Joe Biden Still Won’t Say No to Israel

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

Benjamin Netanyahu can hardly believe the leeway Joe Biden has given him through eight months of carnage. Biden has joined Republican attacks on his own base rather than impose any limits on an Israeli campaign that has killed over 37,000 Palestinians.

US president Joe Biden announces a proposed cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza while delivering remarks in the State Dining Room at the White House on May 31, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The Israeli war on Gaza has now continued for eight months, resulting in massive loss of life among Palestinian civilians and a request from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for arrest warrants for Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. Yet Joe Biden has continued to channel vast amounts of military aid to Israel and provide it with political and diplomatic support, at the cost of mounting anger among voters he needs to defeat Donald Trump this fall.

Akbar Shahid Ahmed is the senior diplomatic correspondent for the Huffington Post. He has been following the Biden administration’s support for the Israeli war on Gaza since October 7 and has broken several important stories about internal dissent from US government officials.

We spoke on Thursday, June 6, before the passage of a motion at the UN Security Council endorsing a proposal for a cease-fire. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.

Daniel Finn

It seems now that we’ve had a pattern more than once in just the past few weeks: Joe Biden or other officials from the US government indicate that there is an offer on the table for a cease-fire that Hamas should accept; Hamas leaders and spokesmen respond by saying that they’re open to this proposal; Benjamin Netanyahu’s government then states clearly that it will not accept anything other than concluding this war with the total destruction of Hamas, whereupon the Biden administration officials appear to develop a form of selective hearing. Is that a fair characterization of what has been happening?

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

Roughly speaking, yes. We’ve seen Hamas come out and say it would support various proposals. It’s important to remember that the proposals aren’t just coming from the United States. Egypt and Qatar are also playing a huge role, and of course they have a better understanding of Hamas, because the United States doesn’t talk directly to Hamas. The United States talks to Israel, Egypt, and Qatar, while the latter two talk to Hamas.

The sticking point in all of this is the question of a permanent cease-fire. Can Israel agree to cease all military operations for good? The Israelis are saying absolutely not. We then have to ask what’s changed on the US side from previous weeks, because essentially, the proposal has not changed.

It’s roughly the same proposal that there was a few weeks ago, when Hamas said yes to the proposal that came from Egypt and Qatar. This would involve a multiphase cease-fire, initially temporary, to create breathing room for negotiations for a longer-term cease-fire.

In that initial period, you would also have the release of hostages held by Hamas and other groups on the one hand and the release of many Palestinian political prisoners on the other, as well as the supply of more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The United States is trying to do two things at once here. One could question that approach, given that it has so far failed at doing just one thing — namely, preventing a catastrophe and having this war achieve any of its goals, even with huge US enablement. In view of that failure, one could question why US government officials are trying to do two things, and yet they are.

They are trying to say, “we’re turning up the heat on Israel,” while simultaneously creating conditions so that if this falls apart, they can blame the Palestinians. They are creating those conditions by saying that the onus is on Hamas. That’s the up-front message, while we are also tacitly hearing the line that they’re being a little bit tough on Israel to accept something, because they know that Hamas was ready to accept it.

What I’m hearing, however, even from officials close to this plan, is that there’s not a lot of hope, because Biden is still not at a point where he would put teeth on this approach. For Israel, there are no clear consequences if it rejects the plan. Biden has not said he would cut off any form of aid. He has continued to say that if this falls apart, the Palestinians would be responsible.

The president isn’t willing to apply any stronger forms of pressure on Israel right now. Netanyahu, of course, is really determined to continue the war. He worries that if the war ends, he would have to leave office. But he’s also fundamentally a hard-liner who has made extreme promises of taking Hamas out of the equation and taking over Rafah, the remaining Palestinian enclave in Gaza. Netanyahu isn’t backing away either, so I’m not very optimistic at this point, although I wish I could be.

Daniel Finn

That brings up the question of how this is playing out in terms of US domestic politics. When we last spoke in early January — five months ago now — you said there could very well be a major wake-up call coming for the Biden administration in the Democratic primaries. Since then, we’ve seen the “uncommitted” campaign in states like Minnesota and Michigan having a significant impact. We’ve also seen the student encampments developing in universities all over the United States and having a major impact on public debate. Has any of that factored into the thinking of the Biden administration or the Democratic congressional leadership?

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

I think the “uncommitted” vote was so significant that the message definitely got through. It hasn’t yet changed the Biden administration’s policy, but it is very clear that it could face potential problems. Minnesota and Michigan are two relevant states, Georgia is another one where this could be relevant, and perhaps also Pennsylvania to some extent. I think the administration is aware of that.

Its response to that has largely mirrored its response to some of the dissent within its own ranks. Rather than change the policy or engage in discussion about it, the response has been to say “okay, we’ll listen to your complaints, but nothing will change,” which in some instances makes people even angrier.

I think the other threat that the administration is waking up to a little bit is that of its main rival, Donald Trump, who is going to be the Republican presidential nominee. Trump is out here actively courting these people who are disillusioned with Biden. He has dispatched his Arab American son-in-law, Michael Boulos, to Michigan with his father. He is planning more events with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

None of that is to say that Trump has some great panacea, but he is saying “I would stop the war,” and it’s very hard for the Biden administration to show that it is more committed to stopping the war than he is. Then there are other electoral rivals for Biden to worry about.

It’s very important to remember, especially given the precedent of 2016, that third-party candidates siphoning off votes can really matter, considering how close these races are. I’ve seen Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, actively courting pro-Palestinian Muslim Americans, both donors and regular people who could vote for her. That could be a deciding point. She has also courted students.

The question of the student encampments is an interesting one. For the administration, that was a moment of doubling down. While it may have heard the message from the “uncommitted” votes in the primaries, I think the administration processed the message from the student encampments in a very different way by saying that these students don’t understand anything, and we don’t want to deal with them.

The president himself made it very clear. He did not see these protests in terms of young people being unhappy with his policy. He saw it exclusively through the lens of young people being antisemitic and disruptive. That was a very stark statement that the administration has not backed away from. The White House statements on what was happening at Columbia University in particular were extremely harsh.

What the administration is doing here is joining with conservatives in going after its own coalition. It is amplifying the views of Republicans who are saying that university campuses in the Biden era are hotbeds of antisemitic anger and it’s a nightmarish situation in America right now.

The administration playing into the hands of its own political foes has been a consistent theme. It has also condemned Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who has been involved in the “uncommitted” campaign. In many instances, it has echoed the statements of its foes instead of listening to people within the Democratic Party who would say “we want to get people excited to vote for you, but we’re unable to do that right now.”

That speaks to the question of how the administration sees the electorate. It is operating from a very clear playbook. I’m not in a position to tell you whether it will work, but I do know that this is how it is thinking.

That playbook tells it that it doesn’t really need Democratic Party loyalists or young people. If it loses large groups among voters of color, particularly Muslim and Arab Americans, it’ll get them back next time. They’re looking at the mythical figure of the independent voter.

However, while this mythical independent voter was perhaps persuadable in 2020, things look very different in 2024. The administration itself is boosting the impression that under Biden, there is a state of chaos, particularly abroad, but also on campuses and at the border. It is creating a sense of crisis, and by tapping into the politics of fear, it may be digging its own grave.

Daniel Finn

Coming back to the situation in Palestine and the wider Middle East, you’ve written about the ongoing role of Brett McGurk as a point man for the Biden administration in the Middle East. Even as the war in Gaza is ongoing, McGurk is still trying to push the grand project of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. He seems to believe that this is within his own grasp and the grasp of the Biden administration. Could you say a little more about what is going on there and what is likely to ensue from that effort?

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

McGurk has had a single-minded focus on not just a Saudi-Israel deal, but a US-Saudi-Israel deal. He was pursuing it prior to October 7. Many people, including officials within the Biden administration as well as foreign government officials, felt that his single-minded pursuit of that project skewed US policy toward the Middle East to the point where we had this new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since then, he has tried to shoehorn a solution to Gaza into the US-Saudi-Israel deal. It has become very clear that the Israelis don’t want to make the concessions that would be needed for the Saudis to sign on to a deal. The Saudis have not budged on their demands, even under heavy pressure from the United States.

McGurk has now said, if they can’t get the Israeli part of the deal and they can’t really get something for the Palestinians, the deal they’re now talking about and hoping to present over the next few weeks is just a US-Saudi deal. He told us that the Palestinians were always at the forefront of this process, but evidently, they’re nowhere in the process now.

McGurk’s proposed deal is a new set of American commitments to a repressive, unstable kingdom that has pursued deeply controversial and destructive foreign policies with US weaponry and support. For that to be Biden’s legacy, having overseen and enabled the war in Gaza as well, would take away any idea that he has been offering safe and stable leadership. He has already shattered his human rights legacy.

McGurk is someone who is deeply ambitious and very close to the Saudis as well as other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates, which is playing a very destructive role in Sudan. His idea is that if he can tie the United States to Saudi Arabia, that will be a historic alignment, keeping this wealthy, influential country out of the hands of China and Russia.

However, the Saudis have shown no interest in stepping back from China or Russia, although they would certainly like new US commitments to defend them. That’s what McGurk is trying to deliver — not just commitments to defend them, but also the ability to enrich uranium and potentially move toward possession of nuclear weapons.

The Biden administration’s frankly smug commitment to this policy is illustrated by the way it trots it out every few weeks through strategic and obvious leaks, particularly to Tom Friedman at the New York Times, who we know is the president’s favorite columnist. Friedman has regularly peddled horrific tropes and bad predictions about the Middle East. This is the person the administration is relying on to be the chronicler of that policy, which I think is a real indicator of how sensitive it actually is to the situation in the region.

Daniel Finn

Another significant development that we’ve seen recently is the publication of a report by the Biden administration, which found — perhaps unsurprisingly — that Israel had not violated international humanitarian law in a way that would oblige the United States to freeze arms deliveries. What was the process behind that report, and what kind of dissent did it elicit among US government officials?

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

This report was mandated by a compromise that the Biden administration reached with members of the Democratic Party in Congress. In itself, that reflects how far away the administration is from many of the leaders in its own party — specifically Chris Van Hollen, a senator from Maryland, who got the administration to agree to report on Israel’s conduct in Gaza and whether it is violating US and international law. It took three months to produce a report.

I’m going to base a lot of what I say on the account of Stacy Gilbert, a high-ranking official and veteran of humanitarian crises who quit the State Department a couple of weeks ago, as well as information I have from ongoing sources. People at the State Department who were tasked with writing this report did take it quite seriously, according to Gilbert and other sources. They thought the administration was facing so much pressure from within its own party that it might be honest.

The concern about the report was that as the work on it progressed, it became clear to many that it was going to be politicized to justify continued US support for the Israeli offensive. What people who helped create the pressure for this report said was, “we’re not even telling you that the report will immediately mandate you to shift policy — we’re just saying: be honest about what you know. Let’s at least agree on the same set of facts, based on US government expertise and intelligence.”

Instead, the Biden administration produced a report that, particularly in terms of what it said on humanitarian aid, prompted Gilbert to resign and made many State Department officials sick to their stomachs. It used the period after the World Central Kitchen strike by the Israelis that killed seven aid workers, when there was a brief uptick in aid supplies, to present the entire situation for aid as having improved significantly so that Palestinians were now getting what they needed and there were no “arbitrary” Israeli restrictions.

The administration relied very heavily on language in this document, using the word “arbitrary” to imply that the Israelis had reasons for limiting aid. We know from major aid groups that the reasons for such limitations have never been made clear and that the list of items Israel deems to be suspect is extremely arbitrary. It changes from one day to the next and it has never been published.

It also used a very interesting phrase to shift responsibility by saying that it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel had violated international law using US-supplied military equipment. Who is actually doing the assessment? We don’t know, but we are told that it is reasonable for them to do it.

This amounts to saying, “we understand that any skilled analyst or even just a layman looking at this situation could say, if international law states that you cannot disproportionately target civilians, regardless of the military benefit, then you are clearly violating international law in view of the Palestinian death toll.” It is saying, “it’s reasonable for you to say that, but we’re not going to say it.”

That alarmed many people in the administration — at the State Department in particular, but also, importantly, at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community. Pentagon officials have, to their credit, taken some significant steps toward civilian protection. They do not want to be associated with Israel’s practices toward civilians.

Indicating the degree of alarm, we saw an extremely high-level leak to Reuters of all the internal documents and dissent within the State Department. That was a way of showing that so many of the department’s own officials, across multiple bureaus, have been saying that Israel is clearly violating the law, because there was such concern that the report wouldn’t say that in its final stages.

I conducted the first interview with Gilbert after her resignation, and she told me that the report was taken out of the hands of the experts about three weeks before publication and placed on McGurk’s desk. McGurk was the person who had the final say, and he approved a report that many in the administration did not feel good about.

That has now created a pressure point for people in the Democratic Party to say, “we just asked you to be honest — we didn’t ask you to change your policy — but you couldn’t even give us that, so where do we go from here?” The Biden administration, by issuing the report and treating it in the way that it did, has again created some danger for itself.

Daniel Finn

Another very important development since we last spoke back in January is what has been happening on the international legal front, with the South African case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Israel of genocide, and more recently a request from Karim Khan of the ICC for arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders.

The public response from Biden and other US officials to the ICJ case and the ICC’s request for warrants has been very dismissive and hostile. But if you look beyond that rhetoric, is their genuine concern on their part about these cases going ahead and what the implications might be for US policy?

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

There is definitely concern in the Biden administration over the ICJ and ICC cases, because there has also been a question of the extent to which the United States is on trial with Israel, given that it is providing overwhelming support and making the offensive possible. At this point, it is also helping Israel to violate the order from the ICJ that said that the Israeli military could not go into Rafah in a way that would harm civilians disproportionately. There was obviously no way for the Israelis to comply with that order without stopping their offensive.

I would say that Biden and his team are in a real bind. They say that they value international norms and laws, and this is creating a fissure between them and their allies. The Biden administration has come out against the ICC warrants, while other governments have said they stand with the ICC. This is also creating a debate within the Democratic Party, so that is an additional pressure point. I think that there is much greater concern than the administration is letting on in public.

Daniel Finn

Where do you think we are going from here? Are we going to be back here in another five months, talking about an ongoing Israeli campaign in Gaza, and if not, how might things resolve themselves?

Akbar Shahid Ahmed

I think players on all sides have been shocked by the approach of the Biden administration. The Israeli government has been surprised by what a long tether it has been given. I interviewed some Hamas leaders in April and the sense I got was that they also really felt the United States would have put a stop to the war by this point.

I don’t think we can have this degree of floundering with no end in sight to the fighting five months from now, because we will be in the election by then. I think the pressure will intensify as we get closer to the Democratic National Convention at the end of August. If Biden doesn’t have an end to the war in sight, what is he going to get up and say?

No amount of White House speeches and promises of a cease-fire can get through an entire party convention, which is meant to stir up your voter base two months before the election, if you don’t have anything substantive. I do expect something to give by then.

The Biden administration’s hope is that the give will be on the Israeli side — either Netanyahu will feel that he has to make concessions, or else his government will collapse. US officials are very hopeful that the Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz will give them a way out, but I’m skeptical of that.

Given that famine is now going on in Gaza — we learned on June 5 that no medical supplies had entered Gaza for ten days — there is a very serious push from Arab states, and I expect Egypt and Qatar to be the key mediators. Egypt is already threatening to tear up its peace treaty with Israel, which has created some pressure. I wonder if we’ll see more from the mediators saying, “we need Israel and the United States to come onside because we feel that to a large extent, we’ve already gotten Hamas to the point where we need it to be.”