Joe Biden Could Stop Israel’s War on the People of Gaza If He Really Wanted To

As Israel’s war on Gaza’s civilian population becomes ever more brazen, the Biden administration has been trying to wash its hands of responsibility. In reality, Joe Biden simply doesn’t want to use his leverage over Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a cease-fire.

Palestinian civil and rescue team members carry a victim after Israeli air airstrikes in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on November 7, 2023. (Mohammad Zanoun / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP)

The systems theorist Stafford Beer famously observed that there was “no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.” For Beer, the purpose of a system is what it does — nothing more, nothing less. When applied to the nexus between war and politics, this simple maxim clears away the mist of empty talk and allows us to see what is really going on.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his generals have constructed a machine for waging war on the people of Gaza, building on foundations laid down over the course of several decades. The purpose of that machine is to kill as many Palestinian civilians as possible while supplying a fig leaf for Israel’s Western backers so they can pretend not to understand what is happening.

Netanyahu’s machine has now succeeded in killing more than ten thousand people while Joe Biden adamantly refuses to call for a cease-fire. Every day that Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, resist pressure to call for a cease-fire buys Netanyahu more time to increase the body count in Gaza.

Free-Fire Zone

The fig leaf offered by Netanyahu to his allies has grown ever smaller as the Israeli campaign goes on. After the bombing of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital that killed several hundred people on October 17, the Israeli military denied responsibility, and even produced evidence to back up its claim that a misfiring Islamic Jihad rocket caused the explosion. Channel 4 News and the New York Times soon showed that the “evidence” consisted of worthless junk, which didn’t stop Israel’s supporters from hawking its version of events around the Western media as if it had been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

In contrast, when Israeli jets bombed the Jabalia refugee camp last week, killing dozens of people, a spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) went on CNN and claimed full credit for the strike. A couple of days later, an Israeli missile slammed into a convoy of ambulances taking critically wounded patients from the Al-Shifa hospital to the border crossing with Egypt, killing at least fifteen people. Again, Israeli spokesmen made no attempt to deny that the convoy was their intended target.

After taking public responsibility for attacks that killed large numbers of civilians, the IDF claimed that it had been striking against legitimate military targets because there was a Hamas commander in the area or because Hamas was using one of the ambulances to transport its fighters. It offered no evidence to back up such claims — not even the bogus “evidence” put into circulation after the Al-Ahli bombing.

There is no reason to take any statement made by proven liars at face value. Barely a month ago, Israel’s military-intelligence machine was unable to detect a plan involving thousands of Hamas fighters that had been in preparation for more than a year. Now it claims to be able to pinpoint the location of its adversaries at short notice in a chaotic war zone.

Even if the IDF could prove that these particular bomb attacks were based on reliable intelligence about the location of Hamas units, that would not give it the right to drop high explosives on densely populated areas in the full knowledge that large numbers of civilians are going to be killed.

The IDF spokesman who spoke to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer claimed that Israel no longer had any obligation to safeguard the people of northern Gaza as it had previously ordered them to leave the area. Since issuing that order, Israel has repeatedly bombed the southern part of Gaza, which is where civilians were supposed to flee. The evacuation order was clearly a preemptive justification for transforming northern Gaza into a free-fire zone and has no legal status whatsoever.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have heard a lot of fine talk about the “rules-based international order.” Over the past month, Israel has been establishing a clear set of rules for the conduct of war in urban areas with the blessing of the United States. You can bomb a refugee camp and kill dozens of people if you say that an enemy commander was hiding there. You can bomb an ambulance convoy if you tell reporters that your adversary was using one of the ambulances. You don’t have to supply any evidence to back up these assertions, still less offer proof that you sought to minimize civilian casualties. Words are enough to deflect any criticism.

If the Russian government used similar arguments to justify its record in Ukraine, Western officials wouldn’t even bother to refute them. Their sinister absurdity would be immediately obvious to anyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in pretending to be convinced.

An internal memo circulated by State Department staffers in the past week urged their political bosses to “publicly criticize Israel’s violations of international norms such as failure to limit offensive operations to legitimate military targets” and warned that the US government’s approach was undermining confidence in “the rules-based international order that we have long championed.” Biden and Blinken must know this already — they simply don’t care.

Deflection and Denial

As the nature of the Israeli campaign against the people of Gaza has become more and more obvious, the Biden administration has tried to shrug off responsibility for the crimes that are being committed in full view of the world. On Friday, November 3, NBC quoted an unnamed US official talking about this exercise in managing perceptions:

“If this really goes bad, we want to be able to point to our past statements,” a senior US official said. The official said the administration is particularly worried about a narrative taking hold that Biden supports all Israeli military actions and that US-provided weapons have been used to kill Palestinian civilians, many of them women and children.

On the same day, CNN reported another off-the-record briefing from Biden’s inner circle: “Some of the president’s close advisers believe that there are only weeks, not months, until rebuffing the pressure on the US government to publicly call for a ceasefire becomes untenable.”

The cynicism of these comments is breathtaking. For Biden and his team, the purpose of making statements about the need to protect civilians in Gaza is not to avoid a scenario where “this really goes bad” — as if ten thousand Palestinian deaths were not bad enough already — but rather to provide them with a modicum of implausible deniability. Even if the United States can only provide Netanyahu with cover for “weeks, not months,” that will leave another five or ten thousand people dead from Israeli bomb attacks at the current rate of killing.

US government officials made another attempt to shift the blame away from themselves on November 5. An article in the Washington Post began with three paragraphs of deflection:

As Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza escalates, 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.

US efforts to get Israel to scale back its counterattack in response to the Oct. 7 killings by Hamas that left at least 1,400 Israelis dead have failed or fallen short. The Biden administration urged Israel against a ground invasion, privately asked it to consider proportionality in its attacks, advocated a higher priority on avoiding civilian deaths, and called for a humanitarian pause — only for Israeli officials to dismiss or reject all of those suggestions.

That has left the Biden administration urgently seeking to temper anger in the Arab world by making clear, publicly and privately, that the United States is deeply distressed by the suffering in Gaza, a densely populated land strip of more than 2 million people, about half of whom are children. But there is little indication that Arab leaders are moved by these assurances, leaving the shape of the Middle East after the war — and the US role in it — highly uncertain.

If Arab leaders are unmoved by Biden’s claim to feel “deeply distressed” about the suffering of Gaza’s civilian population, that merely suggests that they are not afflicted by amnesia. This is a man who cynically undermined the casualty figures coming out of Gaza despite knowing perfectly well that they were reliable, as the Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler explained:

The Gaza Health Ministry has had a pretty good track record with its death estimates over the years, notwithstanding that it is part of the Hamas-run government, and Biden is in a position to know that.

Kessler suggested that Biden’s comments were “remarkably uninformed by history and precedent.” There is another way of describing it when the world’s most powerful leader makes a false statement about a matter of life and death and refuses to correct the statement afterward. Biden was lying to provide cover for Netanyahu’s violence against Palestinian civilians. By doing so, he supplied a clear green light for the escalation that followed.

Loud and Clear

King Abdullah of Jordan is probably the most sympathetic interlocutor Washington could ever hope to have in the region. This is what he had to say about the conduct of the United States and its allies over the past few weeks:

The message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear. Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries. They stop at borders, they stop at races and they stop at religions.

The idea that the US government has no leverage over Netanyahu, even as it deploys aircraft carriers to support him, is clearly self-serving nonsense, as the Post article went on to acknowledge:

Washington is Israel’s largest military backer, and the White House has asked Congress for an additional $14 billion in aid for Israel in the wake of the Hamas attacks. But administration officials and advisers say the levers the United States theoretically has over Israel, such as conditioning military aid on making the military campaign more targeted, are nonstarters, partly because they would be so politically unpopular in any administration and partly because, aides say, Biden himself has a personal attachment to Israel.

We should note the wording used here: “politically unpopular in any administration,” not “politically unpopular for any administration.” There was already strong public backing for a cease-fire by the third week of October, before the latest round of atrocities against civilians in Gaza. Democratic voters disapprove of what Israel is doing in Gaza by a wide margin, even though the vast majority of Democratic politicians support it, with courageous exceptions like Rashida Tlaib.

Biden and his team don’t want to call for a cease-fire because they support Netanyahu’s war and are doing everything in their power to assist it. The latest rationale from Blinken is that a cease-fire would “simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup.” This argument revealed Blinken’s contempt for Palestinian lives as clearly as anything he has said over the past month.

A cease-fire would also “leave Likud in place, able to regroup” after killing ten thousand Palestinians in the space of a few weeks. Likud is a party that openly denies the right of a Palestinian state to exist — in practice, not in theory — and it has formed a governing alliance with parties that are even more brazen in their hostility to Palestinian statehood. Yet Blinken would certainly expect Palestinians to accept an outcome that leaves these political forces in control of the Israeli state and its military machine, with no guarantees that they will not carry out further attacks on Palestinian civilians.

When Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, the United States and its allies could have responded in two ways, which were not mutually exclusive. One was to try and bring Hamas itself into peace negotiations; the other was to undercut support for Hamas by strengthening Fatah’s political position. Both scenarios would have required Washington to apply serious pressure on Israeli leaders to withdraw from the whole of the occupied territories — the bare minimum that any credible Palestinian leadership could accept as the basis for a peace settlement.

From George Bush to Barack Obama and from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, US administrations have categorically refused to apply such pressure. Instead, they have tried to strong-arm Palestinian leaders into accepting that large parts of the West Bank will remain under permanent Israeli control. If an offer of peace with justice was actually on the table for the Palestinian people, Hamas would either have to accept it or else its support would rapidly wither on the vine.

The implication of Blinken’s argument is that there can be no cease-fire until Hamas has been eliminated as a political force, which would require Israel to kill or deport hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. It speaks volumes about the moral void at the heart of US policymaking that the Biden administration would rather contemplate this outcome than admit that Washington has been lying about the main obstacles to peace ever since Bill Clinton peddled a false narrative after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000.

A cease-fire is not a long-term peace settlement. It will simply bring the carnage in Gaza to a halt, and perhaps create a little breathing space in which we can discuss how a genuine peace settlement based on equality for Israelis and Palestinians could come about. That would be more than enough for now. The alternative is an ongoing horror show with consequences that will reverberate for decades to come.