israel position he took from the start of the war. Indeed, the president’s persona, politics and policy choices have virtually preempted such an outcome.

There is little doubt that Israel and the US are operating according to two very different timetables. And these two clocks appear increasingly out of sync. Israel — committed to the destruction of Hamas’ military capacity and the end of its ability to govern in Gaza — appears to be in no hurry to declare mission accomplished.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not even begun to confront the bulk of Hamas fighters in many places in northern Gaza or significantly dismantle the miles of tunnel structure below ground. Then there’s southern Gaza, where Hamas has undoubtedly repositioned its assets; the terror group appears to be nowhere near its breaking point. Israel’s defense minister has talked about the campaign taking months.

It’s apparent that the US clock is ticking much faster, a direct result of growing pressure from its European allies, key Arab partners and a deeply divided Democratic Party, all of which are starting to coalesce around a call for a ceasefire. Even within the Department of State and among congressional staff, there has been opposition to the administration’s passivity in the face of Palestinian loss of life that’s unprecedented in recent decades. Indeed, Biden himself almost certainly has come to understand that, as greatly as he’s concerned about Israel, the devastation and death in Gaza demands attention for Palestinians, too.

Senior US officials from the president on down have talked about the need to protect civilian lives, including hospitals; pressed Israel to allow more humanitarian assistance; and drawn clear lines about the day after with respect to Gaza — no forced displacement of civilians, no reduction of territory and no Israeli reoccupation. After vetoing other UN Security Council drafts calling for an immediate humanitarian truce, the US finally abstained on a Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses.

Yet despite the pressure, there’s no indication that the president might support a ceasefire and has intimated, let alone pressed, Israel to set a timeline for ending its military operation in Gaza. His words in the Washington Post seemed to rule that out for now.

On the contrary, the administration seems to be willing to continue its support of Israel at almost every turn. The IDF’s operation against Al-Shifa hospital – Gaza’s largest – is a case in point. The administration has backed up Israel’s claim that the complex was being used by Hamas for military purposes without providing much evidence of those claims.

When pressed on Thursday as to whether Al-Shifa contained a Hamas command and control center, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to question Israel’s explanations. Instead, he expressed his horror that weapons had been found behind an MRI machine and referred to US intelligence assessments about Hamas command centers in and under hospitals more generally.

Understanding why Biden — as frustrated as he no doubt is with the Netanyahu government — is reluctant to confront Israel with an “or else” if it doesn’t change its wartime tactics and strategy stems from a love for Israel that is deeply imprinted on his emotional and political DNA (unlike his former boss, President Barack Obama).

Even before this war started, Biden’s initial instinct hasn’t been to confront Netanyahu but to see where accommodation is possible and give Israel the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to security. He was unwilling, for instance, to impose serious consequences on Netanyahu for promoting a policy designed to annex the West Bank in everything but name.

In the wake of the Hamas’s October 7 violence — the bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust — Biden’s gut reaction left no doubt that he was prepared to give Israel the time, space and support to do what it needed to respond to Hamas’ “pure, unadulterated evil.”

And for the career politician, being good on Israel isn’t some craven genuflecting to lobbies and media pressure. Support for Israel is the right politics because it’s good for America and the national interest. His decades in the Senate, where support for Israel runs high, reinforced this conflation.

Biden is hardly naïve on the politics. He knows that Democrats are increasingly divided, with large numbers still strongly supporting Israel but with a growing number, especially progressives, turning against Israel and calling for a ceasefire. At the same time, Biden in also caught between Republicans looking to hammer him if he pressures Israel. In these circumstances, Biden is not going to leave himself open to criticism by Republicans and mainstream Democrats.

Then there are the policy realities. US leverage with Israel might be greater if Washington had more compelling answers about how to wage war in densely populated areas where Hamas embeds its assets without harming civilians; how to surge humanitarian assistance into a war zone; and what precisely should be done the day after. But it really doesn’t. As a consequence, Biden, who strongly shares Israel’s objective of preventing any more October 7s, seems willing to give Israel a wide margin to prosecute its war against Hamas.

The administration has pushed the idea of humanitarian pauses as a way to relieve the pressure it’s under from Democrats, Arab states and the international community. But an outright ceasefire would clearly make Hamas a winner by driving home the reality that, despite immense Israeli pressure, the organization withstood the onslaught to fight another day. It would simultaneously cause a major breach with Israel while being unlikely to bring all the hostages home or solve the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The US and Israeli clocks may become even more out of sync as the “day after” in Gaza arrives. The US is already calling for a two-state solution and a Palestinian Authority-controlled Gaza, in stark contrast to Netanyahu. Biden also announce in his Post op-ed that he’s ready to deny visas to extremist Israeli settlers engaging in violence. It’s not impossible that at some point Biden will pick up the phone and say to Netanyahu, “Enough!” But if the death and destruction in Gaza already haven’t been sufficient, it’s hard to imagine what more would make the president change course.

Washington might be reluctant to admit it, but in the get-along business of diplomacy and foreign policy, the US rarely brings heavy pressure to bear on any of its allies and friends, let alone on a special friend like Israel. And for this president in this crisis, especially after the horrors of October 7, Israel remains a special friend indeed.

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