Joe Biden is in Israel. No one needs a crystal ball to know what he’s going to do there. He’s already provided military, financial, diplomatic, and rhetorical support for the Israeli military as it engages in an onslaught that’s killed and dismembered vast numbers of Palestinian civilians. After the first few days of carnage, Biden started tepidly suggesting that Israel shouldn’t go too far — but at no point has he so much as hinted that any of the war crimes being committed against the Palestinian population trapped in Gaza could imperil the flow of US aid. And his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, described calls from congressional progressives for a cease-fire “repugnant.” Needless to say, neither Biden nor Jean-Pierre has called Israel ordering more than a million Palestinians to leave their homes — a blatant act of ethnic cleansing — “repugnant.”
We’re so used to seeing American presidents act this way that it’s easy to forget what the alternative might look like. But if he wanted to, Biden could be taking a dramatically different approach. The president of the United States, traveling to the country where the attention of the global media is concentrated, has the biggest megaphone on the planet. He could be using this trip to change course and push hard for an end to the bloodshed.
But he won’t.
The Speech Biden Could Give
When Hamas attacked Israel, they took a number of Israeli soldiers and civilians as hostages. Israel in turn detained thousands of members of Hamas. If there were a cease-fire, it would be quite possible to free every single Israeli hostage with a prisoner exchange.
A version of Biden who wanted to make the strongest possible push to end the violence could invite some of the parents of hostages to stand behind him as he gave a speech laying out the case for a cease-fire — and making it clear that not one more penny of US military aid will go to Israel if it continues on its present course.
He could say that he’s unwilling to risk the lives of American citizens held hostage by Hamas and that he’s equally unwilling to continue to fund the killing and maiming of Palestinian Americans who were in Gaza when Israel started to turn blocks of apartment buildings into rubble. Instead of taking potshots at the few brave members of Congress pushing for a cease-fire, Jean-Pierre could ask reporters who would inevitably accuse Biden of being “anti-Israel” why they wanted the president of the United States to sit back and watch all these American citizens die.
Thousands of American troops have been dispatched to the Middle East at the same time that Israel has been clashing in Lebanon with Iran-backed Hezbollah forces. The possibility of a wider war involving Iran and the United States has becoming terrifyingly real.
Biden could talk about how much he regrets his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. He could talk about how much pointless bloodshed and chaos resulted from those wars. He could state in no uncertain terms that there’s no way he’s going to allow the situation in Israel and Palestine to continue to spiral to the point where it leads to American involvement in a war that could be far more catastrophic than either of those.
He could call for an immediate cease-fire and prisoner exchange. He could express outrage over the murder of Israeli children by Hamas and also the far larger number of Palestinian children killed in the last week and a half by Israel’s indiscriminate assault on the civilian population of Gaza. He could say that when peace is achieved there should be a Truth and Reconciliation commission on the South African model to uncover the full horrors on all sides but that, first, peace has to be achieved before any more children die. He could invite representatives of all parties to an emergency meeting at Camp David the day after he returns to the United States.
He could remind everyone that the history of attacks and counterattacks, massacres, and counter-massacres, didn’t start Saturday night before last — that the brutal and dehumanizing blockade of Gaza started fourteen years ago, that the overall Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank started fifty-six years ago, and that nothing can justify keeping a population of millions as noncitizen subjects of a hostile military power for fifty-six years.
Either Israel can engage in a full withdrawal from every bit of the land it conquered in 1967, allowing for a completely independent Palestinian state with control over its own borders — something no Israeli negotiator has ever come close to endorsing at any point in the decades-long “peace process” — or Israel can grant citizenship and equal rights to every single human being living in what has de facto been a single state for several decades.
Either way, Biden could say, any form of continued US aid is contingent on rapid moves toward some version of a just and lasting peace. It’s become too clear that letting this conflict drag on for even a single day comes with unacceptable risks — for the Israelis, for the Palestinians who’ve spent fifty-six years deprived of basic human rights and are now being subject to mass expulsions and mass death, and for the region as a whole.
We tried the path of normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab states while trying to pretend the occupation of Palestine didn’t exist, Biden could explain, and it blew up in our faces. The time has come — the time is already very long past — to chart a new course.
Back to Reality
I don’t expect Biden to say anything close to this in real life. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that he won’t. As Branko Marcetic explains in his book Yesterday’s Man, Joe Biden “established himself as an implacable friend of Israel” early in his career. Way back in 1988, when Biden first ran for president, pro-Israel lobbyists occupied key positions in his campaign. And absolutely nothing that he’s said or done in the last week and a half suggests that he’s ready to change his spots.
The important point is that if he wanted to, he could. There’s no question that Hamas and Hezbollah would agree to an immediate cease-fire if their vastly more powerful enemy offered one. It is true that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might decide he can do without the diplomatic cover and regular infusions of cash and weapons he gets from the United States; there’s no way to guarantee that he won’t. But there’s also no individual on the planet better positioned to push him into agreeing to a cease-fire than President Biden.
While the American public is mostly supportive of Israel right now, it’s also long since grown weary of American involvement in wars in the Middle East. If Biden successfully pushed for a cease-fire that headed off a drift into the worst such war yet, a great many Americans would be overjoyed. Many wouldn’t, and perhaps taking a stand to end the bloodshed would even mean that Biden would lose the next election. This kind of moral leadership takes courage precisely because it comes with real risks. But it’s also possible that he’d benefit from the politics of achieving peace at a time when it seemed more distant than ever.
Unfortunately, we’re never going to find out.