More than ten thousand Palestinians, including 4,200 children, have been killed in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip that began more than a month ago in response to Hamas’ surprise attack that killed 1,400 Israelis. As the humanitarian crisis and mass death mounts in Gaza — and as 237 Israelis are still being held hostage by Hamas — President Joe Biden is facing a great deal of pressure from millions of protesters around the world, 80 percent of Democratic voters, over five hundred Biden campaign alumni, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, twenty-five Arab and Jewish peace groups in Israel, and eighteen United Nations agencies to call for a cease-fire.
Biden explicitly rejected these calls on Thursday, saying there is “no possibility” of a cease-fire, and is still lobbying Congress for an additional $14.3 billion in new weapons and military funding for Israel. Seeking to maintain its brand as a defender of human rights and progress, the Biden administration has instead tried a number of compromise measures to square the circle of its enlightened self-image with support for an unprecedented violent siege and bombing campaign.
Thus far, the White House has attempted to push a few face-saving measures. Chief among them is a so-called humanitarian pause, an undefined term that could mean anything from an indefinite cessation of violence to a mere momentary halt to the bombardment. This has not placated activists who are calling for a cease-fire.
We learned Thursday what these “humanitarian pauses” will look like: Israel plans to pause military operations in northern Gaza for four hours per day, at random times — nominally so residents can flee to safety, but this could also be described as expelling Palestinians from their homes. The administration has also reportedly pushed for “smaller bombs” and more “precision bombs,” but given mounting evidence that Israel is deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure and engaging in collective punishment, it’s not clear how this would help.
Faced with a massive PR crisis, the White House is now trying a fresh approach: feed compliant reporters a narrative that calls for Biden to push for a cease-fire are moot anyway, because the United States executive branch is more or less unable to influence Israel, even if it wanted to.
It’s part of a broader tactic with the Biden White House: when it wants to do something conservative or take no action on popular progressive policies it feigns helplessness to avoid ideological conflict.
For policies like a higher minimum wage or regulating corporate polluters, the Biden administration has outwardly claimed powerlessness before it’s bothered to exercise any of the well-established leverage it has.
The first outlet to push this narrative was the Washington Post, whose reporter Yasmeen Abutaleb published an article on Sunday that painted an image of a White House that was bumbling, powerless, and painted into a corner politically. “White House frustrated by Israel’s onslaught but sees few options,” the article laments with a heavy heart.
“As Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza escalates,” the lede tells us, “the Biden administration finds itself in a precarious position: Administration officials say Israel’s counterattack against Hamas has been too severe, too costly in civilian casualties, and lacking a coherent endgame, but they are unable to exert significant influence on America’s closest ally in the Middle East to change its course.”
This is an extraordinary claim. The notion that the United States — which provides Israel with an automatic veto at the United Nations; intelligence support; Navy support in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf; military presence in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq; and tens of billions in cutting-edge weapons and military supplies — is “unable to exert significant influence” over Israel would, no doubt, come as a surprise to most political observers. So what evidence does the Post provide to support this claim? Entirely the say-so of Biden aides who decline to be named.
The piece is sourced almost entirely from anonymous Biden officials and other people “familiar with the administration’s thinking.” They hand-wring, make excuses, and let the reader know they do feel vaguely bad about the mounting death toll — but insist, with little explanation, that they can’t do much about it.
To Abutaleb’s credit, she does have a “to be sure” paragraph citing Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explaining that, of course, the Biden administration has major leverage in weapons sales and diplomatic cover. But this obvious point is soon countered, without explanation, from another anonymous source:
They’re watching a train wreck, and they can’t do anything about it, and the trains are speeding up,” said a person familiar with the administration’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. “The train wreck is in Gaza, but the explosion is in the region. They know that even if they were to do something, which is to condition aid to Israel, it won’t actually stop the Israelis from what they’re doing.
But why wouldn’t conditioning aid limit the Israeli onslaught? How would Biden officials know unless they tried? Abutaleb lets the claim stand and simply moves on. But the idea that the United States threatening to pull diplomatic, intelligence, and military support “won’t actually stop the Israelis from what they’re doing” — at all — strains credulity.
Next up in the “Helpless Biden White House” genre is the New York Times. Veteran reporter David Sanger, lumping Ukraine into the fold, tells us in his headline and subheadline on Monday, “Biden Confronts the Limits of U.S. Leverage in Two Conflicts: President Biden’s influence over Israel and Ukraine seems far more constrained than expected, given his central role as the supplier of arms and intelligence.”
“For 10 days, the Biden administration has been urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow for ‘humanitarian pauses’ in the bombing of Gaza,” Sanger tells the reader, “hoping that the $3.8 billion a year in American security assistance would carry with it enough influence over the Israeli leader’s tactics. It has not. Mr. Netanyahu rebuffed Mr. Biden’s push for greater efforts to avoid civilian casualties in a phone call on Monday.”
This piece, like that of the Washington Post, relies on anonymous aides to portray a well-meaning, if doddering, Biden desperately trying to reduce civilian deaths but being ignored by a hotheaded and rogue Netanyahu.
The piece never bothers exploring the option that the Biden White House could threaten to withdraw material support; it’s simply taken for granted this option is off the table as leverage. The United States is depicted as a passive observer of war crimes with little control.
“When not speaking on the record, some of Mr. Biden’s aides say the president has been taken aback by Mr. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to bend on the question of attacks on dense urban areas,” reports Sanger. Oh well, he brought the matter up and it seems this is all he can do. Sanger seems wholly uninterested on whether Biden has any other options to reduce civilian deaths, like not funding and arming the Israeli military. This possibility is just not presented as an option.
Finally, we have a piece in Politico on Tuesday by Nahal Toosi, Alexander Ward, and Lara Seligman. Sourced largely from — who else — unnamed Biden “officials,” it insists that Israel would just ignore Biden if he tried to stop the war, but then never explains why. They write:
Even in more normal times, the Israeli government has not always listened to Washington. For example, U.S. officials have for years fruitlessly urged Israel to stop building settlements on West Bank territory claimed by Palestinians.
When Biden was vice president, the Israeli government even announced new settlements while the American leader was visiting Israel.
Then the article moves on without ever explaining how threatening to stop defending Israel at the UN or cutting off intelligence sharing or arms shipment wouldn’t work. It just tells the reader the United States has never tried making these threats and skips to the next point. How do we know Israel would ignore such material threats to its military apparatus if no recent White House has ever attempted to do so?
The article makes clear the White House doesn’t want to stop the war, and supports it for both ideological and strategic reasons, but it just has quibbles over tactics. That this fact would maybe motivate the self-serving claim by anonymous aides that they don’t have the power to bring about a cease-fire even if they wanted to isn’t considered.
Last month, in the early days of the war, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant was pressed by critics about why the government agreed to allow in limited humanitarian aid to Gaza before the hostages had been returned. He said, “The Americans insisted and we are not in a place where we can refuse them. We rely on them for planes and military equipment. What are we supposed to do? Tell them no?”
If the United States has no real influence over Israel, someone should tell that to the Israeli defense minister.
In a recent book on Biden, The Last Politician, writer Franklin Foer details how Biden put an end to Israel’s bombing of Gaza in 2021 with one phone call.
After Netanyahu “struggled to justify his request [for more bombing] because he couldn’t point to fresh targets that needed striking,” Biden said, according to Foer, “Hey, man, we’re out of runway here. It’s over.” And then, Foer continued, “like that, it was. By the time the call ended, Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a cease-fire that the Egyptians would broker.”
One could argue 2023 is different from 2021, given the uniquely horrific nature of the October 7 Hamas attack, but the same logic still applies. A highly motivated and angered Netanyahu — and the border Israeli security establishment — still can’t push a larger war without US support. At the very least, the United States can at least try to withdraw or curtail that support, rather than preemptively handwave away its leverage and insist it wouldn’t matter.
Anonymous claims of American impotence are not supported by historical evidence. They don’t make any sense and, of course, they’re not supposed to. The goal for these pieces is to pass along a broader narrative from what the White House is trying to popularize: that it is helpless, bumfuzzled, and unable to control the horrors the public is seeing come across their timelines every few hours.
When one cannot explain or provide any credible moral justification for nonstop images of the limp bodies of kids being pulled out of rubble day in and day out, there’s only one option left for those supporting it: act like they are not participants, but passive observers, and hope the public doesn’t notice that this claim makes no sense.