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columnU.S.-Israel Relations

How the Biden administration set the stage for a new war with Hamas

A policy shift away from closeness to Israel created the opening. Along with Palestinian politics, the hope for a reward from the new president helped ignite riots and sent missiles flying into Israel.

U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

America’s European allies don’t get it. On Monday, the Biden administration decided to hold up a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have effectively condemned Israel, along with Hamas, for the current round of violence. The text of the proposed resolution called for Israel to prevent Jews from prevailing in a controversial Jerusalem property dispute and to “respect” the status quo at holy sites in the city while also opposing Hamas’s shooting rockets and missiles at Israeli cities, towns and communities.

That the administration backed away at the last minute from a measure that treated terrorist attacks on civilians as morally equivalent to an attempt to enforce Jewish property rights in Israel’s capital and attempts by Israeli security to prevent Palestinians from using the Temple Mount to store projectiles and fireworks to use against Jewish worshippers and authorities was a step in the right direction.

But the Europeans had a right to feel aggrieved. The resolution reflected positions taken by the Biden administration just a couple of days earlier. After having spent the previous months making it clear that the era of special closeness between Israel and the United States that had characterized the policies of the Trump administration was over, the president’s foreign-policy team wasn’t quite prepared to double down on that position in the middle of a full-blown crisis.

That incident is representative of an administration that has been at odds with itself throughout its brief tenure with respect to the Middle East. On the one hand, President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have attempted to reassure the pro-Israel community that they are committed to the alliance with the Jewish state, and that given the grim prospects for talks with the Palestinians, they were not seeking to invest the same time and energy that the Obama administration wasted on the peace process. But most of the Biden team is made of people who, like Iran envoy Robert Malley and current envoy to the Middle East Hady Amr, have a history of hostility to Israel.

Biden’s foreign-policy priority has been an attempt to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—something that is being put in motion by a new round of appeasement of Tehran being carried out by Malley. But that effort, and the chill between Washington and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left no one in any doubt that Israel was out of favor in an administration staffed by those who saw it, at best, as run by Trump allies who needed to be put in their place.

Did that contribute to the outbreak of the worst regional violence since 2014?

The question of who is responsible for the events of the last week is not a simple one. It first began with a property case involving a failure of Arab tenants to pay rent to Jewish landlords, coupled with the long-running Palestinian effort to make the Temple Mount a “no go” zone for both Jews and Israeli security, metastasized into riots in Jerusalem, civil strife between Jews and Arabs in Israeli cities, and now, a full-blown military confrontation with the terrorist government of Gaza.

One can second-guess the government of Netanyahu for its failure to anticipate Hamas’s willingness to turn the country into a war zone. Israeli legislators can also share some blame for being perceived as weak because of four elections in the past two years that have failed to produce a stable government.

Still, the lion’s share of the blame belongs to the Palestinians, who chose violence time and again rather than seeking peace. Still, that shouldn’t blind us to the way the Biden administration’s policy shifts have given both major Palestinian factions an incentive to blow things up. At some point, an inevitable cease-fire with Hamas and the end of violence in the streets of Jerusalem and other Israeli cities will come. Whether that will happen sooner or later, or if Israel is able to accomplish military objectives in its offensive into Gaza that will do more than restore the dangerous status quo that existed before this week, remains uncertain. But the aftermath of the fighting is now likely to bring a renewed interest on the part of Washington in reviving the dead-in-the-water peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. That makes it clear that the signals that Biden sent out before all this started created a scenario in which the carnage of recent days was almost inevitable.

The factor that led directly to the worst violence since the 2014 summer war with Hamas was primarily a matter of Palestinian politics. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to cancel elections scheduled for this month forced him to come up with some sort of distraction from his appalling misrule of the West Bank. Faced with the likelihood of a defeat at the hands of either dissident members of his Fatah Party or its Islamist rivals in Hamas, Abbas did what Palestinian leaders always do: divert attention from their own failures by inciting nationalist and religious-based hatred against Jews.

That involved the usual lies and heated rhetoric about protecting the Temple Mount from the depredations of Jews—something that Palestinian Arab leaders have been doing for the last century. But it also played off the successful Palestinian effort to turn a property dispute in the Sheik Jarrah section of Jerusalem into a cause célèbre to generate both international opprobrium against Israel, as well as gin up anger among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Unfortunately, the Biden administration and the rest of the international community bought the false narrative that denying Jewish property rights in Jerusalem is a human-rights issue.

Hamas’s decision to escalate the conflict by firing more than 1,600 projectiles into Israel was not about “protecting Jerusalem.” It was just another example of how violence and murder is the currency by which one gains credibility in Palestinian political culture. Killing several Israelis and sending much of the country scurrying into bomb shelters was its way of competing with Abbas and other Fatah factions for popularity.

That still raises the question of why both Abbas, and especially Hamas, chose to ramp up the violence now after years of relative quiet.

One can argue that tension in Jerusalem has been simmering for years and was bound to explode at some point. But the problem with that is from 2017 to 2021, both Abbas and Hamas understood that they had no chance to detach the United States from Israel. By abandoning former President Barack Obama’s policy of increasing “daylight” between the United States and Israel—making it clear to the Palestinians that they must abandon hope of American pressure on the Jewish state—former President Donald Trump had de-incentivized Palestinian violence.

By contrast, Biden had set the stage for a new round of violence precisely because he had shifted away from Trump’s policies, while also demonstrating indifference to the Palestinians. Abbas needed a way to get Biden’s attention. That would presumably force him to listen to those on the left-wing of his Democratic Party who were disappointed that pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians was not being pursued at the same time as the renewed rapprochement with Iran.

It remains to be seen whether Biden and Blinken can resist their party’s anti-Israel faction and their inherent belief in pushing for a two-state solution (in which Palestinians have little interest) in order to avoid getting sucked into the same fool’s errand every American administration that preceded Trump was eventually pulled.

With many in the media and the Democratic Party having already accepted the false narrative about Israel being in the wrong about the Sheikh Jarrah buildings or the Temple Mount, the role that Biden’s fumbling played in the events that have just unfolded will be obscured. But the blood being shed in Israel and Gaza is a disaster he could have avoided had he stuck to Trump’s policies on Israel. By not realizing that his return to more “daylight” would encourage Palestinian violence, the president has taken a stable though unsolvable problem and turned it into a catastrophe. That serves the purposes of Abbas, Hamas and the growing anti-Israel faction among Democrats, though not the interests of the United States or peace.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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