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columnIsrael at War

Biden can’t have it both ways on the Gaza war

The administration’s apology to Arab-Americans about its support for the effort to eradicate Hamas is a betrayal of Israel.

A Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip, December 2023. Credit: IDF.
A Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip, December 2023. Credit: IDF.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The comings and goings of the principal deputy national security director are not usually newsworthy. Yet one particular trip undertaken by the current occupant of that post, Jon Finer, which was supposedly private rather than public, has become a matter of national political importance.

Accompanied by a delegation of other high-ranking administration officials, including President Barack Obama’s U.N. ambassador and current administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Samantha Power, Finer went to Dearborn, Mich., last week for meetings with Arab-American leaders. And what he said, which was leaked to The New York Times and confirmed by the White House, should come as a shock to Democrats who are confident that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in good hands so long as President Joe Biden is in office.

Finer’s message to Arab Americans was one of contrition. “We are very well aware that we have [made] missteps in the course of responding to this crisis since Oct. 7,” said Finer. He said that the administration was sorry for its messaging and policies in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacres in which Hamas terrorists murdered more than 1,200 men, women and children in southern Israel. Biden forthrightly declared American support for Israel’s right to defend itself but also to the cause of eradicating Hamas.

While not directly repudiating those positions, Finer said that “we have left a very damaging impression based on what has been a wholly inadequate public accounting for how much the president, the administration and the country values the lives of Palestinians. And that began, frankly, pretty early in the conflict.”

The revolt of the progressives

Even as they endorsed Israel’s war aims and kept the supply of arms needed to carry on the conflict, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been publicly articulating their concerns about the safety of Palestinian civilians in Gaza from the start. They sought to first delay and then to hamstring the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to take out the terrorists. So, it’s hard to imagine why Finer would think he had to apologize for Biden not valuing Palestinian lives.

But as his poll numbers continue to sink along with the growing questions about his age and diminishing capacity to lead, Biden can’t afford to ignore the open revolt against his pro-Israel policies within the Democratic Party that encompasses lower-ranking administration officials, congressional staffers and the president’s re-election campaign workers, as well as the left-wing activist base that will supply most of the energy and volunteers to get out the vote this fall.

That’s the explanation for the highly unusual employment of top aides whose work is executing the nation’s foreign policy to carry out what was a blatantly political mission. There’s simply no other explanation for sending Finer and Power to talk to a key Democratic constituency in a vital battleground state not just to apologize for backing Israel but to articulate the administration’s desire to reward the Palestinians for launching a war and committing the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust with an independent state once the fighting is over.

Biden and his foreign-policy team continue to promote the statehood proposal, which the Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated no interest in, and which they link to an equally fanciful scheme in which Saudi Arabia will defy international Muslim opinion and their own cautious instincts to normalize relations with Israel. But the main point of sending Finer to bend the knee to the mayor of Dearborn and other local Arab-American activists was to hint that the escalation of criticism of Israel on the part of the administration may be about to be translated into a policy shift.

It’s not just that the United States is still pushing negotiations for a deal to exchange the remaining hostages for a ceasefire that may or not allow Hamas to survive the war as its victor rather than be eliminated. More than that, with the Israel Defense Forces preparing to close in on Hamas’s last major stronghold in Gaza in Rafah, American leverage over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government is greater than ever.

Jon Finer
Jon Finer. Source: X/The White House.

Smearing Israel’s war effort

Biden’s claim that Israel’s campaign in Gaza has been “over the top,” along with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s libelous accusation that Israel’s Gaza campaign is dehumanizing its foes, were outrageous distortions of the truth. Military experts that I have heard during my visit to Israel all acknowledge that throughout the campaign, its army has encountered challenges that no other modern combatant has faced. The urban warfare in Gaza has pitted the Israelis against a genocidal foe that has dug itself into and underneath civilian neighborhoods, building fortifications that have turned every home in urban areas into battlegrounds. Hamas has done everything possible to sacrifice Palestinian civilians and to increase the death toll in this conflict. Compared to American efforts in Iraq or in the wars of the past, the IDF’s conduct has been exemplary, and any charge that it is violating the rules of war against an enemy that does so every minute is simply untrue.

Indeed, as historian Lord Andrew Roberts, the greatest military historian writing today, noted in a speech in the House of Lords last week, the ration of 2 to 1 civilian combatant death rate in urban warfare is far lower than that of any other modern recorded war and a testament to the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to avoid hurting civilians whenever possible.

Never before in the annals of warfare has an army gone as far as Israel has done in Gaza—and not just in the restrictive rules of engagement under which its soldiers operate, which have made it easier for Hamas to continue to fight. Israel has also allowed the flow of fuel, food and medicine into Hamas-controlled areas in order to ensure the well-being of Palestinians, even though the entire world knows that much of it is being stolen by the terrorists. Hamas doesn’t just use Palestinian civilians as human shields but also ensures that they will suffer even when given the means of survival by their enemy.

Up until now, the Netanyahu government’s policy has been to pay lip service to Biden’s attacks on its conduct with continued assurances that it is, as it has always done, doing its best to minimize civilian casualties as it seeks to put an end to Hamas’s ability to fulfill its pledge to repeat the Oct. 7 atrocities in the future. Israel doesn’t need American permission to defend its citizens against an enemy whose goal is to destroy the Jewish state and slaughter its population. But its dependence on U.S. arms—a problem that might be addressed in the future but not in the short run—means it cannot ignore Washington. Biden’s talking out of both sides of his mouth on the war was unfortunate, but as far as Jerusalem is concerned, it is not just tolerated but ignored as long as the flow of U.S. arms and ammunition necessary to maintain the fight was not halted.

Bending the knee to Tlaib

Finer’s apology, however, raises the stakes in the back-and-forth between the two erstwhile allies that has been going on since Oct. 7.

Finer was dispatched to Dearborn because the administration needed to do something to convince not just Arab-Americans but so-called “progressives” throughout the country, who are virulently anti-Israel, that the president is listening to them. Previously, Biden had sent Julie Chavez Rodriguez, his national campaign manager, to Dearborn on a similar mission, when she met not only with Arab-American Democrats but also Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the openly antisemitic Congress member and “Squad” member, to assure them that the administration understood their concerns.

But Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud refused to meet with her. He reportedly said that he would settle for nothing less than a meeting with actual policymakers rather than campaign officials. It was then that the White House dispatched a delegation to Michigan headed by Finer, who is himself Jewish and a veteran of the Obama administration, and now the No. 2 person at the National Security Council.

Once there, Finer appears to have gotten a hostile reception but spared no efforts to ingratiate himself with figures who act as if the Oct. 7 atrocities never happened and who are offended by any suggestion that they should condemn Hamas, demand that it give up the hostages it holds or spare the Palestinian population further suffering by surrendering. His hosts were still unhappy that he stopped short of direct promises of a change in policy towards Israel. Still, he went a long way towards satisfying their demands by issuing some blistering condemnations of the Israeli government and by explicitly apologizing for the White House statement issued on the 100th day after Oct. 7 that focused entirely on the plight of the hostages and Hamas. He seemed to promise that future communications would pose a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Perhaps the White House thinks that Finer’s mission and the press coverage it orchestrated will calm down the torrent of criticism from the left. That includes chants directed at the president routinely calling him “genocide Joe” by not only those who push that false charge but by the growing chorus of those who support a ceasefire that will grant victory to Hamas. Kowtowing to antisemites like Tlaib and allowing local politicians like Hammoud to bully an NSC official will only increase the pressure on Biden’s campaign, not lessen it. The visit merely created an expectation on the left that the administration would punish Israel if the fighting went on.

Stopping the push to Rafah

And yet, continue it will, as the IDF not only persists with its methodical and efficient campaign to eliminate the terrorists throughout the Strip but as it begins a push to wipe out Hamas’s last organized military formations in Rafah.

That is the context for the flurry of diplomatic activity now as Biden seeks to make it harder for the IDF to attack Rafah. The plight of the Palestinians who fled there when the fighting was primarily in the northern part of the coastal enclave is a genuine problem. Those people should be allowed by their Hamas overlords to flee into areas of Gaza that are not urban and where facilities can be created to care for them. But right now, the administration seems to be speaking as if Hamas’s cynical use of them as human shields should render any Israeli military effort as wrongful.

Finer’s apology hasn’t just raised expectations on the left about Biden’s willingness to confront Israel. It seems to mean that, at a minimum, the administration now believes that even if getting rid of Hamas would be a good idea in theory, any rate of civilian casualties—no matter how few relative to the situation, what the terrorists did to increase them or what conceivable precautions Israel might take to avoid them—are enough of a reason to end the war.

Biden has allowed his fears of losing not just Michigan but the enthusiastic support of his party base to paint himself into a corner about Gaza. If he doesn’t prevent the continuation of the war, then he will have given the antisemitic progressives like Tlaib and other progressives a reason to further distance themselves from his political fate. That would seem to be counter-intuitive for Democrats, who regard a victory for former President Donald Trump as the end of the world. Still, some are so committed to delegitimizing Israel and thwarting efforts to destroy Hamas that they seem to think that a Trump victory might be worth it if it means that never again would a Democratic president stand with Israel.

At a time when the destruction of Hamas is, if not imminent, at least a real possibility after several months more of hard fighting, Biden’s apology to his left-wing critics may offer the terrorists a lifeline. That would not only enable them to claim victory in a war they started with atrocities. It would also encourage rather than seek to put an end to the surge in left-wing antisemitism and render any hope of convincing the Palestinians to abandon an ideology of hatred and a ceaseless war against Jews even more unlikely.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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