LONDON (Project Syndicate)—When asked on Monday whether he would insist on a cease fire after the escalation in violence between Israel and Hamas, President Joe Biden said that he would speak to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “in an hour, and I’ll be able to talk to you after that.” Far from a Biden gaffe, the president’s apparent deference to Netanyahu raises alarming—albeit not new—questions about the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Israel is what scholars of international relations would call “the tail that wags the dog.” Given the asymmetry of power between the two, one would expect the United States, as the superpower that furnishes Israel with $3.8 billion per year in military aid, to lay out the ground rules for their relations. Yet in Israel’s case, the reverse is true.
U.S. foreign policy is still wedded to an Israel-knows-best approach to the Middle East. Until that changes, the tail will continue to wag the dog, ruling out a durable, sustainable, and just peace in the Holy Land.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. foreign-policy consensus has been that Israel knows best how to preserve its security, and that unequivocal U.S. support, not pressure, would induce it to take the risks necessary for peace. Hence, U.S. presidents often defer to their Israeli counterparts on questions of war and peace in the Middle East, even though vital American interests are at stake there.
Yet far from giving the U.S. leverage over Israel or advancing the prospects of peace, this approach to the bilateral relationship has ultimately been detrimental to both countries.
Netanyahu exploits America
Netanyahu knows all too well how to influence U.S. politics, particularly when violent conflict erupts. He has long exploited the fact that the U.S. inevitably reiterates Israel’s “right to self-defense” without taking into account Israeli leaders’ responsibility for triggering a crisis.
This time, too, U.S. officials, regardless of party affiliation, have tended to shy away from acknowledging Netanyahu’s direct role in sabotaging reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, disenfranchising Palestinian citizens of Israel, and empowering his country’s most extremist and xenophobic forces.
Biden knows Netanyahu well, having dealt with him first as a senator and then as vice president for eight years in the Obama administration. In 2011, Netanyahu publicly humiliated America’s first Black president, Biden’s former boss, by lecturing to him about U.S. policy and Israeli security live on American television from the Oval Office. Worse, he later colluded with congressional Republicans to try to kill the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Overlooking Netanyahu’s long record of mischief, Biden’s stance in the current conflict amounts to a green light for Israel to continue its military campaign against Hamas. Three times since the current crisis began, the U.S. has blocked U.N. Security Council statements calling for an immediate cease fire, leading U.N. diplomats to conclude that the Biden administration wants to keep that body “silent” in the matter.
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Moreover, on May 17, just as the violence in Gaza was intensifying, The Washington Post reported that Biden had approved the sale of $735 million in “precision-guided weapons” to Israel, raising red flags for House Democrats who have been calling on the administration to push for a cease fire and take a more active role in addressing the root causes of the conflict. For obvious reasons, the escalation of bloodshed will have far-reaching consequences not just for civilians in Gaza but also for regional peace and security more broadly.
The following day, after coming under increasing pressure at home and abroad, and after speaking with Netanyahu, Biden issued a statement expressing support for a cease fire. But Netanyahu has made it clear that he is not ready to end the airstrikes on Gaza, and the White House remains seemingly unwilling to persuade him otherwise as long as Hamas is still indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel.
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Clinging to an illusion
Clearly, Biden belongs to the generation of U.S. officials who cling to the hoary vision of Israel as a shining democracy in a sea of Arab and Muslim autocracy. Biden and like-minded Democratic and Republican leaders are willfully oblivious to evidence of Israeli authorities’ systemic abuses and crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel.
Still, with key Democratic Party voices challenging the pro-Israel hegemony within their own party, the U.S. political landscape is gradually changing. It is doubtful that Biden would have used the word “cease fire” if not for a joint statement issued by 29 Democratic senators urging an “immediate” one. One of the vanguards of this growing movement is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who commands a significant share of support within the Democratic Party base.
Equally promising, American Jews are increasingly skeptical of Netanyahu. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that only 34% strongly opposed sanctions and punitive measures against Israel. Contrary to what the Likud-dominated lobby would have America believe, American Jews are not a monolith. Young American Jews, in particular, are often highly critical of Israel’s colonial and aggressive policies.
Despite new voices in the Democratic Party and the American Jewish community, it will probably take a generational shift in U.S. foreign-policy circles to bring the pendulum back to the middle on issues concerning Israel and Palestine. Until then, the tail will continue to wag the dog, ruling out a durable, sustainable, and just peace in the Holy Land, and undermining U.S. interests in the broader Middle East.
Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is author of the forthcoming “The Hundred Years’ War for Control of the Middle East” (Princeton University Press, 2021).