Biden’s options in the Israel-Hamas War
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(15 October 2023) — The situation in the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian question and Israel’s resistance to a two-state solution and the rights of displaced Palestinians to return to their homeland, has been inherited by successive U.S. presidents. Lack of progress, and often reverse of forward steps advancing peace, has been determined mostly by the ideological determinants of the government in Israel. However, the occupant in the White House in Washington also bears responsibility on the direction a resolution of the Palestinian issue has taken.
The lack of political will in Washington to pressure successive Israeli governments to make concessions that have the potential to lead to lasting peace is not a new phenomenon. It’s as long as I am old enough to remember. Wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors have shaken world peace and threatened a third world war. Low level and sometimes quite deadly conflicts between Israel and Palestinian resistance have taken many lives. While there have been casualties, most often civilians, on both sides, Israel’s superior military forces usually exact more on the Palestinian side. Either way, it’s a no win situation for both and peace is set back with each deadly skirmish.
The perpetual conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is exacerbated by Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, oppressive conditions in the Gaza, and the undeniably longstanding oppression of the Palestinian people while denying them their right to self-determination – an independent state of their own. But the blame lies not only with Israel and American unconditional support for the Israeli government. Those among the Palestinians, aided and abetted by many in the Islamic world, who not only refuse to recognize the existence of Israel but committed to destroying that nation and the Israeli people, bear heavy responsibility for the lack of peace. This situation is untenable. War is not a viable option, though inevitable.
Unless there is political will on both sides to take bold steps toward peace, wars like the one currently raging between Israel and Hamas, now shaking the region and threatening global peace, will be repeated over and over again. Notwithstanding the Israeli government’s pledge to destroy Hamas, the inevitable radicalization of Palestinian youth experiencing the deaths and destruction in real time is a guaranteed outcome. Israel’s military might, though having the ability to crush Hamas and to punish them for the organization’s heinous acts of terrorism against the Israeli people on 7th October, will not crush the yearning for freedom of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for an independent state of their own. Of all the people in the world, Israelis should know this from it’s own history, particularly the Zionist uprising and terrorism perpetrated by Zionists against the British occupation of Palestine and the land now forming the Jewish state.
While the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority bear primary responsibility for peace between the two nations of people, any progress would necessarily involve full U.S. participation in the process. Also, the international community, including the Islamic world collectively must guarantee the security of both a Jewish and a Palestinian state. In the final analysis, the people of Israel and the people of the Palestinian state must be prepared to co-exist peacefully side by side.
American politics is very complex on the issue, though often characterized as unconditional and united support for Israel. It does not matter who the prime minister of Israel is and the relationship between the sitting U.S. president and the prime minister of Israel at any given time. U.S. presidents and Israeli leaders often disagree on the path to peace. There are often wide schisms between the United States and Israel, and sometimes between the United States and the majority of the international community. But, support for Israel is constant.
The rocky relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was well known. President Obama’s insistence on a two-state solution as fundamental to any viable solution was soundly rejected by Netanyahu and his hardline war mongers in Israel. Netanyahu is aided and abetted by many in the United States, particularly the religious right and many in the Republican leadership in the U.S. During President Obama’s tenure in the White House, Republicans in the U.S. congress shamelessly and openly sided with Netanyahu and gave aid and comfort to his hardline policies. They effectively blocked real opportunity for President Obama to pressure Netanyahu to make any concessions to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli people, perhaps acting out of fear and bombarded by propaganda dehumanizing the Palestinian people often choose rightwing politicians to lead them, especially when they fear for their safety and security. These Israeli rightwing politicians’ objectives are to suppress Palestinian aspirations and further create conditions less conducive to peace. History has shown that significant progress towards peace have been achieved only when rational thinking moderates and liberals are in control of the Israeli government. Oftentimes their control is tenuous, and they are constrained from being bold in the process of peace.
President Obama knew that there will be now progress with Israeli leaders like Netanyahu in charge. His frustration with Netanyahu led him to taking his case directly to the Israeli people. And he did so in an ‘in your face’ speech in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013, in which he urged the people of Israel to pressure their political leaders towards peace. He implored the people of Israel to walk in the shoes of the Palestinian people and to show empathy. And, he made very clear his position that the two-state solution is the only viable way forward. That unprecedented speech is worth watching, listening to, or reading by policymakers in Washington, including President Joe Biden and his political and security teams.
Considering the current situation, Biden’s options are limited when Israel is attacked as it was by Hamas on October 7th. Hamas by its prior actions earned the organization the designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and others. Members of Hamas’s leadership are also designated terrorists under U.S. law. FTO designation places Hamas in the same category as Al Qaida, ISIS, and several lesser-known terrorist groups. FTOs are considered threats to the security of the United States and to U.S. allies. While the threat they pose may be concentrated in a particular region, or to the territories and countries where they operate, they are considered as international terrorist organizations and threats to the entire international community.
Israel is America’s single most important ally in the Middle East and the U.S. government is committed, unconditionally, to the defense of Israel. Furthermore, an attack on Israel is interpreted broadly in the U.S. as an attack on democracy, though Israel’s democracy is imperfect, and the United States government will defend Israel at all costs. Israel’s military is the most powerful by far than any other in the Middle East but depends on access to U.S. sophisticated military hardware and unlimited supplies of munitions to engage in any protracted military operation. These supplies are guaranteed by Washington with overwhelming political support, no matter the dysfunctional Republican congressional House of Representatives.
While unconditionally supporting Israel in its war against Hamas, the Biden administration is not oblivious to the rapidly growing concerns all over the world for Israel’s bombing and killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, the destruction of their homes, displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. No matter the justification for Israel’s defense against this and future attacks by Hamas, Israel has an obligation to avoid civilian casualties. While warning civilians in Gaza of the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) intended targets and telling Palestinian civilians to leave, there is nowhere for them to go; no humanitarian corridor, and no access to humanitarian supplies. Punishing the civilians of Gaza, most of whom do not support Hamas, and the inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people are totally unacceptable. Israel’s resort to actions which are similar to actions of the terrorists defy international norms and violate international law.
Biden and his secretaries of state and defense have called on the Israeli government to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. These statements fall short of warning Netanyahu from pursuing this course and there are no consequences being offered. President Biden’s words have so far had no effect on Israel’s military operations. I have low expectation President Biden will do anything tangible to curb Netanyahu. Perhaps he is bound by lack of political support to do so, but he must find a way. Continued killing of civilians in Gaza cannot be allowed to continue.
The U.S will share the blame for the carnage in Gaza. This would have been the case whether the U.S. unconditionally supported Israel or not. The U.S. is blamed by many in the Islamic world for attacks against Muslims anywhere in the world such attacks take place. It doesn’t matter whether there is a nexus between the U.S. government and the attack. As it now stands, the Biden administration is becoming increasingly concerned that U.S. unconditional support for Israel will be interpreted to mean support for mass killings of Palestinian civilians. The Biden administration’s narrative will be shaped by these realities.
For starters, at a minimum, if the president Biden is to have any future credible role in advancing peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, he must overtly increase pressure – insist – on the Israeli military to guarantee access to humanitarian assistance for the people of Gaza and provide them with a safe corridor to leave the conflict areas. President Biden must also make clear that at the end of this fighting, if his administration outlasts the war, Israel must commit to the two-state solution for continuation of U.S. support, and that his administration will facilitate a process that leads to the two-state solution.
Israel is, has been, and will always be dependent on the U.S. for guarantee of Israel’s security. Whoever occupies the White House, though having to overcome the complexities of domestic politics, has far more influence over Israel than has been exercised in the past. It cannot be business as usual. Peace has no price!
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© Curtis A. Ward
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