The readout of US President Joe Biden’s call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night represented a shift. While Biden once again expressed “his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” he also called for a ceasefire for the first time since Hamas escalated rocket attacks a week earlier.The Biden administration took a few days to settle on its messaging in response to the latest Gaza operation, but by the middle of last week, Biden “condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas… [and] conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself, while protecting civilians,” in a first call with Netanyahu. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made sure to make a “clear and absolute distinction between the terrorist organization Hamas that is indiscriminately raining down rockets targeting civilians, and Israel’s response defending itself, targeting the terrorists raining down rockets on Israel.” They continued to emphasize those themes in the days that followed.
But the ceasefire call was new. Blinken also talked with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi about ways to “put an end to the hostilities” on Monday.
Could the mention of a ceasefire mean that the line of credit the Biden administration extended to Israel is running out?
When US President Joe Biden ran in the Democratic primary last year, as well as in the general election, he positioned himself as the normal one. He was the moderate, the one who was going to turn back the clock on many of the changes his predecessor, Donald Trump, made, without jumping to the opposite, left-wing extreme.
Despite Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, coming in second place, and other candidates with sharply progressive views in the race, Biden and his team pushed the message that he is not a radical and that he wants to bring American back to normal.
At the same time, while talking a moderate talk, Biden has walked the progressive walk in areas like his massive economic recovery bills. Some elements of those policies reflect views that he has long held, as can be seen in his 49-year-long record in politics.
Others reflect the current dynamics within the Democratic Party. Progressives make up a larger portion of its representation in Congress than before, while the Democrats and Republicans are tied in the Senate. Every vote really counts and Biden, who prides himself on being able to reach across the aisle, has had to reach in the other direction.
These tensions are at play when it comes to Israel, as well.
Biden and the progressives in his party are in a similar place when it comes to the Iran deal, for example: they want to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump left in 2018. Blinken has talked about making the deal “longer and stronger,” to address problems with the deal, like its 2030 expiration date, opening the door for an Iranian nuclear weapon in less than a decade, and the fact that it does not curb Iran’s missile program or funding for proxies. But the bottom line is that Biden and the progressives in his party say they believe a nuclear deal with Iran will make the region more peaceful.
But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden’s proclamation that he is a Zionist and support for Israel’s right to defend itself throughout his decades in office have rubbed progressives the wrong way. Biden is also a vocal opponent of settlements, but does not support conditioning aid to Israel on its actions in the West Bank.
“There is no answer but a two-state solution… I think the settlements are unnecessary and… the Palestinians have to step up too and be prepared to stop the hate…I think the occupation is a real problem, a significant problem,” Biden said – with many interruptions from the crowd – in response to an activist from the Jewish anti-Israel group IfNotNow during his presidential campaign.
But the activist, Elias Newman, said later that Biden’s remarks were “the bare minimum” a Democrat should say, and that as vice president, Biden “played a key role in giving the Netanyahu government a free pass to continue settlement expansion, launch assaults on Gaza that killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, and lay the groundwork to annex the West Bank.”
Those tensions are now playing out, but it’s not just a couple of activists asking questions at campaign stops.
It’s more than half of the Democrats in the Senate signing a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire “to prevent any further loss of civilian life.”
It’s the long list of commentators in mainstream news outlets making the same kinds of comments. It’s the memes trending on celebrities’ social media that say Israel is not a country, rather a “settler colony.” Sure, Biden isn’t looking at the memes, but millions of people see them, are influenced by them, and in turn influence their political representatives.
It’s pretty clear that Biden doesn’t think that Israel is an apartheid state or committing “child murder,” as the comedian-slash-political analyst John Oliver put it this week. As Blinken emphasized, the US is not equating Hamas shooting indiscriminately into civilian populations with the IDF striking terrorist targets.
But it’s also clear that the Biden administration was spooked by the strike on the Associated Press’ headquarters last week, which led to immediate phone calls from Biden and Blinken to Netanyahu and Ashkenazi. Israel shared the intelligence that showed that Hamas was operating out of the same building, but the Biden administration has made human rights – freedom of the press among them – one of its priorities, and made that point, as well.
Another Biden foreign policy priority is showing that “America is back” and engaging with the international community in places like the UN. But the Biden administration has repeatedly blocked UN Security Council attempts to pressure Israel with statements calling for a ceasefire but not condemning Hamas in any way.
With growing pressure from the public and Congress, as well as standing up for Israel practically alone at the UN, by publicly talking about a ceasefire, the Biden administration is saying they’ve flipped over the hourglass and time is running out. They may not be turning on Israel, but they’re signaling that, as time goes on, it will get harder for them to continue to give Jerusalem their unequivocal support.
The IDF has dealt Hamas a serious blow in Gaza, taking out large chunks of its underground network and assassinating senior terrorists, but the IDF also says it has many more targets that it wants to hit. Israel will have to make the case to the US for the point at which it feels Hamas will have been sufficiently degraded to deter itself from attacking Israel again soon.
While the US is Israel’s key ally, Israel has to put its own security needs first. There have been many times in the past when the US and Israel have disagreed on what that means, and Israel proceeded anyway. Whether this is another one of those cases remains to be seen.