Biden’s weapons threat has made peace less, not more, likely

By publicly threatening Israel, the US president has emboldened Hamas and Israel’s other enemies


President Joe Biden (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

May 10, 2024 13:26

Here’s how the BBC is reporting the row between the US president and Israel over a possible ground offensive in Rafah: “US President Joe Biden has backed Israeli's right to self-defence, but warned against escalation in Gaza. Speaking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, he underlined his support for Israel's right to defend itself against Palestinian militants. But he said he was "deeply concerned" about civilian losses.”

Those of you who follow the intricacies of US-Israeli relations may have spotted what I did there. That’s actually a report from 19 July 2014 and it was Barack Obama, not Joe Biden (the giveaway is that Biden didn’t speak to Netanyahu but to CNN when he announced he would withhold weapons if Israel went in to Rafah). But there’s a lesson from this.

Joe Biden is regularly described as one of the, if not the, most instinctively pro-Israel presidents ever. There’s a lot to that. It was only the other week, after all, when his administration helped assemble a coalition to repel Iran’s bombs. And his flight to Israel after the October 7 massacre was clearly heartfelt, as were his words in the immediate aftermath.

But Biden’s threat has not come out of the blue. Rather, it is the peak – at least for now – of the near-constant US criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war. More even than that, however, it is best viewed as part of a foreign policy continuum that started with Obama and continues today, with a four year interruption under Trump.

Don’t forget that it has – until now - been difficult to think of a post-war US president with a worse foreign policy record than Barack Obama, with the exception, perhaps, of Jimmy Carter. In the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa and in Europe Obama betrayed long-standing US allies, stood weak and passive in the face of aggression, kowtowed to dictators and saw the US’s standing diminished far below even the level left by his predecessor George W Bush. It was on his watch that President Putin first tried his luck in Ukraine, invading Crimea in 2014. Obama stood and watched, with consequences that we are witnessing horrifically today. In the same year, he spoke of his “red line” in Syria, that Assad must not use chemical weapons. When Assad did just that, Obama stood watched – also with horrific consequences.

And then there was the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, lifting sanctions that were actually working in choking the Iranian regime’s ability to export terror – again with consequences that remain with us, with Iran funding Hamas and Hezbollah. Obama was the first US president to bring agreement between Israel and many of its neighbours. Not through a triumph of diplomacy but the opposite – a shared, raging anger over the US’s betrayal of its allies with the nuclear deal.

Which brings us to Biden, who appears to be trying to outdo Obama as a disastrous failure - scuttling out of Afghanistan, given the Taliban a triumph, then in 2022 reaping the rewards of the 2014 failure to act against Putin when he invaded Ukraine. And his first priority on taking office in 2021 was seeking to revive deal.

Now this: “If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem… It’s just wrong. We’re not going to supply the weapons and the artillery shells… that have been used.”

There has been one consistent theme of Biden’s presidency, which he shares with Obama: damaging long standing US allies with what often appears to be an almost unbelievable lack of basic understanding of the mindset and behaviour of the various actors.

Take this latest. Even if Biden believes that threatening the security of the US’s main Middle East ally in the middle of a war is good policy, making that threat public is catastrophically, recklessly, unforgivably dangerous. At a stroke, it undermines – indeed almost entirely removes - Israel’s leverage in negotiations over a hostage deal and cease fire. Biden has effectively told Hamas that the war is over – a message Hezbollah will also have taken – making conflict in the north even more likely than before. Iran, too, will have taken note and will act accordingly through its proxies.

More fundamentally. Biden has shown Israel – not just Netanyahu – that the US can no longer be depended on. At the very time when thoughts have been turning to possible progress towards some sort of wider Middle East deal after the conflict, Israel now knows that a US security guarantee is meaningless. That is about as damaging a development for the cause of peace as can be imagined.

May 10, 2024 13:26

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