Biden Ratchets Up Pressure on Israel

A two-level game where unconditional support has conditions.

President Joe Biden, Oval Office, 4 April 2024
Official White House Photo

The White House (“Readout of President Joe Biden’s Call with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel“):

President Biden spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The two leaders discussed the situation in Gaza. President Biden emphasized that the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable. He made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers. He made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps. He underscored that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and he urged the Prime Minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home. The two leaders also discussed public Iranian threats against Israel and the Israeli people. President Biden made clear that the United States strongly supports Israel in the face of those threats.

That’s the whole readout.

WaPo (“Biden warns Netanyahu the situation in Gaza is ‘unacceptable’“):

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the United States would reassess its policy toward the war in Gaza if the Jewish state does not take immediate steps to address the disastrous humanitarian situation in the enclave and protect aid workers.

“In the coming hours and days, we will be looking for concrete, tangible steps that they’re taking,” said White House spokesman John Kirby.

[…]

It marked the first time Biden has indicated a willingness to reassess his unwavering support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, as pressure grows among prominent Democrats to condition weapons sales to Israel as the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 33,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The president’s rhetoric has grown increasingly sharp regarding Israel’s handling of the crisis, but until now he had not directly warned Israel of consequences if it does not change course.

It also marked a rare moment in recent decades when the United States has suggested its support for Israel was anything but unconditional.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the message in Brussels on Thursday. And Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally and a staunch supporter of Israel, said the United States is “at that point” where conditions must be placed on military aid to Israel.

The changing dynamic comes as Israel plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where up to 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering in decrepit conditions after fleeing there under Israeli orders. U.S. officials have warned Israel against a major campaign in Rafah that would endanger numerous civilians.

“If Benjamin Netanyahu were to order the [Israel Defense Forces] into Rafah at scale … and make no provision for civilians or for humanitarian aid, I would vote to condition aid to Israel,” Coons said on CNN. “I’ve never said that before. I’ve never been here before.”

Despite the explicit warning, the White House offered no details about how it would assess whether Israelhad complied with Biden’s demands, or how U.S. policy could change if the administration determined it had not done so.

“If we don’t see changes from their side, there will be changes from our side,” Kirby said. “But I’m not going to preview what that might look like.” He declined to say whether Washington might suspend military aid to Israel.

Among the changes Biden wants to see, Kirby said, are “a dramatic increase in humanitarian aid getting in, additional crossings opened up, and a reduction in violence against civilians.” He added that the United States expected to see Israel not just “announcing” changes, but “executing” and “implementing” them.

Later Thursday, Israel announced initial steps to address Biden’s demands. They included opening the Ashdod port for direct delivery of aid into Gaza; opening Israel’s Erez crossing to help facilitate the delivery of aid into northern Gaza, where law and order has collapsed and aid groups have warned that famine is already underway; and increasing aid deliveries from Jordan.

NYT (“Israel to Add Gaza Aid Routes as Biden Hinges Support on Civilian Protection“):

President Biden threatened on Thursday to condition future support for Israel on how it addresses his concerns about civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, prompting Israel to commit to permitting more food and other supplies into the besieged enclave in hopes of placating him.

[…]

The statement was the sharpest the White House has issued on Israel’s conduct in the six months of its war against Hamas, underscoring the president’s growing frustration with Mr. Netanyahu and his anger over this week’s killing of seven aid workers by Israeli military forces. But while the president repeated his call for a negotiated deal that would result in an “immediate cease-fire” and the release of hostages taken by Hamas, White House officials stopped short of saying directly that he might limit U.S. arms supplies if not satisfied.

By the middle of the night in Jerusalem, Israel made its first gestures to Mr. Biden. In a statement, the government said it would increase aid deliveries to Gaza, including through the port of Ashdod and the Erez crossing, a checkpoint between Israel and northern Gaza that Hamas attacked on Oct. 7 and Israel had kept closed ever since. The statement did not say when the crossing would be reopened.

Biden administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private call in more detail, said that Mr. Netanyahu agreed to additional commitments intended to assuage the president. Among others, the officials said, Israel would promise to institute more measures to reduce civilian casualties and to empower negotiators brokering a temporary cease-fire deal in exchange for the release of hostages.

[…]

The president has long refused to curb the arms flow to influence Israel’s approach to the war. Mr. Biden said after Hamas killed 1,200 people and took hundreds of hostages in October that his support for Israel was “rock solid and unwavering.” While he has increasingly criticized what he sees as the excesses of the military operation, he has until now stuck by his vow.

But with rising agitation on the political left, particularly in electoral swing states like Michigan, even some of Mr. Biden’s closest Democratic allies are coming around to the view that Washington should exercise more control over the weaponry, including Senator Chris Coons, a fellow Democrat from Delaware and confidant of the president.

Times of Israel (“Blinken warns: Israel risks becoming indistinguishable from Hamas if it doesn’t protect Gaza civilians“):

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warns that Israel risks becoming indistinguishable from Hamas if it continues to fail to protect civilians amid the Gaza war.

“What happened after October 7 could have ended immediately if Hamas had stopped hiding behind civilians, released the hostages and put down its weapons, but Israel is not Hamas. Israel is a democracy; Hamas, a terrorist organization. Democracies place the highest value on human life, every human life. As it has been said, whoever saves a life, saves the entire world,” Blinken says during a press conference in Brussels, quoting a Jewish proverb.

“That’s our strength. It’s what distinguishes us from terrorists like Hamas. If we lose that reverence for human life, we risk becoming indistinguishable from those we confront.”

“Right now, there is no higher priority in Gaza than protecting civilians, surging humanitarian assistance, and ensuring the security of those who provide it. Israel must meet this moment,” Blinken said.

He notes “important steps” Israel has taken to allow aid into Gaza, but clarifies that “the results on the ground are woefully insufficient and unacceptable,” with 100 percent of Gazans facing acute insecurity.

“This week’s horrific attack on the World Central Kitchen was not the first such incident. It must be the last,” the top US diplomat warns.

This is, I believe, a classic example of what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls a “two-level game.” Essentially, any diplomatic negotiation has to take into account both the foreign policy aims of the parties and the various domestic political pressures at work. This greatly complicates the notion that international relations involves unitary actors seeking to maximize the national interest. There are, in fact, multiple views of the national interest that have to be appeased.

In this case, while I genuinely believe Biden and his foreign policy team are distraught about civilian casualties in Gaza—and were particularly angered by the attack on the World Food Kitchen aid workers—I do not for a second believe that they believe “there is no higher priority in Gaza than protecting civilians.” And, certainly, they’re not foolish enough to believe they can make that Israel’s policy.

But Biden is facing increasing pressure from within his domestic constituency. As has been widely reported, the junior members of his own foreign policy team is much more pro-Palestinian than the old heads. And, as noted in several of the above news reports, that’s true of a significant portion of the Democratic voting base. They have to be appeased.

For that matter, Netanyahu is facing significant pressure at home over the war. Not only are people worried about the fate of the hostages who have been held captive for six months but there’s a significant faction that wants a more humane policy. He’s also being condemned almost across the board by world leaders, including some who actually matter to him. He may be an unmitigated asshole but he’s not an idiot.

So Biden puts out a readahead of a 30-minute phone call that includes some tough language and gets Netanyahu to make some symbolic gestures. This appeases the domestic constituencies of both parties. Biden can take credit for “getting tough” with Israel and Netanyahu can get credit with soft-liners for the gestures while telling hard-liners that his arm was being twisted.

I would be interested in knowing the substance of the other 28 minutes or so of the call. That would tell us what the real policy preferences of the two men are.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DK says:

    He may be an unmitigated asshole but he’s not an idiot.

    Heh. Assumes facts not in evidence, given Netanyahu’s incompetence and generally failed radical rightwing leadership at home and abroad — the deadly and chaotic consequences of which are yet on daily display.

    I would be interested in knowing the substance of the other 28 minutes or so of the call.

    Hopefully, it was Biden telling Bibi to support Ukraine, and Bibi telling Biden to provide Ukraine with air coverage.

    Anyway, I’m done dreaming.

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  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    But Biden is facing increasing pressure from within his domestic constituency.

    It’s more than just his base. Even before the WCK attack, polling showed a majority of all voters disapprove of how Israel is conducting the war, and even Donald Trump is starting to publicly criticize them.

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  3. Kingdaddy says:

    The long-term damage to children from hunger and starvation in Gaza:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2024/gaza-food-famine-malnutrition-children-aid/

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  4. gVOR10 says:

    WAPO reports that the IDF has released the results of their promised “open and thorough” investigation and links to the one page report. It adds a second “gunman” who was there and wasn’t there and notes an unnamed major and colonel have been scapegoated. Otherwise there’s no detail and nothing new. I will add Atrios’ comment from Tuesday,

    Israel just did to WCK what they’ve been doing to UNRWA for months. There’s just a 10% greater chance someone important might not pretend not to believe it and instead get annoyed by it.

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  5. Kylopod says:

    @Stormy Dragon: My guess is that Trump is responding less to national polls than to those stories of Arab-Americans in Dearborn and elsewhere abandoning Biden. Presumably most of those voters aren’t planning to support Trump, but I think he realizes he stands to benefit from a perception that he’s not necessarily more hawkish on the issue, however divorced from reality that take may be. I’m getting bad memories of 2016 when dipshits were arguing with a straight face that Trump was “to the left of” Hillary on foreign policy, or when he held up an LGBT banner. At least they had the excuse that Trump was a blank slate at that point. Now, you have to ignore his entire four years in office to reach this absurd conclusion.

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  6. charontwo says:

    @Kylopod:

    Trump will say one thing one day, the opposite the next.

    Trump reads the room, says what he thinks will work with his current audience.

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  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kylopod:

    Oh, I certainly don’t think Trump is sincere in his criticism, more it’s a sign of how unpopular the Netanyahu regime is getting when even Trump thinks he has to pretend to care.

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  8. DK says:

    @Kylopod: Trump’s still salty about Bibi congratulating Biden in November 2020 and acknowledging his election win, while MAGA was still plotting its attempted coup.

    As for “Abandon Biden,” at least one of its lead organizers, Khalid Turaani, is a known Republican. While other Michigan Muslim leaders in questions were already working with Michael Flynn and Roger Stone way back in September to form an “anti-woke” alliance, before the 7 Oct security failure and Hamas barbarism.

    Similar to the leftists who’d be pledging never to vote for Biden “Because [Insert Whatever Reason]” even without the Gaza morass, a not insignificant portion of these antigay Islamists never intended to support Democrats in 2024. They can’t abandon a ship they never boarded.

    Like DemExit (aimed at black voters in 2020) and WalkWay (targeting gay and youth voters in 2020) it’s opportunistic psy op bullshyt, astroturfed by rightwing operatives and Russian/Iranian/Chinese trolls. And likely to end up just as overhyped and ineffectual.

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  9. Andy says:

    Many may be surprised to hear this, considering my comments of late, but I think a strong statement about Israel is warranted.

    I don’t have any issue with the readout except for this part:

    He underscored that an immediate ceasefire is essential to stabilize and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and he urged the Prime Minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.

    Ceasefire negotiations have been ongoing for a long time, and I think this statement does nothing but strengthen Hamas’ hand and incentivize them to harden their position and make a deal more difficult.

    The Israeli government can’t capitulate in negotiations here, and ordering Israel to conclude negotiations quickly is tantamount to telling them they need to compromise. This is remarkable in a number of ways.

    Despite some commenters here not believing Israel is a democracy (in which case, I guess the September elections mean nothing), public opinion matters a great deal in how much Israel can compromise regardless of what the US government wants or demands.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    Despite some commenters here not believing Israel is a democracy (in which case, I guess the September elections mean nothing)

    If the US was a democracy when women and blacks and non-property-owners couldn’t vote, then yeah, I guess Israel is a democracy. Technically.

    I am curious, though — what is your opinion on the legal status of Palestinians in Israeli-controlled territories? What is their nationality? Which government is responsible for their well-being? Where should their votes count?

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  11. Ken_L says:

    It seems to have become the fashion in the 21st century to wage war without any plausible war aims. America spent 20 years blundering around the Middle East to “defeat terrorism”, without ever really getting to grips with what the region would need to look like to remove the causes for which terrorists terrorised or how to reshape it accordingly. Russia has spent 10 years fighting in Ukraine with no consistent mission – it changes depending who you listen to and when they explain it. And now Israel is determined to “destroy Hamas”, despite Palestinian support for Hamas having risen dramatically since Israel invaded Gaza in part because of the invasion itself.

    It was much more straightforward in the olden days when wars were fought over claims to territory or to avenge intolerable insults to national pride.

  12. Raoul says:

    @Andy: The Washington Post reports today in its print edition that the IDF said that the “drone operator became convinced that a convoy with a humanitarian mission had been taken over by Hamas”. That sounds like an admission that they knew exactly what they were attacking. IOW, even if the drone operator thought what he alleged, he intentionally killed people who were delivering food.

  13. Andy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I am curious, though — what is your opinion on the legal status of Palestinians in Israeli-controlled territories? What is their nationality? Which government is responsible for their well-being? Where should their votes count?

    Since you’re asking for my opinion, I would say that those who are not Israeli citizens are Palestinians. Their votes count in Palestinian National Authority elections – or at least they did until 2006 when Hamas decided to murder all the other parties in Gaza and stop participating – there haven’t been national elections since. There have, however, been local elections (not in Gaza of course) as recently as 2022. So that is where their votes count.

    I have no opinion on whether Palestinians should be made into Israeli citizens, but I suspect that the vast majority of them do not want that and desire independence instead, and I do support self-determination. And to be clear, I am completely opposed to Israel’s policies of creeping annexation in the West Bank and think the US should do much more to oppose it.

    Of course, there are Palestinians in other places too. Lebanon is also ostensibly a democracy and has had generations of Palestinians born, live, and die there who do not have any political rights, including voting rights or the right to become citizens. IMO, this is what makes birthright citizenship so important in the US.

    @Raoul:

    The Washington Post reports today in its print edition that the IDF said that the “drone operator became convinced that a convoy with a humanitarian mission had been taken over by Hamas”. That sounds like an admission that they knew exactly what they were attacking. IOW, even if the drone operator thought what he alleged, he intentionally killed people who were delivering food.

    I’ve read the Israeli report and related information. It is pretty damning not only for what it admits but for what it doesn’t mention.

    On the point you raise, the operators said they saw one or two armed men board a convoy. It was then followed to a warehouse where the convoy was unloaded. Then picking up from the IDF report (emphasis added):

    The investigation found that the forces identified a gunman on one of the aid trucks, following which they identified an additional gunman. After the vehicles left the warehouse where the aid had been unloaded, one of the commanders mistakenly assumed that the gunmen were located inside the accompanying vehicles and that these were Hamas terrorists. The forces did not identify the vehicles in question as being associated with WCK.

    These accompanying vehicles were the WCK SUVs, not aid trucks. They were not carrying any aid, only people, and were no longer traveling with the aid trucks where the gunmen were originally sighted.

    As a guy familiar with US drone operations, the whole “assumed the gunmen were in the vehicles” is a huge red flag. That is something you never do. After you lose sight of the truck(s) the gunmen were in when they go into the warehouse, you might make an assumption they’d leave via a different type of vehicle (remember this is night, and you can’t distinguish specific vehicles on IR cameras, only vehicle types and perhaps models). You might then follow the most suspicious vehicles that exited later, hoping you picked the right ones, see where they go, and if guys with guns get out at some point, but you’d never – never strike without a positive ID.

    It’s really fucking mind-boggling. So mind-boggling that I don’t really believe that part of it and suspect there must be more going on.

    I don’t know how Israeli drone ops work, but in the US, there is an overall commander, but there are a ton of people watching the feed and providing input. Everyone can see what is going on. Everyone would know. A commander who ordered a strike on vehicles without ANY PID at all on the basis of what the Israelis themselves call an “assumption” about vehicle occupants on SUVs that came out of a warehouse with known humanitarian operations with no cross-checks would have lots of people questioning that order followed by outright refusing it. At least at the unit I was in.

    Whatever the reason, this is, IMO, a much more serious breakdown than my initial suspicions of a cascade of process errors. Israeli says the WCK route was never given to the drone operators. That might have been enough to prevent this, but I would not assume that considering the monumental errors of judgment by this drone crew and anyone who was on that feed and said nothing.

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