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Joe Biden Must Distance Himself from the Israeli Right

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Greg Priddy

President Biden’s taboo against imposing consequences for Israeli actions—unlike past presidents—could encourage Netanyahu to disregard both the law of armed conflict and U.S. interests.

With a potential Israeli offensive against the Gaza border town of Rafah looming over the fate of 1.3 million Palestinian refugees, President Biden will be courting humanitarian disaster and irreparable damage to U.S. interests in the Middle East if he fails to make clear to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Right that U.S. support for the current war will be conditional on Israel’s actions. The current policy has been essentially carte blanche, with President Bidenarticulating frustrations with Netanyahu and requesting increased humanitarian aid deliveries but reiterating unquestionable U.S. support not contingent on any specific Israeli actions. The Biden administration needs to acknowledge that the United States has its own interests—we are not a bystander here—and an obligation to maintain the accepted law of armed conflict. The Biden administration needs to make a clean break with this policy and put up some guardrails, including placing conditions on continued munitions supplies. This is not unprecedented. The clock is ticking.

As it stands, top Israeli officials are making clear that they intend to move militarily against Rafah in the near future. Such a move is not without a military justification, as substantial Hamas fighting formations are in Rafah, and it is probable senior Hamas leaders are sheltering in tunnels there. But the way the Israeli offensive in Gaza has played out thus far has led to a potentially explosive situation. Israel has encouraged residents of northern and central Gaza to keep moving southward, first to Khas Younis and then toward Rafah and Al Muwasi. More than half of Gaza’s population is now in this area near the Egyptian border, where they could be boxed in by a military offensive moving southward and possibly forced into Egypt. Several senior Israeli officials have spoken quite openly about the idea of “voluntary emigration” of the Palestinian population from Gaza, an idea that Biden made clear early on in the war that the United States would not support. The level of damage inflicted on the housing stock in Gaza also seems intended to render it uninhabitable, with much anecdotal evidence of empty buildings being demolished with controlled demolitions after the inhabitants have fled.

Israeli policies and inaction also have stymied the delivery of food and other humanitarian supplies into Gaza, with the World Food Programme estimating that roughly one-quarter of Gaza’s population is facing “catastrophic hunger and starvation.” President Biden has repeatedly raised the issue of Palestinian food insecurity with Netanyahu in phone conversations and has voiced frustrations with what he rightly sees as Israeli failure to adequately facilitate that flow of aid, including letting protestors obstruct the area at the Kerem Shalom border crossing where Israeli officials conduct security searches on aid cargoes. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is reportedly blocking a large shipment of U.S.-funded flour at the port of Ashdod at present, despite Netanyahu’s assurances to President Biden that U.S. aid would be allowed through. With this concentration of refugees near the border, without adequate food supplies, a military thrust southward would potentially create pressure on the population to cross into Egypt. Egypt has made clear it will not willingly accept this but takes the threat of population transfer seriously enough that they have begun to build containment infrastructure on the Egyptian side of the border to manage a flood of refugees. We do not know the intentions of the Netanyahu government with certainty, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant denied the Palestinians would be pushed out. Nevertheless, they have at least created conditions in which there is a rational perception that population transfer could occur.

Apart from the Biden administration’s passivity vis-à-vis Israel in the short term, its current policies have several positive aspects. They recognize the need to prevent the spread of the conflict and apparently talked the Netanyahu government out of staging a simultaneous preemptive campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah, which would have had a high potential for further escalation. They also have responded to provocations from Iranian allies in the region, including the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iran militias in Iraq, in measured ways calculated to avoid escalation with Iran. Most importantly, they have recognized that the previous strategy of ignoring the Palestinian issue had failed, articulating a clear goal of movement toward a Palestinian state alongside efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. But there is a yawning disconnect between those longer-term aspirations and a near-term U.S. policy that has made clear that Israel will face no consequences for defying U.S. admonitions on the treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza, despite the Biden administration’s desire for an extended ceasefire, which could facilitate movement toward those longer-term objectives.

At present, the Netanyahu government seems poised to disregard Biden’s admonitions and press forward with the Rafah offensive. Netanyahu ordered the Israeli delegation on February 14 not to return to Cairo for further talks on a potential hostage-for-prisoner swap and temporary ceasefire. To be sure, the terms of Hamas’ offer were not acceptable, but there was a perception of significant progress despite remaining gaps. The move was reportedly made without consulting the centrist National Unity Party MKs who joined the war cabinet after the Hamas attacks in October, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot. Netanyahu also rejected a draft proposal put together by his own intelligence and military staff as a basis for further negotiations. There also is clear U.S. frustration at the lack of movement on food aid, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan admonishing Israel again on February 14 but no subsequent reports of any movement on the issue. U.S. officials have been frustrated with what they acknowledge is their waning influence on Israel. Ironically, this comes as many Israeli national security experts have acknowledged how indispensable their relationship with the United States is to them, outlining their dependence on the United States in quite stark terms.

An Israeli offensive in Rafah without adequate preparations could be an inflection point, not just as a humanitarian catastrophe but in terms of U.S. interests in the region and around the world. Gulf Arab partners have already begun to restrict U.S. use of their military bases for strikes in retaliation for attacks against U.S. forces in the region, not wanting to be seen siding with Washington and Jerusalem. If there was a substantial movement of Palestinians into Egypt as a result of an Israeli offensive, even if unintentional, that would have the potential to endanger Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt and would undermine U.S. relationships across the Arab world. It also would raise the likelihood of a full-blown regional conflagration with Iran. President Biden has rightly said it would be unacceptable for an offensive on Rafah to proceed absent detailed measures to avoid civilian casualties among Palestinian refugees. Yet again, there is no indication that there would be any consequences in terms of U.S. material support if they did not heed his advice. Biden also said at a press conference on the afternoon of February 16 that he did not expect an offensive against Rafah in the near future after speaking to Netanyahu the previous day. Still, if he was offered such assurances, they should be viewed in light of the recent poor record Netanyahu has racked up of not honoring his promises to Biden—the food aid issue is a case in point. There also is no indication from the Israeli side that this is the case after repeated indications that the offensive will move forward.

It is time for the United States to put teeth into its demands by using the potential of conditioning military aid and resupply on compliance with the law of armed conflict, the lack of which is undermining broader U.S. interests in the region. This is not unprecedented. President Ronald Reagan held up shipments of cluster munitions to Israel during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon when there were troubling questions about their use in densely populated areas. President George H. W. Bush made U.S. loan guarantees contingent on West Bank settlement activity. President Biden has rightly signed an executive order requiring recipients of U.S. arms to comply with the law of armed conflict after pressure from several senators. Still, there appears to be no will in his administration to enforce it against Israel at present. It is important to understand that no bilateral relationship, including the U.S.-Israel relationship, is a binary “on or off” equation. A reduction in arms shipments, if it happened, would not fundamentally destroy the relationship. Even Britain saw the United States threaten stern measures against the pound during the Suez Crisis. But a continuation of President Biden’s taboo against imposing any consequences for Israeli actions—unlike past presidents—could encourage Netanyahu to disregard both the law of armed conflict and U.S. interests.