OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Biden gives empty ‘ironclad’ promises to Israel

The president’s flip-flop on the war is a reminder that international commitments are only as strong as the character and the interests of the people who make them.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks announcing CHIPS and Science Act grants to Intel to expand U.S. semiconductor production on March 20, 2024, at the Intel Ocotillo Campus in Chandler, Ariz. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks announcing CHIPS and Science Act grants to Intel to expand U.S. semiconductor production on March 20, 2024, at the Intel Ocotillo Campus in Chandler, Ariz. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
Douglas J. Feith. Credit: Courtesy.
Douglas J. Feith
Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as Under Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Credit: Courtesy.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a senior software architect, served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

U.S. President Joe Biden is “pausing” U.S. arms shipments to Israel because he does not want a full-scale pursuit of Hamas into Rafah, the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Too many civilians would be harmed, he warned. Hamas must be gleeful. It hides among and under Gazan civilians precisely to generate international pressure on Israel. If Israel submits, Hamas will credibly claim victory. So will Iran, Hamas’s sponsor.

When Hamas started this war on Oct. 7, Biden declared: “We stand with Israel.” He promised U.S. arms for Israel “to make sure that Israel does not run out of these critical assets to defend its cities and its citizens.” His commitment to Israel, Biden has said over and over again, is “ironclad.” Yet now he is withholding delivery of munitions.

There’s a lesson here: The promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

In this war’s early weeks, Biden remained staunch. He sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region and warned Iran not to broaden the war. When a rocket damaged a hospital in Gaza, he confirmed that the culprit was not Israel but local Arab terrorists. And he defended Israel at the United Nations.

But he has changed his tone. He now de-emphasizes Israel’s duty to defend itself and the necessity of preventing future Oct. 7-type massacres. Civilians in Gaza are suffering because Hamas hides in their homes, schools and hospitals, and in tunnels under them, but Biden blames their plight on Israel. On Feb. 9, he said Israel’s response to Hamas has been “over the top.” On May 13, his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, without demanding Hamas’s surrender, said, “Israel can and must do more” to ensure the well-being of the Gazans.

Defying Biden’s warnings not to expand the war, Iran on April 13 fired over 300 missiles and drones at Israel. With help from the United States and others, Israel prevented the attack from causing more than minor damage and one injury. Biden pressed Israel not to retaliate. Axios reported on April 14 that he told Israel’s prime minister to “take the win,” as if it were obvious that a country on the receiving end of such a huge barrage, with missiles intercepted over its capital, should shrug it off and be satisfied that more damage was not done.

Now curtailing arms supplies, Biden wants American pro-Hamas activists to see that he does not “stand with Israel” after all. He emphasizes stopping the fighting and protecting Gazan civilians rather than destroying Hamas’s remaining military and governing capabilities. He is emboldening Israel’s enemies, which increases the danger to Israeli civilians.

The president’s flip-flop on the war is a reminder that international commitments are only as strong as the character and the interests of the people who make them. In no event are they enforceable, even if written down or called “legally binding.”

Israelis should be attuned to this point, given what happened to the famous Balfour Declaration, the central political commitment in the history of Zionism. The 1917 declaration was Britain’s promise to support “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. In 1922, when the League of Nations approved the British Mandate for Palestine—the territory having been a tiny shard of the vast near-east region the Ottoman Empire lost in World War I—the declaration was incorporated verbatim. In 1939, however, Britain announced a cutoff of immigration by Jews into their “home,” leaving millions at the mercy of the Nazis. Winston Churchill (not yet prime minister) condemned the cutoff as a “violation” of Britain’s legal obligations and a “lamentable act of default,” but it remained British policy during and after World War II. The British are famous for exalting the virtue of doing one’s duty, but they violated the Mandate anyway.

There is a State of Israel now because Zionists grasped that no other country in the world would or could assign top priority to the safety of the Jewish people. That was true when the other country was Britain, and it’s true even when it is the United States, as singularly hospitable and friendly to its own Jewish citizens as America has been. This is not because of antisemitism but human nature. Sovereign states take care, first and foremost, of their own people. And sometimes, as Biden is showing by catering to pro-Palestinian sentiment in ways that benefit Iran, they do not succeed even in rightly identifying and protecting their own national interests.

For 2,000 years, Jews had no choice but to depend on others for refuge, tolerance and security. As a result, they suffered centuries of maltreatment, including murders and massacres, expropriation and expulsion. Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the namesake grandfather of one of us, was an influential advocate for a Zionist remedy to this long-running humanitarian disaster known as “the Jewish question”: sovereignty in the Land of Israel for a democratic Jewish-majority state that would enjoy the dignity of defending itself.

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate. That people’s survival is a top priority in only one country because the Jews (unlike the Arabs and other nationalities) are the majority in only one country.

Alliances can be useful, but history warns that when life-and-death issues are at stake, endangered countries should rely no more than is necessary on foreigners. That remains the case when promises of support from abroad come from serious-minded officials, let alone from ordinary politicians who oversell such promises as “ironclad” and then feel free to breach them.

A version of this article appeared originally online in National Review.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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