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Bidenís balancing act: Israelís national security versus the Palestiniansí humanitarian crisis

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Tuesday, 19 March 2024


In recent weeks, the Biden administration has found itself facing a serious dilemma as to how to balance its commitment to Israel's national security along with the humanitarian crisis facing the Palestinians in Gaza. Whereas the United States provides military aid to Israel, including bombs and other defense and offense systems, as a part of the US strategic alliance, this support has always been rooted in their shared democratic values, mutual security interests, and historical ties. It is also influenced by domestic political factors within the United States, including strong support for Israel among the American people and American lawmakers.

At the same time, the US is facing tremendous pressure to provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in Gaza, especially food, water, medicine, and fuel. Having failed to persuade Israel to increase these supplies to the Palestinians recently, the United States decided to drop this aid from the air and now is also considering building a floating pier to provide such support from the sea, aiming at alleviating the humanitarian crisis. This could lessen, only to a small extent, the dire shortages of these essential supplies, but they are no substitute for direct deliveries from Israel in terms of quantities and speed which is desperately needed.

This dual approach of supporting Israel's war efforts in Gaza while also providing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians is paradoxical albeit is a part of President Biden's broader diplomatic effort to balance US interests in the region. However, the United States' effort to promote regional security by supporting Israel's right to defend itself while advocating for the Palestinians' humanitarian needs and acting on them presents a dilemma for President Biden. The Biden administration will have to resort to direct measures to force Netanyahu to change his policy and at the same time address other significant disagreements between them that go back years before the Israel-Gaza war.

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They include policy differences related to the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank, the Iran nuclear deal, and President Biden's efforts to renegotiate a new deal in the wake of Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, they differ dramatically concerning the overall approach in the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the United States supports a two-state solution to which Netanyahu vehemently objects.

There is also significant disagreement on two other major issues. The Biden administration would like the Palestinian Authority to take charge of the Strip following the end of the war. Conversely, Netanyahu completely opposes the return of the PA to Gaza, primarily because he wants to maintain control over most of the Palestinian territories and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. As he stated in January, "I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over the entire area in the west of Jordan – and this is contrary to a Palestinian state." In addition, whereas President Biden wants to see a clear exit strategy from the war, Netanyahu is insisting on maintaining indefinite security control over Gaza, which, from the United States' perspective, will result in the expansion of the Israeli occupation and creeping annexation of Palestinian territories, with no resolution in sight.

It should be noted that the upcoming US presidential elections in November are playing a role in Netanyahu's strategy. If there are only two people in the world who want Trump to win the election this fall, the first is Trump himself, and the second is Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister will do everything in his power to undermine President Biden's reelection. He is cheering the fact that Biden is intensely criticized by some Congressional Democrats as well as a multitude of young voters who oppose his unwavering support of Israel while tens of thousands of Palestinians have died and counting, and hundreds of thousands are on the verge of starvation. Netanyahu will prolong the war as long as it serves his personal interest and weakens Biden politically as he is embarking on his reelection campaign.

Given all of the above, President Biden should not allow Netanyahu to set the agenda. He must now take definitive measures to alert the Israeli public that, although the US commitment to Israel's national security is unshakable, he differentiates between the state of Israel and the current Netanyahu government which is causing untold human suffering to the Palestinians in Gaza that must be stopped.

To force Netanyahu's hand, President Biden can initially take four major measures that will not affect the US commitment to Israel's national security but will send a clear message to Netanyahu that the US must now draw the line and no longer allow Netanyahu to drag the US into the morass of his own creation. Although some of these measures are politically sensitive and have far-reaching implications, Biden has no choice but to act to alleviate the massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

First, President Biden should make a public statement to the effect that while the United States is and will remain committed to Israel's national security, it has clear disagreements in the way Netanyahu is waging the war against Hamas, which is to Israel's detriment. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's call from the Senate floor for an election in Israel to choose a new government is unprecedented, yet it is certainly timely and necessary. He labeled Netanyahu as one who "has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel." Given Schumer's longstanding support for Israel as well as his closeness with the Biden administration, it is likely that he would not have made such a statement without consulting the White House.

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This should now be translated to four demands that Netanyahu must comply with or face severe consequences: 1) Begin the immediate and speedy supply of basic necessities in sufficient quantities to alleviate the disastrous humanitarian crisis among the civilians in Gaza; 2) provide a safe passage to the Palestinians currently sheltering in Rafah, mostly from northern Gaza, to return to their homes before the IDF enters Rafah; 3) prepare for the creation of an international peacekeeping force to assume overall security once the fighting comes to an end; and 4) articulate a credible exit strategy from Gaza.

Second, since the United States provides significant military aid to Israel, the administration should immediately stop the delivery of military ordinances that indiscriminately kill many innocent Palestinians, such as bombs and other explosives. This would send a clear message that the United States cannot sit idly by while the carnage in Gaza continues, and force Netanyahu to resort to a surgical approach to weed out Hamas fighters.

Third, the United States should introduce or vote in favor of a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that calls on Israel to immediately agree on a ceasefire for six to eight weeks and allow the flow of aid to the Palestinians, irrespective of how the negotiation on the release of the hostages is progressing.

Fourth, on a political level, since President Biden has been advocating for a two-state solution, he should act now by allowing the reopening of the United States mission in East Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians and invite the Palestinian Authority to reestablish its mission in Washington, DC, to restore ties between the US and the PA. These two measures will not only demonstrate to the Palestinians that Biden means what he says and quell much of the criticism leveled against him by the Arab American community and congressional Democrats, but it will be the biggest slap in Netanyahu's face and put a major obstacle in his design to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Needless to say, these measures rest on a set of considerations as stated above and their political implications. Nevertheless, President Biden has no choice but to act to balance his commitment to Israel's national security and his determination to permanently alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

 

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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