When Hamas and the Israeli government negotiated a temporary cease-fire last week to facilitate a hostage exchange, Politico published an article that contained an extraordinary yet all too predictable insight into the thinking of Joe Biden and his officials:
There was some concern in the administration about an unintended consequence of the pause: that it would allow journalists broader access to Gaza and the opportunity to further illuminate the devastation there and turn public opinion on Israel.
Israel’s war on Gaza has already resulted in a staggering death toll among journalists. In addition to the sheer danger of reporting from the ground, the relentless nature of the Israeli bombing campaign has made it difficult for anyone to put forward a clear, up-to-date picture of the devastation inflicted upon the people of Gaza.
The Biden administration had good reason to fear that a truce would expose the nature of the atrocities it has been supporting wholeheartedly since early October. Biden and his team will now bear full responsibility for the horrors that ensue from a resumption of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. The only way out is to restore the cease-fire and make it open-ended.
Telling the Truth
As the pause in hostilities came into effect, a report in the New York Times described the horrifying impact of Israel’s war upon Gaza’s civilian population to date:
While wartime death tolls will never be exact, experts say that even a conservative reading of the casualty figures reported from Gaza shows that the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century.
People are being killed in Gaza more quickly, they say, than in even the deadliest moments of US-led attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, which were themselves widely criticized by human rights groups.
Precise comparisons of war dead are impossible, but conflict-casualty experts have been taken aback at just how many people have been reported killed in Gaza — most of them women and children — and how rapidly.
Women and children accounted for nearly 70 percent of all reported deaths: “More children have been killed in Gaza since the Israeli assault began than in the world’s major conflict zones combined — across two dozen countries — during all of last year.”
In late October, Joe Biden derided the casualty figures coming out of Gaza and claimed to have “no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth.” His officials have since quietly conceded that Biden was talking nonsense, as the New York Times explained:
After initially questioning the death toll in Gaza, the Biden administration now concedes that the true figures for civilian casualties may be even worse. Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told a House committee this month that American officials thought the civilian casualties were “very high, frankly, and it could be that they’re even higher than are being cited.”
Biden’s claim about the mortality figures, used to justify his continued support for the bombardment of Gaza, eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the third week of November, Gaza’s health ministry was losing the ability to maintain an accurate count as the focus of Israel’s war shifted toward the hospitals of northern Gaza. The current estimate of almost fifteen thousand deaths is likely to be much lower than the real amount.
Disappointed in Himself
On November 26, the Washington Post published a detailed account of what US government officials have been saying to each other about Gaza behind closed doors. According to the newspaper’s sources, Biden privately rolled back on his professed skepticism about the Gaza casualty figures within twenty-four hours of expressing it:
The following day, Biden met with five prominent Muslim Americans, who protested what they saw as his insensitivity to the civilians who were dying. All spoke of people they knew who had been affected by the suffering in Gaza, including a woman who had lost 100 members of her family.
Biden appeared to be affected by their account. “I’m sorry. I’m disappointed in myself,” he told the group, according to two people familiar with the meeting. “I will do better.” The meeting, scheduled for 30 minutes, ended up lasting more than an hour, according to one White House official, and ended with Biden hugging one of the participants.
This story is presumably meant to show Biden in a positive light, as a sensitive, compassionate man. In fact it achieves precisely the opposite effect. Biden wouldn’t defend his comments about the casualty figures when he found himself directly challenged by people who understood very well what was happening in Gaza. But he clearly had no intention of keeping his promise to “do better” in the days and weeks that followed.
If Biden’s comments had been an unfortunate misstep from a man who felt “disappointed in himself” afterward, the White House spokesman John Kirby wouldn’t have doubled down by describing the Gaza health ministry as an untrustworthy “front for Hamas.” The interventions from Biden and Kirby were carefully calculated, and they had the desired effect. Right on cue, media outlets began referring to the health ministry as “Hamas-run” or “Hamas-controlled” whenever they cited its casualty figures.
The effect was to cast doubt on the escalating death toll without any justification for doing so. A more honest form of contextualization would have referred to “the Hamas-run health ministry, whose figures have generally proved reliable” or “the Hamas-run health ministry, whose figures the State Department has deemed credible.”
Biden’s comments also sent a clear message to the Israeli government and its supporters, who could now lean on the authority of the White House as they dismissed the Gaza death toll. A large proportion of all the deaths in Gaza since October 7 came after Biden’s intervention. Yet there has still been no public retraction of what he said — just a mawkish and belated anecdote about his clandestine performance of compassion.
Actions and Words
Even though they were speaking anonymously to the Post, Biden’s staffers insisted on obfuscating the true nature of Israel’s war on Gaza:
The central dispute between Biden and [Benjamin] Netanyahu is not over a cease-fire, which neither supports, but over the view in Washington that Israel has an unacceptable standard for proportionality. In its effort to eliminate Hamas, Israel is using powerful bombs, leveling neighborhoods and taking down high-rise buildings, tactics that inevitably kill large numbers of civilians and, many argue, further radicalize the Palestinian population.
There is only one way to make sense of what Israel has been doing since early October, and it has nothing to do with “an unacceptable standard for proportionality.” The goal of the campaign is to terrorize the people of Gaza and devastate civilian infrastructure while providing Israel’s Western allies with a scrap of plausible deniability so they can pretend not to understand what is going on.
The mass killing in Gaza is not an unfortunate by-product of Israel’s military effort against Hamas. For Netanyahu and his allies, the body count is an end in itself: they do want to kill members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but they also want to kill Palestinian civilians. It is generally a sound principle to judge people by their actions rather than their words. In this case, however, there is no need to do so, since we can trace a direct line from the bloodthirsty rhetoric with which the Israeli campaign was launched and the outcomes it has delivered.
This is not the only example from the Post article of US government officials acting as if they cannot hear what their allies are saying. We also get a touching picture of Joe Biden as a man who is simply too kind and good-hearted for this horrid world of ours:
Some in Biden’s circle worry that he does not distinguish between an idealistic image of the state of Israel and the reality of the Netanyahu government, which includes several representatives from the far right. “The president’s personal historical commitment to Israel was not modulated by the reality that this Israel happens to have a government that is the worst government it’s ever had,” an ally of the administration said. “Biden has underestimated the degree to which you have to separate how Israel reacts to this and how a Netanyahu government reacts to this.”
US officials view National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as particularly troubling influences who make it harder for Netanyahu to rein in extremist elements in Israeli society. “He’s always looking over his shoulder at the political ramifications of everything,” one US official said of Netanyahu. “So at the time when you need someone to make the right decisions on letting fuel go in so people have water, or reining in West Bank settler violence, he keeps looking over his shoulder at the far-right voices in his cabinet who could balk and collapse his government.”
Joe Biden’s career in front-line politics began half a century ago. He served for eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president before deciding to run for the White House. Yet his own staffers seem happy to present him in the same light as a child who refuses to believe that Santa Claus isn’t real, because the true picture is even less flattering.
In fact, Biden understands the reality of the Netanyahu government perfectly well. He had a front-row seat as Obama tried to cajole the Israeli leader into making a few token concessions to the Palestinians, only to be rewarded with calculated insults and provocations. No “idealistic image” of Israel’s political culture could have prevented him from seeing exactly what Netanyahu’s government would do after being told that Washington had no red lines.
Netanyahu has been the dominant figure in Israeli politics over the last quarter-century. He is the country’s longest-serving prime minister. There is no conceivable justification for presenting him as an unrepresentative outlier, or as a figure who might act differently if he were not “looking over his shoulder” at the likes of Ben Gvir and Smotrich.
The Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, comes from a background in the Labor Party, which was supposed to be the respectable alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud for Western politicians who still pay lip service to a “two-state solution.” Yet it was Herzog who began Israel’s war on Gaza with a bloodcurdling declaration of collective Palestinian guilt for the actions of Hamas: “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible.”
Free Gifts and Blank Checks
The Post report goes on to euphemize Biden’s track record before October 7:
For much of his presidency, Biden did not prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue in his foreign policy, spending far more time on issues such as China and the Russia-Ukraine war. He spent years watching American presidents try and fail to bring comprehensive peace to the region, and concluded that such efforts would fail unless the Israelis and Palestinians had leaders who were deeply committed to the process.
This passage continues the long-established tradition in Western political discourse of pretending that Israelis and Palestinians are two evenly matched forces that bear equal responsibility for the situation. In reality, Israel is a strong, well-established state with the region’s most effective military, while the Palestinians are an oppressed, stateless people who live under siege and occupation. On top of this vast imbalance of power, Israel has the unconditional support of the United States and European countries like Britain and Germany.
Biden hadn’t spent years, months, or even days “watching American presidents try and fail to bring comprehensive peace to the region.” From Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, no occupant of the White House was ever willing to apply serious pressure on Israel to end its settlement project in the West Bank. Instead, they tried to strong-arm Palestinian leaders into accepting a deal that would leave large chunks of the occupied territories under Israeli control.
Under the terms that Washington had in mind, the rest of Gaza and the West Bank might receive the symbolic trappings of sovereignty but would be fragmented and incapable of functioning as an independent state. Since a full withdrawal by Israel to its 1967 borders was the bare minimum that any Palestinian leadership could accept, there was no question of a “comprehensive peace” emerging from this political framework.
On becoming president, Biden allowed Israel to bank the free gifts it had received from Trump, who moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and brokered “normalization” deals with Arab states like Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. He also started working to provide a gift of his own in the form of a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. For Netanyahu’s government, the avowed goal of these diplomatic efforts was to marginalize the Palestinians for good. Biden and Antony Blinken did their very best to assist Netanyahu in this endeavor, building on the foundations that Trump had laid down.
The alternative was to break with the approach followed by every US administration since the Oslo agreements and stop writing blank checks for Israel as the settlements continually expanded. But it was much easier to act as if the Palestinian question was an unfathomable mystery for US policymakers than to confront the bloc of political interests and actors standing behind the alliance with Israel. In any case, Biden had no desire to do so, since he was part of that bloc himself.
Descent Into Darkness
The Biden administration is still pushing the line that a lasting cease-fire is unacceptable because Israel cannot tolerate an outcome that leaves Hamas in control of Gaza. In that case, why should Palestinians be expected to tolerate an outcome that leaves Netanyahu and his co-thinkers in control of a nuclear-armed state, not a besieged enclave? If a truce with Hamas is off the agenda because its armed wing killed twelve hundred Israelis, why should a truce with Likud be on the agenda after the military machine it directs has killed at least fifteen thousand Palestinians?
A cease-fire is not a long-term peace agreement. The conditions for such an agreement clearly do not exist today, primarily because of the dominant political forces in Israel and the unconditional backing they receive from the United States. Israeli governments have always had it in their power to undercut support for Hamas by offering the Palestinian people something other than permanent dispossession and subjugation, yet they have consistently refused to do so.
Restoring and extending the cease-fire will not remove the main barriers to a just peace, which is the only kind of peace worth talking about. But it will stop a brutal campaign of mass killing that will otherwise roll on for an indefinite period of time. Dan Sabbagh, defense and security editor for the Guardian, gave the following assessment of how successful Israel has been in its stated goal of “eliminating Hamas”:
Israel’s military estimates it has killed between 1,000 and 2,000 Hamas fighters out of a military force it believes is about 30,000 strong. The country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pledged to eliminate the group, but Hamas remains a coherent fighting and political operation able to negotiate over hostages.
David Ignatius of the Washington Post put forward a similar view of what the Israeli military has achieved to date in its efforts against Hamas:
For all the devastation this latest war has brought to Palestinian civilians, Hamas fighters remain well-entrenched underground. Clearing operations aren’t over in northern Gaza, and those in southern Gaza have barely begun. A second Israeli official said the Hamas tunnel network “is more developed than we thought” and that at least 600 tunnel shafts have been discovered and closed in the north alone.
If it required at least fifteen thousand Palestinian deaths to kill approximately fifteen hundred Hamas fighters, how many more will be required to complete the task of “elimination”?
The direction of travel for Israel’s war is leading toward slaughter on an even greater scale, mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, or quite possibly both. Indeed, that is precisely what ministers in Netanyahu’s government have publicly advocated as a desirable long-term outcome. The resumption of conflict means a descent into darkness. It’s long past time for this madness to end.