columnIsrael at War

Can Biden’s cognitive dissonance let Israel win the war?

The president’s rhetoric continues to turn against the Jewish state, but as long as the military aid keeps flowing, his appeasement of anti-Israel Democrats won’t save Hamas.

Israel's President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greet U.S. President Joe Biden at Ben-Gurion Airport, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli President's Spokesperson's Unit.
Israel's President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greet U.S. President Joe Biden at Ben-Gurion Airport, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli President's Spokesperson's Unit.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

What is exactly the Biden administration’s policy towards Israel? Is it one that deprecates Israel’s just war against the Hamas terrorist organization? Does it wrongly focus on the “indiscriminate bombing” of Palestinian civilians and insist that it should be soon brought to an end? Or is it one of ardent backing for Zionism, strong support for the war on the Islamist terrorists that will end when Jerusalem, and not Washington, decides it is concluded? The answer may depend on which day you ask the question. But as upsetting as the evidence of Biden’s cognitive dissonance on the Middle East can be, it may not affect the outcome of the war.

The wildly contradictory stances of Biden and his foreign-policy team present a real problem for Israel. They may also be fueling rather than helping to oppose the surge in antisemitism rooted in lies about Israel. But as long as American arms continue to flow to Israel, and the president and his aides stop short of a clear ultimatum to Jerusalem to halt the offensive against Hamas, the war can continue to a successful end. It would be preferable for the administration to speak in a clear and consistent manner that would give full support to Israel’s just war, as well as shoot down the false accusations about the Israel Defense Forces’ conduct of the conflict. Yet Israel can live with the current situation, even if that involves constant sniping and posturing from Washington if it means that the IDF won’t be prevented from achieving its objectives to eliminate Hamas.

That is why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to act as if the U.S.-Israel relationship is rock solid amid daily evidence that Biden is feeling the pressure from his left-wing critics who want him to hammer the Jewish state. With, among others, Vice President Kamala Harris urging him to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians, even if that helps Hamas, the civil war inside the administration about support for Israel continues to rage.

Divided Democrats

The trends are running against Israel inside a Democratic Party that remains deeply divided about Israel. A generation of younger Democrats has been indoctrinated by critical race theory and intersectional myths into thinking that Israel is a “colonial” and “white” oppressor state. But that’s a worry for another day. Despite Biden appearing to appease the activist wing of his party that is soft on antisemitism, if he takes no action that prevents an Israeli victory over Hamas, for now, that will be enough for Netanyahu.

To say that the administration is all over the place about both Israel and the war is an understatement.

The president did speak of himself as a “Zionist” this week at the White House Chanukah party and has often spoken of his heartfelt support for Israel and its security in the two months since the Oct. 7 Hamas atrocities that launched the current conflagration. And the veto the United States cast at the U.N. Security Council last week that killed a resolution demanding an immediate and complete ceasefire in Gaza sent a signal to the world that America continues to have Israel’s back.

But Biden has also bitterly criticized Israel’s government, such as in his speech to a group of Democratic donors this week when he demanded that it must “change.” In it, he denounced Netanyahu and his Cabinet colleagues in the most critical terms, falsely accusing them of conducting “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, as well as starting a tumult over what will happen after the fighting stops.

The same contradictions involve Biden’s senior deputies.

Last weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken denied that the United States was trying to dictate to Israel how to conduct the war against Hamas or that it was demanding that it end. He stated bluntly that while the United States has discussed these issues with Jerusalem, “these are Israel’s decisions to make.”

Yet Blinken has also been gesturing toward Israel’s critics by asserting that there is a “gap” between its desire not to harm civilians and facts on the ground. And National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan contradicted Blinken’s promise to let Israel make its own decisions by seeming to announce a timetable of sorts for its operations in Gaza. He said this week that Israel needed to “transition to the next lower intensity phase in a matter of weeks, not months,” a signal that the administration wants to end the effort to defeat Hamas and remove it completely from the Strip, whether or not that objective has been achieved.

Reinforcing a false narrative

Adding up all these statements, there’s no question that they indicate a growing distance between the two countries on the conduct of the war, as well as on what is to follow with the United States demanding a return to a dead-end “two-state solution” proposal Israel says is a non-starter.

The rhetorical attacks on Jerusalem from Washington, coupled with the administration’s validation of the false narrative put forward by Hamas and its Western apologists about Israel conducting a campaign against Palestinian civilians, aren’t just troubling. They encourage Israel’s foes and undermine Biden’s rhetorical opposition to the surge in antisemitism in the United States in which Hamas supporters chanting for Israel’s destruction justify their stand by falsely claiming that Israel is waging a genocidal war.

Some inside the Biden bubble have been fairly consistent. For example, National Security Council spokesperson Adm. John Kirby has at times been eloquent in defending Israel and denouncing Hamas. While those statements infuriate White House interns and a host of lower-level staffers and officials, as well as party activists, the criticisms of Israel have undermined the sense of moral clarity about the conflict that was put forward in the days after Oct. 7 by Biden. It’s fair to say that the Israel-bashing coming from administration officials about the war is not only undermining the alliance but could also cost the lives of Israeli soldiers who are endangered by pressure to conduct the war in a way that gives Hamas a tactical advantage.

It’s equally true that Biden is gearing up for a postwar confrontation with Netanyahu or whoever will be running Israel in the future. The reflexive talk about long-discredited two-state solutions shows how out-of-touch the president is with the realities of the Middle East, as well as his refusal to draw conclusions from what happened when a Palestinian state in all-but-name was tolerated in Gaza since 2007. His opposition to Israeli security control of Gaza—the only measure that could prevent Hamas from reconstituting itself and a repeat of the Oct. 7 atrocities—is equally unrealistic.

But right now, the only thing Israel and its supporters should be focused on is winning the war against Hamas.

As much as it would be preferable, that doesn’t require Biden to act as Israel’s faithful ally in terms of his rhetoric. The fact that he, Blinken and Sullivan have played the role of carping critics constantly engaging in unhelpful and misinformed second-guessing of Jerusalem’s military strategies is an unfortunate aspect of the situation.

What Israel needs to win

Yet the minimum Israel needs from Washington is to not disrupt the flow of arms resupply as the war continues. And that—as the Israel-haters inside the administration and among rank-and-file Democrats have noted—is more important than whether the president employs rhetoric that seeks to appease those who want to cut off that flow.

Biden talking out of both sides of his mouth on Israel is problematic. This is an administration that was already dedicated to promoting the woke diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) catechism that grants a permission slip to antisemitism. So, when it doesn’t fully oppose the big lies about Israeli “genocide” or when it panders to advocates of a ceasefire that would essentially let Hamas get away with mass murder, it becomes part of the problem, not a solution to the wave of Jew-hatred emanating from the left.

It’s also true that Biden’s rhetoric will make it harder to revive an expansion of the Abraham Accords and continue the process by which Israel normalizes relations with the Arab world.

Yet as bad as that is, if Biden doesn’t call a halt to the movement of American armaments to Israel needed for the continuation of the war, then Israel is prepared to live with his failings.

That doesn’t mean Biden shouldn’t be criticized for allowing so much “daylight” between the two allies in the style of former President Barack Obama. But nothing is more important right now than defeating Hamas and a conclusion to the fighting that will leave Israel in complete control of every inch of the coastal enclave.

From the start of the war, friends of the Jewish state have watched Biden waver on the question of allowing the IDF a free hand to wipe out Hamas so as to guarantee that its citizens can return to their homes in southern Israel secure in the knowledge that the terrorists are beaten. In addition to his attempts to appease Hamas’s Iranian backers having set in motion the events that led to Oct. 7, Biden may have been responsible in no small measure for the long delay in the start of the ground offensive into Gaza. American pressure may have also assisted Hamas in the hostage negotiations. Yet for all of Biden’s policy mistakes and oratorical failings, not to mention the troubling consequences of his efforts to please the intersectional wing of his party, he has not yet taken the sort of overt steps to force the end of the war that many have feared.

Perhaps Biden knows that despite his political weakness, Netanyahu will have no choice but to say “no” to an American diktat to prematurely end the war. The president may be more worried about a dustup with Jerusalem that will remind the world of his weakness and will have no impact on the conduct of the war. It’s also possible that he wants Israel to beat Hamas but is too afraid of his leftist critics and their ability to compromise his re-election chances to adhere to a more consistent and coherent policy.

The pro-Israel community will have its work cut out for it once the shooting stops. In particular, it’s by no means clear whether some of the legacy Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League that have supported Israel since Oct. 7 will back Biden’s plans to press for a postwar return to failed policies that will undermine its security. For now, the one thing to watch is whether Biden takes steps on aid to Israel that will save Hamas from complete defeat. If at least he avoids doing that, Israelis will worry about future diplomatic battles when they occur, so long as they can fight them having already wiped out the criminal Islamist regime responsible for Oct. 7.

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

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