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Opinion | Gaza Is Biden’s War Now

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During the Darfur genocide and humanitarian crisis two decades ago, Senator Joe Biden passionately denounced President George W. Bush for failing to act decisively to ease suffering. Biden expressed outrage at China for selling weapons used to kill and maim civilians, and he urged me to write columns demanding the White House end needless wretchedness.

Darfur and Gaza are very different, of course, but I recall the senator’s compassion and urgency — and I wonder, where has that Joe Biden gone?

Gaza has become the albatross around Biden’s neck. It is his war, not just Benjamin Netanyahu’s. It will be part of his legacy, an element of his obituary, a blot on his campaign — and it could get worse if Gaza cascades into a full-blown famine or violent anarchy, or if a wider war breaks out involving Iran or Lebanon. An Israeli strike on a military base in central Iran early Friday underscored the danger of a bigger and more damaging conflict that could draw in the United States.

Consider just one example of America’s fingerprints on this war under Biden’s leadership. In January, the Israeli military dropped a bomb on a compound in Gaza used by the International Rescue Committee, a much-respected American aid organization that is supported in part by American tax dollars. The International Rescue Committee says that the near-fatal strike was caused by a 1,000-pound American-made bomb, dropped from an American-made F-16 fighter jet. And when an American-made aircraft drops an American-made bomb on an American aid group in an American-supported war, how can that not come back to Biden?

“Biden owns that,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Biden and Obama administration official who now runs Refugees International, another aid group. “They’ve provided the matériel that sustains the war. They provided political support that sustains the war. They provided the diplomatic cover at the U.N. that sustains the war.”

This is not Biden’s war in the way that Vietnam was Lyndon Johnson’s war or that Iraq was Bush’s war. Biden has not sent American troops, and he has not directed this war. He is clearly uncomfortable with the civilian toll of this war and wishes Israel was conducting it with more restraint — yet he continues to underwrite it. His rhetoric has become more critical, but his actions so far have not changed significantly.

“Is this the war Biden would want?” Konyndyk asked. “No. But is this the war Biden is materially supporting? Yes. And so in that sense, it’s his war.”

It was Ukraine that Biden wanted as his war. Not that he wanted any war at all, but Ukraine was his opportunity to stand up and uphold the “rules-based international order” against an enemy that violated international law, bombed infrastructure and sought to make all Ukrainians pay. But it is the war in Gaza that Biden has saddled himself with, with its “indiscriminate” bombing — as he himself described it in December — leaving him and America looking to much of the world like hypocrites.

Yet Biden will not easily extricate himself from this mess.

“Six months in, the Biden administration is in a strategic cul-de-sac with no easy way out — weakened both morally and politically, dependent on two combatants who see no urgency in ending the war and facing the real possibility of a serious escalation between Israel and Iran,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran American diplomat and Middle East peace negotiator, told me.

One of Biden’s reasons for standing close by Netanyahu and keeping up the flow of weapons has been to ensure that Israel is prepared if war breaks out with Iran or with Hezbollah in Lebanon. That’s a legitimate concern. But unconditionally arming Israel also enables Netanyahu to take provocative steps that increase the risk of expanded war — and everyone knows that peace may not be in Netanyahu’s personal interest, for it would bring new elections that he is expected to lose. That’s worth remembering as one considers Israel’s deadly bombing of an Iranian consulate in Syria early this month, the move that prompted Iran’s retaliatory strike on Israel.

“It was clearly an escalatory move,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and foreign policy expert, said of the Israeli strike. He noted of Netanyahu: “Widening the war is something that could keep him in office longer.”

For decades I’ve known and admired Biden. He’s wise and decent, a committed public servant who tries to do the right thing. He’s the most experienced foreign policy hand in the Oval Office in decades, surrounded by excellent advisers and known for his warmth and empathy. He would be a hard man to dislike.

Yet I believe Biden’s ongoing support for the Israeli military campaign reflects miscalculations that grew out of his outrage at the savagery of the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7, coupled with his conviction — quite right — that Israel not only had a right to strike back at Hamas but also had a duty to do so, to re-establish deterrence. Biden’s initial unwavering support for the military campaign also reflects his generation, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and his deeply felt admiration for Israel. He has regularly said that “if Israel didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, put it this way: “President Biden is preternaturally supportive of Israel. It’s in his DNA.”

Martin Indyk, who was twice ambassador to Israel, agrees. “You know the line about him being an old-style Zionist?” Indyk asked. “That’s the heart of it.”

Biden had many crucial decisions to make in the weeks after the Oct. 7 attack, but perhaps none were more consequential than this: how to manage his relationship with Netanyahu as the war in Gaza got underway. How much should he defer to Netanyahu, how much should he embrace him, how much should he impose consequences when Netanyahu ignored his suggestions of restraint? Biden had choices, and as Indyk correctly observed, Biden thought that the best way to move Netanyahu was with an arm on his shoulder.

That was, I believe, the first of Biden’s miscalculations. Netanyahu has always been a renegade out only for himself. After Netanyahu lectured President Bill Clinton in 1996, Clinton reportedly said, adding a couple of expletives: Who does he think he is? Who’s the superpower here?

Perhaps Biden overestimates his ability to win over Netanyahu, as he sometimes seems to put too much faith in his ability to charm Republican members of Congress. Biden deeply believes in the power of personal relationships, and this faith is both endearing and partly justified. But I’ve also seen his overconfidence in these relationships run aground on the hard reality that foreign leaders have different worldviews and inhabit different political worlds. Netanyahu reportedly keeps on his desk a photo of Biden on which Biden long ago scrawled: “Bibi, I love you, but I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say.”

Diplomacy is a mix of carrots and sticks, but until recently Biden seemed to offer Netanyahu nothing but armloads of carrots. And Netanyahu kept on taking the gifts while ignoring Biden’s warnings. “Netanyahu seemed to take enormous pleasure in sticking his finger in Biden’s eye at every opportunity,” noted Menachem Rosensaft, a Cornell law professor and general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress.

Biden’s efforts to persuade Netanyahu to allow more aid trucks into Gaza were, at least until recently, so ineffectual that the White House had to drop food from planes. In 1948, the United States organized the Berlin Airlift to overcome Soviet obstructionism; that meant confronting our adversary and constituted a show of strength. In 2024, the United States was reduced to organizing the Gaza airlift to get around the intransigence of our longtime aid recipient; that reflected Biden’s failure to confront our ally and amounted to a show of weakness.

Instead of organizing an airdrop (which has killed some people when aid fell on them), Biden had an opportunity to do something much more substantial to avert starvation. In December the United Nations Security Council tried to set up a U.N. system to inspect trucks entering Gaza rather than letting them get stuck in the Israeli inspection bottleneck. Reports were already coming in of catastrophic starvation in Gaza, yet the Biden administration effectively blocked this alternative by watering it down to nothing, according to people close to the negotiations. The upshot: Children starved to death.

The administration also tolerated a ferocious crackdown and land grab by Israeli West Bank settlers who operate with the backing of Netanyahu’s extremist cabinet. The United Nations reports that almost 5,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been injured since Oct. 7 in confrontations with Israeli troops and settlers, who periodically steal Palestinians’ sheep or drive them from their homes. By the U.N.’s count, 451 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in this period, including 112 children (nine Israelis were killed in the West Bank during this time). Then last month, Israel announced the largest seizure of West Bank land since the Oslo peace accords in 1993. It was a slap in the face of Biden, who has mostly turned the other cheek.

Biden also didn’t seem to anticipate how brutal the bombing of Gaza would be, how Israel would throttle aid flows and in effect starve Gazans, and how long the war would last. The administration signaled that it expected the war to conclude by the end of 2023.

These miscalculations are hard to understand, for Israel was so traumatized by the horror of the Oct. 7 attack that the harshness of what was to come was quite predictable. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said early on that Israel was fighting “human animals” and he promised “a complete siege,” adding, “There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel.” By one count, there were 18,000 Hebrew-language references to Gaza being “erased,” “destroyed” and “flattened” on X, formerly known as Twitter, in about the first six weeks after Oct. 7.

For me, watching as I reported from Israel and the West Bank, it felt ineffably sad, like a rerun of the invasion of Iraq: the delusions about a quick victory, the disregard for civilian lives, the lack of a local partner to establish order, the excessive optimism about outcomes. Another parallel with Iraq was the support for this war from Biden, who had similarly supported the Iraq war. “I do not believe this is a rush to war,” he had said in 2002, underscoring how history rhymes. “I believe it is a march to peace and security.”

As time went on and Israel leveled entire neighborhoods and killed large numbers of women, children and aid workers, Biden became more critical of Israel. But while his rhetoric changed, his policies didn’t — and he repeatedly allowed his calls for restraint to be ignored. Indeed, in the first months of the war, Biden’s first serious move to impose accountability wasn’t aimed at Netanyahu but at UNRWA, the United Nations agency working desperately to prevent famine in Gaza.

After allegations in January that a dozen (later 14) of the agency’s 30,000 employees may have joined the Hamas terrorist attack and that many others were Hamas members, Biden suspended funding for UNRWA without waiting for confirmation. Investigations are now underway, and a small number of UNRWA staff members may have been involved in the Hamas attack, but there are growing doubts about the larger Israeli allegation of fundamental UNRWA complicity.

“They’ve been saying UNRWA is an arm of Hamas,” Senator Van Hollen told me. “There’s nothing — nothing! — in the intelligence to support that claim. That’s a flat-out lie.”

It now appears that while Biden was too slow to confront Netanyahu for killing Gazan children, he acted too hastily against the U.N. agency trying to save Gazan children. “We contributed,” Van Hollen noted, “to punishing over two million civilians who relied on UNRWA.”

American public opinion has moved rapidly on the war, with a majority of people now opposing Israel’s actions in Gaza. If the bloodshed and starvation continue, one can imagine a further shift — carrying increased political risks for Biden. While few of those disenchanted by Biden’s policies in Gaza seem likely to vote for Donald Trump, they could simply stay home on Election Day in crucial swing states like Michigan.

The anger among young progressives is particularly strong. I see it on college campuses. I’ve spoken to several Democratic members of Congress who say they can’t do public events for fear they will be shouted down. (I disapprove of disrupting events; I tell young people that if you want to change minds, shouting is less effective than asking pointed questions.) It’s worth remembering that Trump and a Republican Congress would almost certainly be less likely to restrain Israeli actions toward Palestinians, yet that’s not an effective argument for Democratic incumbents to make when they’re on the defensive.

Some of this anger, both in America and abroad, stems from what critics of the war perceive as a lack of urgency and even empathy on Biden’s part for Palestinian suffering. When he speaks of the victims of the Oct. 7 attack, I can feel his horror and disgust at the inhumanity of Hamas, but I don’t hear the same emotion about the deaths of Palestinian children in Gaza.

“There has just been a profound and visible empathy gap in how Biden talks about the two sets of victims in this conflict,” Konyndyk said. Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland who has known Biden for many years, made the same point and argued that what seemed to finally move Biden (and much of the world) was the killing of World Central Kitchen’s foreign aid workers — even after about 190 Palestinian aid workers had already died.

We all have empathy gaps based on our backgrounds and loyalties, and supporters of Israel sometimes argue that critics of the Gaza war don’t seem to show the same compassion for starving Sudanese or Ethiopians that they do for Gazans. In Biden’s case, this isn’t the first time the issue has been discussed.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and caused so many civilian casualties that everyone from President Ronald Reagan to Democratic senators expressed outrage. One exception: the young senator from Delaware.

Then-Senator Biden clashed with Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Menachem Begin, over West Bank settlements, and he deserves credit for being prescient in his opposition to land grabs for settlements. But Biden reportedly also told Begin that he favored an even harsher attack on Lebanon, even if this meant killing women and children, according to Israeli press reports.

In fairness, Biden has offered a strong moral voice in other humanitarian crises, including when he spoke up strongly for Muslims in Bosnia in 1995 and in Darfur in the 2000s. In both cases, he was impatient with talk and demanded action to ease suffering.

“We are still making threats instead of taking action,” Biden complained about Darfur in 2007, when George W. Bush was president.

Those of Biden’s generation sometimes complain that younger critics of Israel lack historical perspective and don’t appreciate the threats that Jews have faced, the unremitting determination of Israel’s enemies to destroy it and the difficulty of prosecuting a war where Hamas hides among civilians. Fair enough. All true.

But parallel arguments of naïveté were lodged against young critics of the Iraq and Vietnam wars. Supporters of the Vietnam War were shaped by memories of appeasement in the run-up to World War II and argued that it was imperative to stand up to the global tide of Communism. They were frustrated — correctly in many cases — that young leftists were soft on Communism and especially Maoism and didn’t understand the brutishness of the enemy. The war’s backers in the White House and the Pentagon acknowledged the suffering in Vietnam but argued that it was important to be tough-minded and keep perspective: With a little more effort it would be possible to uproot the enemy and score a decisive victory that would lay the groundwork for a better future. Listening to doves and showing restraint, they argued, would merely signal weakness and allow national dominoes to fall, resulting in a huge setback for freedom and democracy.

In retrospect, the backers of the Vietnam War didn’t understand the power of nationalism and vastly exaggerated the ability of even a powerful army to eradicate a homegrown enemy with nationalist credentials, while they were myopic about the human cost of their strategy and didn’t ask essential questions about its morality. Today it is the critics of the Vietnam and Iraq wars who have been largely validated. They may have known less history, but they possessed keener empathy.

Another parallel with the Vietnam War that worries some Democrats: The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was the site of chaotic antiwar protests that were mishandled and damaged the entire party at a time it needed to signal unity. That fall the presidential election went, by less than one percentage point, to the Republican Richard Nixon.

Oh, and where will the Democratic convention be held this year? Chicago, again.

The Biden administration called for moral clarity after the atrocities of Oct. 7, and that was appropriate. But moral clarity cannot be like a pair of glasses we put on and take off. Our shared humanity means recognizing that all children’s lives have equal value. If your heart breaks for victims on only one side of the Israel-Gaza border, then your failure is not of geopolitics but of humanity. If you care about the human rights of only Israelis or only Palestinians, then you don’t actually care about human rights.

Another way of putting it: The more than 1,000 children in Gaza who are now amputees, their suffering is partly on us.

Aside from the human toll, the war has also undermined America’s broader interests.

“Biden himself, but also America, now appears weak, thus less credible as a security partner, because Netanyahu has been completely and publicly unresponsive to tepid American requests, without there being any consequences,” Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister, told me.

Jan Egeland, a former senior U.N. official who is now secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told me that American moral authority has been greatly eroded by its nonstop transfer of weapons to prosecute the war in Gaza.

“When I now travel anywhere in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia or Latin America to urge humanitarian access or protection of civilians, I get a half-hour lecture on U.S.-led Western hypocrisy,” he said. He added that the question he always gets is: “If Russian occupation and attacks on civilians and infrastructure is so bad in Ukraine, how come you accept exactly the same when done against the Palestinians by Israel?”

Ukraine and Gaza represent very different kinds of conflicts, certainly. Russia invaded Ukraine, while Israel was the victim of a particularly barbaric attack by Hamas targeting civilians. Yet it’s also true that as many foreigners see it, America hails the “rules-based international order” in Ukraine while in the Middle East it arms a combatant that is ignoring a U.N. Security Council call for a cease-fire and that the International Court of Justice has said is plausibly committing genocide.

Chris Patten, the former European commissioner for external relations who is now formally Lord Patten of Barnes, is an admirer of Biden. But he told me that he believes on Gaza, “he’s been making a terrible, terrible error.”

“The knock-on effects are awful,” he said, benefiting Chinese and Russian narratives that the West employs double standards and doesn’t really care about principles.

Ukraine had seemed something of a triumph for Biden, who rallied Europe and led the international effort that stalled Russia’s invasion. But Biden’s war in Gaza undermines his war in Ukraine.

“There is ammunition that is badly needed in Ukraine but is being delivered to Israel,” Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and commander of Army forces in Europe, told me.

The big winner of the Hamas attack and its aftermath, Hodges said, is the Kremlin.

This month, Biden belatedly showed a willingness to press Netanyahu and leverage the aid America provides. In a tense 30-minute call, he threatened to condition American weapons transfers on Israel’s actions to address humanitarian concerns in Gaza.

Tentative results were immediate. Israel said it would open the Erez crossing to northern Gaza to provide aid, and more aid has been allowed to enter Gaza.

Previously, Israel insisted that it was not blocking trucks, but as soon as Biden did get serious with Netanyahu, the number of trucks entering Gaza increased. I can’t help wondering: Why didn’t Biden demand this months earlier?

As Van Hollen told me: “When he did exercise some leverage, he got more results in one hour than he’s gotten in six months.”

Still, it remains unclear how much has changed. Israel seems more cooperative about getting aid across the border into Gaza, but the United Nations emphasizes that what matters is aid being delivered over those last few miles to people who are starving. Disputes about aid are likely to continue, in part because more than two-thirds of Jewish Israelis oppose allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, according to an opinion poll in February.

In the past, Biden repeatedly resisted meaningful limits on arms transfers. Under pressure from Democratic senators, he issued National Security Memorandum 20, which restated American law that puts humanitarian conditions on military transfers — but then the administration announced that Israel was meeting the requirements, which many outsiders doubted.

The administration must issue another report by May 8 about whether Israel is meeting its humanitarian obligations, but many critics of the war expect a whitewash.

Many Biden supporters are exasperated. “The current approach is not working,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement calling on Biden to withhold bombs from Israel. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among 40 House members who sent a similar letter to Biden.

“There’s a growing group of House and Senate members who are frustrated with the failure of the Biden administration to apply leverage,” noted Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who was among the first senators to call for a cease-fire.

Biden’s hope for months has been a temporary halt in fighting that the administration could then use to frantically negotiate a landmark Saudi-Israeli-American deal that would normalize relations and lay the groundwork for a two-state solution. This would be the diplomatic equivalent of pulling an elephant out of a hat.

But it hasn’t happened and it’s not clear what Biden’s backup plan is. “The message I and others have carried is you can’t count on such a deal being worked out,” Merkley said. “And meanwhile the humanitarian disaster is getting worse every single day.”

The most dire scenario ahead may be a multifront war involving Gaza and Hezbollah or Iran. One of my scarier discussions with an Israeli official recently was his advocacy of a first strike on Hezbollah, and a poll found that 53 percent of Israeli Jews favor such an all-out attack on Hezbollah. That would, I believe, be a catastrophe for the region.

There’s also the possibility of an Israeli invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza without any serious effort to move civilians out of the way. We may see a full-blown famine in Gaza, or, with no authority in place, Gaza might linger (even if Hamas is a spent force) as a shattered, anarchic territory dominated by militant extremists and criminal gangs. Netanyahu seems to have no long-term plan for Gaza (or the West Bank) that would be acceptable to the outside world.

So far the war in Gaza has, according to authorities there, killed roughly 34,000 people, including about 13,800 children. The toll includes some 484 health workers, 100 journalists and 200 aid workers. The war has also damaged or destroyed up to 57 percent of the territory’s buildings. There is no end in sight, and I don’t see a path for Biden out of the mire in which he has placed himself that does not entail pursuing a fundamentally tougher and more independent path.

That means insisting that Netanyahu show far more restraint in warfare and both allow more aid into Gaza and ensure it is actually delivered to starving people. And if there are no immediate results, Biden must stop the flows of offensive weapons, for that is the step that will finally get the attention of the Israel Defense Forces and of all the country’s leaders.

This is a sad column to have to write. Biden has generally been an impressive foreign policy president, I believe, particularly astute in building connections in Asia to meet the challenge of China. I think he’s personally a good man with a compassionate heart.

That makes his complicity in the cataclysm of Gaza all the more tragic. As a young man, Biden watched Lyndon Johnson’s dream of being remembered for his “Great Society” collapse in the face of youthful opposition to an unpopular and cruel foreign war, with Johnson’s failures leading to the election of a corrupt president from the other party. I hope Biden takes action to avoid a repeat.

Biden might listen in particular to one close adviser who is apparently in anguish over Gaza — for she is right.

“Stop it,” Jill Biden reportedly told her husband. “Stop it now, Joe.”

#Opinion #Gaza #Bidens #War