A ball of fire erupts from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Saturday. Agence France-Presse
People in this region heaved a sigh of relief when Democrat Joe Biden took over the White House from Republican Donald Trump but Biden has failed to alter the destructive policies adopted by Trump toward this region. And now that war, once again, looms over Palestine-Israel, Biden personally and his senior advisers have submitted to the diktat of Israeli hawks exploited by Binyamin Netanyahu to keep him in power and out of jail for corruption.
Why has Biden taken this line? He was vice president when his boss, Barack Obama, attempted, at the beginning of his first term in 2009, to make a 180-degree shift in US regional policy by courting Arabs and Muslims and treating Palestinians as human beings. Within 48 hours of his inauguration, Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell peace envoy. As the former envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process, Mitchell had considerable experience in wheeling-and-dealing between antagonists. Mitchell was promptly dispatched to the region.
The choice of Mitchell, whose mother was of Lebanese background, broke with the US tradition of appointing committed Zionists who skewed US peacemaking attempts in Israel’s favour, dooming them to failure. During Obama’s first interview as president, which was with Al Arabiya television, he spoke of mending relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds and working toward peace between Palestinians and Israelis. In June, Obama delivered his historic address in Cairo where he reaffirmed the strong bond between the US and Israelis but also spoke of the suffering and “legitimate” aspirations of Palestinians for statehood. He called for a freeze on Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and negotiations on the “two-state solution.” Obama was backed in this appeal by Biden and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both of whom had, and have, been strongly supportive of Israel.
Unfortunately, Obama failed due to the intransigence of Netanyahu who, in 2015 in an attempt to scupper the Iran nuclear deal, addressed a joint session of the US Congress where both Democrats and Republicans stood repeatedly and slavishly applauded his hard line. While Netanyahu failed that time around, his intention was to humiliate the Obama administration, which boycotted the session. This has all too clearly terrified Biden, whose backbone, remarkably stiff on domestic issues, melted when violence between Palestinians and Israelis erupted.
Biden has swallowed the entire Netanyahu narrative. He and his acolytes have said Israel has the right to self-defence without saying that Palestinians also have this existential right. He bleated that the violence would end “sooner or later” while his UN ambassador torpedoed a UN Security Council statement on events in Palestine and called for a postponement of Friday’s closed Council meeting in order to allow Israel to continue with its assault on Gaza without facing the expected Council call for a ceasefire.
Biden marked Eid Al Adha be saying that Israel has not over-reacted to the challenge posed by Hamas’ rockets which he said were fired “indiscriminately... into [Israeli] population centres without mentioning Israeli airstrikes and shelling of Palestinian civilians which have killed dozens of men, women and children in Gaza and Israeli live fire that has slain Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Biden also delayed until Friday sending Hady Amr, a second-ranking US diplomat, to try to cool down things in Jerusalem. On Saturday, Biden made a second call to Netanyahu after Israel bombed a 12-storey tower block in Gaza housing offices of the US Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets. The Associated Press had reported on Israel’s assaults on Gaza for 15 years from that building. During his call with Netanyahu, Biden reiterated his “strong support” for Israel’s campaign but, weakly, expressed concern for civilians and journalists. The latter are, apparently, given priority over Palestinian civilians. White House press secretary Jen Psaki later tweeted that the US had “communicated to the Israeli that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”
While Biden also telephoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a bid to show a tiny degree of even-handedness, the US president knows full well that Abbas has no control over Hamas in Gaza. The US does not speak to Hamas, which it regards as a “terrorist” rather than resistance organisation.
Instead of trying to secure a ceasefire in another lopsided campaign in which Israel has every advantage, Biden has given Netanyahu a greenlight to continue his offensive against Gaza and repression of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem until he is prepared to end the bloodletting in Gaza.
Biden’s submissive reaction is hardly surprising. During the 2020 election campaign, he pledged to re-enter the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, reopen the Palestinian office in Washington, return the US Consulate to East Jerusalem, and return to the two-state solution involving the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He has delivered on none of these campaign pledges.
While Biden’s envoys continue to drag out discussions with the Iran deal’s remaining signatories about why, how and when to re-enter the nuclear deal, his administration has met none of his commitments to the Palestinians. The PLO office in Washington remains shuttered, the US East Jerusalem Consulate continues to operate from the embassy in West Jerusalem where Palestinians are not welcome, and he has done nothing to advance the two-state solution.
The Biden administration’s sole positive action has been to restore partially the US contribution to UNRWA, the agency looking after five million Palestinian refugees. Trump cancelled this longstanding commitment in 2018, depriving the hard-pressed agency of $365 million in annual funding from 2018-2020. While massively boosting domestic and military spending, Biden has cut this sum to $150 million and reduced funding for USAID projects benefiting Palestinians from $200-75 million. Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly said the US will continue to provide Israel with $3.8 billion in yearly military assistance and rejected any notion of using this gift as leverage to compel Israel to curtail colonisation, stop bullying Palestinians, and resume negotiations on the two-state solution, rejected by Netanyahu and his hard right political allies.
Like Trump, Biden has adopted Netanyahu’s line which has become the settler-colonial agenda of Israel since its politics have drifted rightwards after the Likud came to power in 1977.
Biden has succumbed because he needs the support of Netanyahu’s allies in the US legislature and political lobbies to pass and implement his transformative domestic policies. Biden is, therefore, hostage to Netanyahu’s expansionist ambitions and determination to stay in office. This means that Palestinians will, once again, be sacrificed by an emasculated Biden while he courts the powerful pro-Israel camp in the US legislature despite the destabilising impacts of such policies on Palestine, Israel, the Levant and the entire region.