Monday, July 15, 2024

One day, two wars, and what haunts the Biden presidency

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OnTuesday, President Joe Biden began his public engagements disagreeing with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government on how he was proceeding with the war against Hamas and Israel’s plans for Gaza the day after the war.

Biden ended the day, standing alongside Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky, disagreeing with the US Congress, which has been reluctant to provide any additional funding for the Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression, amid a drop in the wider public support for continued aid to Kyiv.

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If Biden inherited one war, Afghanistan, where the absence of a clear endgame resulted in a humiliating American withdrawal, the two wars that will be most closely associated with his presidency are now marked by the same feature – the lack of an endgame resulting in diminished political, public, legislative and international support for the American allies at war.

In one case, the US, despite the public support, isn’t on the same page with its closest ally, Israel, as Tel Aviv continues its brutal offensive in Gaza and the far-right government in Israel led by Netanyahu refuses to make even the basic political concession to the idea of a two-state solution that has been the fundamental promise to Palestinians for at least three decades.

In the other case, the US executive, led by Democrats, isn’t on the same page as the US Congress, where Republicans dominate the House and are a key presence in the Senate, in the backdrop of a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive this year, renewed Russian momentum, and a general sense that America has done enough to support a distant European country and it is time to turn inwards.

On one day this week, the two warfronts and geopolitics fused with US domestic politics in Washington DC, illustrating how even the most dominant actor in the international system is constrained by internal and external limits.

The message to Netanyahu

During a campaign speech on Tuesday morning in DC, Biden – whose support for Israel has resulted in relentless international and domestic criticism and a fracture in his political coalition with younger progressives and people of colour walking away – shifted his strategy. If, until now, he had been publicly supportive as a way to gain private leverage with Netanyahu and counsel restraint, Biden has now gone public in his criticism.

While reiterating his strong condemnation of Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7, and Israel’s right to respond, Biden said that Netanyahu had got a “tough decision to make”. The President first traced his own relationship with the Israeli PM, and how Netanyahu has a signed picture on his desk from Biden with a note where Biden says, “Bibi, I love you but I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say”.

“He is a good friend but he has to change…This government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move…This is the most conservative government in Israel’s history, the most conservative,” Biden said, referring to the presence of Far-Right leaders in Netanyahu’s government.

Claiming that he had known every Israeli leader since Golda Meir (who was PM in 1973 when Biden first became a Senator), Biden said this was a different group. “They don’t want anything remotely approaching a two-state solution. They not only want to have retribution, which they should for what Hamas did, but against all Palestinians. They don’t want a two-state solution. They don’t want anything having to do with the Palestinians.”

The president’s remarks came in the backdrop of Netanyahu publicly declaring that Israel would not just stop Hamas, but even Fatah (the Palestinian Authority or PA) from running Gaza. The US has hoped that the end of the Israeli offensive will lead to a movement on the two-state solution, with the more moderate PA, currently in charge of governance in West Bank, having a greater role in Gaza. Biden and Netanyahu’s public comments show that the two leaders, and their countries, aren’t on the same page not just about the conduct of the war but also the endgame as far as Gaza is concerned.

Biden said that he had engaged closely with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, which wanted normalisation and he referred to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor he unveiled on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi in September. “But we have to make sure that Bibi (as Netanyahu is popularly called) understands that he has got to make some moves to strengthen PA, change it, move it. You cannot say there is no Palestinian state at all in the future. That’s going to be the hard part.”

Once again, reiterating his solidarity with Israel and terming Hamas as “animals”, Biden said Israel’s security rests not just on the US but others including Europe and “most of the world” supporting it. But in a clear warning, Biden added, “They are starting to lose that support by the indiscriminate bombing that takes place.”

Biden’s comments came on a day when 153 countries overwhelmingly voted for a UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The US and Israel were among the ten countries that opposed the resolution. His use of the word, indiscriminate, also carries tremendous significance for its implications in terms of possible violation of international law.One day, two wars, and what haunts the Biden presidency


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