US policy on Israel: Go bold, Joe

There are multiple reasons for President Joe Biden to change Washington’s approach to Israel-Palestine.

Biden, shown on June 2, has an appalling record when it comes to confronting Israel, writes Butt [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Up to this point, United States President Joe Biden has confounded his critics from the left, piloting a domestic agenda that is remarkably bold for a lifetime centrist and traditional Democrat. His stimulus and infrastructure bills drive forward an unabashedly liberal agenda. And while the voting rights and environmental bills he favours depend on the cooperation of more conservative Democrats, such as Joe Manchin, the direction is unambiguous.

Biden has evidently imbibed important lessons from the Obama years. Tactically, he appears to not want to get mired into fruitless negotiations with bad-faith Republicans. Substantively, he is not apologising for or watering down policies that are popular with both the base and the median voter, such as raises in the minimum wage or increased taxes on high earners.

On both scores, Biden represents a departure from his two most immediate Democratic predecessors in the White House, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who often governed as if their primary concern was getting the approval of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

All this is good news. And yet, in the realm of foreign policy, at least on Israel-Palestine, Biden is still very much a 1990s Democrat, which is to say, an unreserved and uncritical supporter of Israel. His administration’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the latest round of Israeli atrocities – from forced evictions to the levelling of residential apartment blocks and media offices – is scandalous.

Palestinians, Israel, the Middle East region, and US foreign policy writ large would all be in a healthier place if Biden assumes the same posture on Israel-Palestine that he has adopted more generally since his inauguration: unafraid, moving with the times, and responding to the base.

The moral and strategic failure of Israel policy in the US

Certainly, if there ever was a humanitarian or moral reason for the US to unequivocally stand beside Israel, it was extinguished a long time ago. Notwithstanding propagandistic talking points to the contrary, the image of plucky little Israel, beset by enemy states that wish to wipe it off the map, was last accurate more than half a century ago.

The brutality of Israel’s occupation and the relentlessness of its settlement project, not to mention its status as the only nuclear power in the Middle East, render it an unsympathetic bully, not a hapless victim. It never ceases to grate to hear Israel’s staunchest backers in the US and elsewhere employ the language of victimhood when such rhetoric is more appropriate for the Palestinians.

Aside from the obvious and palpable moral stain, there is little strategic benefit to the US continually subsidising bad behaviour from Israel – the only thing it gains is bad press.

Washington’s reluctance to be more even handed in its handling of the conflict, or even hint at subjecting Israel to the usual transactional nature of international politics, should surprise few. There is simply no collective appetite inside the Beltway to publicly criticise Israeli actions such as those we saw last month. And while American backing of Israel became comical, almost mawkish, under the Trump/Kushner approach, blank cheques have characterised the modus operandi of the US relationship with Israel from well before 2016.

International and domestic incentives for even-handedness

Should Biden wish to change course from these longstanding moral and strategic failures, three developments in conjunction provide an opportunity to do so.

The first is geopolitical: the past decade has upended many traditional alignments in the Middle East. The Arab Spring, the rise of ISIL (ISIS), the Iran nuclear deal and changes in domestic dispensations in major regional powers such as Turkey have combined to leave erstwhile alliances in disarray, giving birth to alternative arrangements. Are Turkey and the US friends, because of shared membership in NATO, or rivals, because of the Syrian civil war? Are Saudi Arabia and Israel enemies, because of the continued absence of formal diplomatic relations, or partners, because of how they see Iran?

Precisely because the Palestinian issue has less resonance and is no longer the central fault-line in the region – if nothing else, Trump’s much-ballyhooed “Abraham Accords” confirmed the symbolic relegation of Palestinians in Arab capitals – the Biden administration should have greater room for manoeuvre.

The second structural change is in domestic US politics. Israel has been transformed from an issue where there was fierce and strident bipartisan consensus to one with more partisan implications. This is partly because a new generation of liberals have had their political mobilisation incubated in an era of Blacks Lives Matter and systemic inequality, and partly due to the odious figure of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose antipathy towards Barack Obama and full-throated embrace of Donald Trump, from one right-wing nationalist to another, has not been easily forgotten by Democratic voters. Put together, these developments mean that Israel can no longer count on broad-based support from across the political spectrum.

Alongside the partisan angle, the media and cultural environment in the US is more conducive to a more balanced approach.

To be sure, the dominant weight of coverage continues to favour Likud- or AIPAC-style talking points. But there have been green shoots in each of print, television and social media. The New York Times and MSNBC are airing Palestinian voices. Mainstream Democrats such as Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy are joining the likes of Bernie Sanders and members of the so-called Squad (Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib) in pushing back against unqualified US support for Israel. Supporting Palestinian rights and dignity is no longer a fringe position.

The third force incentivising a change of course on Israel is the US’s global reputation. The Biden administration has been at pains to highlight, especially for external audiences, that Trump was an aberration. Leaving aside the veracity of this claim – in important domestic and international arenas, Trump was a continuation, not a contradiction of US politics – Trump’s almost performative de-emphasis of human rights provides Biden a gilt-edged opportunity. If he really wishes to demonstrate that the “US is back,” and that nothing like Trump or Trumpism will be seen again, then what better way than holding Israel accountable?

Biden’s appalling record on Israel

All that said, even if the political costs of a change in Israel policy have been lowered, Biden would be one of the least likely leaders to take advantage. Simply put, he has an appalling record when it comes to confronting Israel.

As vice president to Barack Obama, Biden publicly or privately undercut his boss’s policies on Israel numerous times. For example, throughout 2009 and 2010, Biden counselled Obama against his strategy of publicly pressuring Netanyahu to freeze settlements, urging instead that there should be “no daylight between” the US and Israel.

When in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured Netanyahu in a phone call for a complete settlement freeze, as well as credible assurances that he would move forward with negotiating a two-state solution, Biden followed up with a more conciliatory call, one that emboldened Netanyahu to ignore what he saw as a divided administration. Similarly, Biden opposed Obama’s wishes to abstain on, rather than veto, UN resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in 2016.

More recently, in the run-up to the 2020 election, progressives believed that they had secured assurances that the party’s platform at the convention would contain references to the Palestinians suffering an “occupation,” an historic first. But Biden personally intervened to ensure the erasure of the word.

Go bold, Joe

In general, Biden has been loath to exert even the slightest pressure on Israel. His actions have reflected his enduring view that the Palestinians are not worth expending the political capital it would take to genuinely drive their aspirations forward.

Such timidity would be mistaken in 2021. No one expects the US to execute an about-turn and support Palestinian statehood as vociferously as it did for Kosovo, or to sanction Israel as if it were Venezuela.

But at the very least, the US can make its billions in aid and advanced military equipment conditional on Israel not defying official US policy. It can signal in its rhetoric that it cares equally about Palestinian lives as about the Israeli “right to defend itself”. It can stop affording Tel Aviv diplomatic protection at the UN, where it consistently vetoes resolutions condemning Israeli actions. And it can stop engaging in the charade that standing by while a client state commits gross rights violations and war crimes is even remotely consistent with its self-professed values or interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.