When it comes to U.S.-Israeli relations, you do not get much more old-school than Joe Biden. Throughout his political career, the U.S. President has unwaveringly defended Israel’s interests in Washington.
So, it says a lot about the shift under way in the Democratic Party that Mr. Biden now finds himself bowing to insurgent political forces bigger than him.
From his first encounter as a young senator with a chain-smoking Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in 1973 – a meeting he later called “one of the most consequential” of his life – Mr. Biden has been guided in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by what he sees as its asymmetrical nature. Israeli is surrounded by hostile neighbours bent on its destruction. Peace is only possible, in his view, if Israel’s enemies understand that the United States would never let that happen.
“Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel,” Mr. Biden, then Barack Obama’s vice-president, said during a 2010 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Obama saw things differently. He thought Mr. Netanyahu had taken U.S. support for Israel for granted as the Prime Minister authorized new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that poisoned peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. He favoured putting some space between Washington and Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu responded by campaigning against Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and accepting an invitation from Republicans to trash the deal in a 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress. Throughout it all, Mr. Biden remained on friendly terms with Mr. Netanyahu and served as a buffer between his own boss and the right-wing Prime Minister.
As President, however, Mr. Biden finds himself increasingly torn between his long-standing sympathy toward Israel and progressive forces within the Democratic Party. Slowly but surely, those forces are bending Mr. Biden’s will.
Leading progressive voices such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now equate the Palestinian cause with that of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the heart of both is a struggle against racial oppression and supremacy. Supporters of the Palestinians and BLM are on the side of good. Israel is not. They have seized on Mr. Netanyahu’s close alliance with Donald Trump to cast the Israeli Prime Minister in the same authoritarian light as the former Republican president.
“We can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behaviours,” Mr. Sanders wrote last week in a blunt New York Times op-ed. “We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter.”
Mr. Biden has discovered that the old approach no longer gets a pass with the Democratic base. As Israel retaliated in recent days against missile attacks launched against it by Hamas militants in Gaza, Mr. Biden shifted course. Instead of simply declaring that Israel has a right to defend itself and vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council, he was forced to sharpen his tone with Mr. Netanyahu as the civilian death toll in Gaza surpassed more than 220 people.
On Wednesday, White House officials informed several U.S. media outlets that Mr. Biden had told the Israeli Prime Minister that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.” The statement was the closest Mr. Biden had come to repudiating Israeli attacks aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and intelligence capabilities, but which had also taken the lives of dozens of children and caused widespread material damage in the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Mr. Netanyahu, who is reluctant to leave Hamas’s capabilities intact now, is left to wonder whether his old friend has turned into a fair-weather one.
Defenders of Israel worry that the shift in tone in Washington will embolden Hamas and Hezbollah, its sister terrorist organization in Lebanon. After all, both can count on progressive Democrats such as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to provide cover for them by seeking to discredit any Israeli counterattacks.
“Do Palestinians have a right to survive?” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez asked her House of Representatives colleagues last week. “Do we believe that? If so, we have a responsibility to that as well.”
The Middle East was not on Mr. Biden’s radar when he was inaugurated in January. But just as the progressive wing of his party has forced him to embrace economic measures he would otherwise spurn, the new President is now adjusting U.S. policy toward Israel according to demands of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.
That could make the Middle East an even more dangerous place.
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