The explosion at the Al-Ahli Arabi Baptist Hospital in Gaza laid bare the global divide over Israel’s response to the Hamas terrorist attacks that have left the world on edge.
Despite Israel’s denials that it was behind it, blaming a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad instead, most of the Arab world refused to accept its explanation. For many Palestinians and their sympathizers, U.S. President Joe Biden’s backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s version of events only seemed to harden their opinion that the United States always sides with Israel, no matter what.
That many Western media outlets seemed to treat Hamas’s claim that Israel was responsible for the carnage at the hospital – in other words, that it committed a war crime – with the same degree of seriousness that they weighed Israel’s denials also demonstrated just what Mr. Netanyahu and his unity government are up against as they embark on a military campaign to end the threat Hamas poses once and for all.
Even Arab leaders hostile to Hamas, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, felt compelled to cancel a meeting with Mr. Biden in Amman lest their own populations – sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, if not to Hamas itself – turn on them. Expect more unrest in the streets of Arab capitals as Israel continues to launch air strikes on Gaza and prepares for a potential ground invasion.
For Mr. Biden and other Western leaders who have so far refused to call for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Hamas, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the question is how long they can maintain that stand as the civilian death toll in Gaza rises and Israel’s blockade on food, fuel, water and medicine leads to a humanitarian crisis. Canadians and Americans alike will increasingly demand more from their leaders.
Washington and Ottawa can only try to nudge Mr. Netanyahu to ease the blockade, and to persuade Mr. el-Sisi to open Egypt’s border to Palestinians fleeing the war, for so long. As the suffering mounts, Mr. Biden will need to articulate an exit strategy from the conflict.
For now, most Americans stand by Israel. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday showed that 61 per cent of them said their “sympathies lie more with Israelis” than Palestinians, while only 13 per cent said the opposite. Fully 76 per cent of respondents in the poll of 1,552 voters, and which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, agreed that supporting Israel is in the U.S. national interest. Only 17 per cent disagreed.
The numbers would appear to provide Mr. Biden with considerable leeway to provide U.S. military aid to Israel as it ramps up efforts to extinguish the Hamas threat. His own convictions as a career-long supporter of Israel also explain why he felt no hesitation about standing with Mr. Netanyahu in Tel Aviv this week, despite the personal friction between the two men.
Mr. Biden has been outraged by the Israeli Prime Minister’s attempts to neuter his country’s judiciary and courting of the far right to cling to power. But he did not show it this week.
“The State of Israel was born to be a safe place for the Jewish people of the world. That’s why it was born. I have long said: If Israel didn’t exist, we would have to invent it,” Mr. Biden said on his snap visit to Israel. “And while it may not feel that way today, Israel must again be a safe place for the Jewish people. And I promise you: We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that it will be.”
Still, Mr. Biden has enough foreign-policy experience – indeed, more than all other G7 leaders combined – to recognize a looming quagmire when he sees one. In a 60 Minutes interview last Sunday, he warned Israel against a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, knowing full well that such a move would set the Middle East peace clock back by decades. But he said he agreed with Israel’s stated objective of “eliminating” Hamas.
A growing chorus of foreign-policy voices in Washington is insisting that eradicating Hamas is simply not a realistic goal. The group’s leaders move with relative ease throughout the Arab world, they argue, and while it is a terrorist organization, its basic ideology is shared by millions of Arabs in the Middle East and beyond.
Besides, even if it were possible to eradicate Hamas, the cost in civilian lives in Gaza – in military weaponry, in war fatigue among voters in the West, in exacerbating Arab antipathy toward Israel – may be too great to justify the effort.
Mr. Biden will soon have to make that call. It may be his most consequential one ever.