Israel, Gaza, and the Biden Doctrine

A mad dash to keep up with domestic pressures and explosions in the Middle East. Is this any way to run a foreign policy?

The White House statement following President Joe Biden’s Wednesday phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu was reminiscent of the turgid announcements from Moscow after a rare tense encounter between a Soviet leader and a bloc ally when they didn’t see eye to eye. “The two sides held frank and comradely discussions,” went the socialist boilerplate.

President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today. The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza … The President conveyed to the Prime Minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.

The spare White House statement was noteworthy for two things: It lacked the ritual language supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and it put the country on notice to de-escalate hostilities immediately.

Israel’s and Hamas’s announcement of a ceasefire the next day has somewhat boosted Biden’s image as a tough, results-oriented leader. Up until then, the administration publicly supported Netanyahu’s Gaza mission while pursuing behind-the-scenes “quiet, intensive diplomacy” to bring a quick end to the fighting and mounting civilian casualties.

But a closer examination reveals an administration operating in a virtual policy vacuum, with little strategic vision, pushed to make on-the-fly decisions by pressing political forces, all the while short-staffed in key areas on the diplomatic front.

Biden, in fact, was facing increasing pressures to act from multiple directions.

There was mounting criticism from Democrats. Senator Bernie Sanders, an outspoken critic of Israel on its settlement policy, human rights abuses, and devastating counterattacks against Hamas, introduced a bill to block $735 million in military aid. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer called for a cease-fire, as did Senators Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, in a bipartisan statement.

The shifting ground on Israel extends to the grassroots. Earlier this week, President Biden was met with anti-Israel protesters at an appearance in Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large Arab-American community. A majority of Americans now believe the U.S. government should put more pressure on Israel, according to a recent Gallup poll. And about one in five American Jews think the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, according to a new survey by Pew Research. Those who say America is insufficiently supportive of Israel declined to 19 percent—down 12 points since 2013. Finally, the Pew poll found only 40 percent of Jewish-Americans approved of Netanyahu’s performance as the Israeli premier. What’s more, the left-wing pro-Israel advocacy group J Street criticized the Biden administration for not doing enough to end the violence and now calls for “a fundamental reset of U.S. policy towards the conflict.”

Washington came under increasing diplomatic pressure over its approach from foreign governments as well. The Biden administration shot down four U.N. Security Council draft resolutions, which undercut its self-styled image as a paragon of global cooperation.

While the administration engaged in backdoor diplomacy, by all appearances, it was nonetheless unprepared and thus compelled to play catch-up. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rushed to the region to meet with key players.

Despite his decades as a foreign policy leader in the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden has never been known as a big picture visionary. In contrast with his presidential primary contenders, he never put together a fleshed-out worldview on how he would lead the country internationally. His election platform was barebones on the foreign policy side. With regard to the Jewish state, it made only a passing reference to “sustaining an ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.” The White House’s Interim National Security Strategy is equally skeletal. “We will maintain our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, while seeking to further its integration with its neighbors and resuming our role as promoter of a viable two-state solution,” it has said. Trump and Netanyahu essentially put a stake through the heart of a two-state solution, seen now by most experts as all but dead. And the Biden team appears to have given up on trying to resurrect it.

If there is a  “Biden Doctrine,” it’s hard to discern. And, to be sure, Biden inherited a foreign policy MAGA-mess from Trump. On the Middle East, “the U.S. did nothing to check Bibi …(who) got used to basically a blank check from the U.S.,” according to Ambassador Luis Moreno, a former senior U.S. diplomat who has served in the region and was involved in past negotiations for a ceasefire over Gaza flare-ups. Under Trump, Washington ceased being a “reality check” to keep Netanyahu in line, he added.

Making matters worse for Biden during the recent conflict, he didn’t have some key personnel in place. Four months in office, the president has yet to name an ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the UAE—the latter two countries having helped broker the cease-fire. Likewise, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs job is vacant, occupied by a senior diplomat in an acting capacity. Moreover, Trump relegated U.S. official dealings with the Palestinians to a low-level within the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. The NSC staff Middle East director positions, however, are filled with seasoned national security experts.

It is unrealistic to expect a breakthrough in resolving the decades-old Israel-Palestinian problem for the foreseeable future. Still, a number of concrete steps can be pursued immediately, according to Moreno, starting with naming a U.S. ambassador to Israel, followed by restoring our official contacts with the Palestinians at a higher level through a U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem or Ramallah. We should also resume training and equipping the Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank so as to put a check on Hamas expansion there.

Moreno further recommends that Washington energetically “build bridges to the Israeli moderates” to gain more leverage over Netanyahu politically. And lastly, “We need a new multilateral initiative with Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, and Israel. Eventually, Hamas will have to recognize Israel’s right to exist—and Israel has to accept that Palestinians are not simply going to go away.”

Critics have often been harsh on past presidents for lacking “the vision thing” or “leading from behind.” As a result, they were caught off guard by fast-breaking events overseas. President Biden would be wise to be less reactive and not remain stuck in the reflexive policies of the past.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.