The White House is changing its tune on Israel – but does it matter in practice? | US foreign policy #White #House #changing #tune #Israel #matter #practice #foreign #policy

A soaring civilian death toll and a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza has jolted the Biden administration into a stark change of rhetoric towards the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Out has gone cavalier White House disavowals against “drawing red lines” for Israel in Gaza; in have come blunt invocations of international law and the need to limit civilian casualties to a minimum.

The shift has occurred against the backdrop of an expanded list of non-military targets in Israel’s offensive in the crowded coastal strip, along with a death toll exceeding 16,000 Palestinians, according to figures from the Gaza media office.

The altered tone, however, has not been accompanied by a substantive policy shift – raising doubts among critics about the credibility of official US pronouncements on the unfolding carnage.

Officials around Joe Biden smothered Israel with empathy in the weeks after Hamas’s 7 October rampage that resulted in 1,200 killed and another 240 taken hostage, but mounting concern over the human costs of the Israeli response – along with political fallout at home – have prompted them to change tack.

About two-thirds of the Palestinians killed in Gaza are women and children. An estimated 80% of the population of the territory has been displaced in Israel’s retaliatory offensive, launched with the stated goal of permanently destroying Hamas.

Those figures, and the grim prospect of many more deaths to come as Israel embarks on fresh military action in an area of southern Gaza where up to 2 million displaced people are estimated to have gathered, have spurred a procession of senior administration officials to publicly caution Israel.

The defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, warned that Israel risked replacing “a tactical victory with a strategic defeat” if it failed to protect civilians, thus “driving them into the arms of the enemy”.

Striking a still tougher pose, Vice-President Kamala Harris, speaking at the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, said “too many innocent Palestinians have been killed” and added: “International humanitarian law must be respected.”

Later, in a meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, she went further, saying: “Under no circumstances will the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, the besiegement of Gaza, or the redrawing of the borders of Gaza.”

So far, so tough. It all seems a far cry from the administration’s tone in the immediate aftermath of 7 October, when a soothing approach – labelled “big hug, quiet punches” by one veteran analyst – was deployed, aimed at winning Israeli hearts and minds to better enable the US to play an influential behind-the-scenes restraining role.

The changed posture is an admission of that approach’s failure, according to Joe Cirincione, a Washington national security analyst. Yet it is unlikely to yield better results, he warned, since it is not backed up by a threat of real consequences.

“They have changed their rhetoric but not their policy,” said Cirincione, who initially praised Biden’s handling of the crisis. “They’re emphasising that Israel must reduce civilian casualties, but when Israel doesn’t reduce civilian casualties they don’t do anything about it. It’s not real – it’s messaging.

“They are just providing cover for Netanyahu. They aren’t changing his policy. I have great admiration for [Antony] Blinken [the US secretary of state], but he looks pathetic at this point.”

Palestinians, including children, wounded in Israeli attacks are brought to Nasser hospital for treatment in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on Tuesday.
Palestinians, including children, wounded in Israeli attacks are brought to Nasser hospital for treatment in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on Tuesday. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Blinken reportedly told Israeli officials who showed him plans for extensive fighting in southern Gaza that would last several more months that “you don’t have that much credit”.

Yet to the administration’s critics, it is the White House which is losing credit.

“There’s something called revealed preference,” Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, said in a commentary on his Substack column. “Revealed preference is not what you say, but what you do. And the Biden administration’s revealed preference is Israel can do whatever it wants without consequence.

“What does it do to American credibility, including Biden’s credibility, to be continually saying you want Israel to do things, and then when Israel doesn’t do them, you just basically shrug?”

The only way to render its influence credible with Netanyahu, Cirincione argued, is to make continued US aid conditional – a “worthwhile thought”, Biden said late last month before administration officials shut down the idea days later.

“You could stop supplying Israel with 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs and stop sending them artillery shells,” Cirincione said. “If you want Israel to stop mass slaughter of civilians, don’t send them the weapons they are using to commit mass slaughter.”

He believes there is increasing support among Democrats for conditioning aid, a position once considerably outside the party’s mainstream. “I would say at least one-third of the Democratic caucus support conditioning aid and I believe you could bring [Chuck] Schumer [the Democratic Senate majority leader] along. Condition aid so that it is to defend Israel, but not to destroy Gaza.”

The idea has been championed most actively in recent weeks by the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who on Tuesday wrote a letter to colleagues urging them to oppose aid to Israel requested by the Biden administration unless it comes with strings attached. “No, I do not think we should be appropriating $10.1 billion for the right-wing, extremist Netanyahu government to continue its current military strategy. What the Netanyahu government is doing is immoral, it is in violation of international law, and the United States should not be complicit in those actions,” Sanders wrote.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, speaks to the media at Al Maktoum international airport in Dubai last week.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, speaks to the media at Al Maktoum international airport in Dubai last week. Photograph: Reuters

The biggest obstacle to such an approach may be Biden himself, who is believed to harbour a deep conviction that no daylight should appear in the longstanding ties between the US and Israel.

Yet Biden – facing what increasingly looks like an uphill re-election battle in 2024 – may find his hand forced by domestic politics and alarming poll numbers.

A survey this week from Gallup showed 63% of Democrats opposing Israel’s actions in Gaza, with the figures climbing to 67% for adults under the age of 35 and 64% for voters of colour.

Meanwhile, Democratic donors are said to be alarmed at the potential electoral effects of the war in battleground states like Michigan and Georgia, where significant Arab American voting blocs reside.

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a seasoned US Middle East peace negotiator, warned that the election cycle meant “tougher times are coming” to Washington’s relationship with Israel.

“You have two clocks and they’re ticking at different speeds,” he told MSNBC. “The Israeli operational clock, the destruction of Hamas, is ticking very slowly. They think they’ll need months. The American political clock, Joe Biden’s clock, is ticking much faster. These clocks are increasingly out of sync.”

Yet the Biden administration’s ability to persuade Israel to spare civilian lives might founder on an inability to offer an alternative military course that would satisfy the goal of destroying Hamas.

“If Joe Biden had better alternatives to solve Israel’s problem, on how to spare innocent Palestinians while carrying out their campaign against Hamas, I think he would have offered them,” Miller said.

“But the reality is I don’t think the Biden administration has any better ideas. I just don’t think it is possible for the Israelis to operate and achieve their objectives without putting thousands of Palestinians at risk.”

#White #House #changing #tune #Israel #matter #practice #foreign #policy

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