Edited by The Nation
AS THE PALESTINIAN DEATH TOLL crossed the 10,000 mark in early November, two anonymous mid-level US diplomats marginalized by President Joe Biden’s support of Israel warned that the US urgently needed to “publicly criticize Israel’s violations of international norms such as failure to limit offensive operations to legitimate military targets.” Israel’s war in Gaza, they wrote in a memo leaked to Politico, was sowing “doubt in the rules-based international order that we have long championed.”
The diplomats are part of a growing chorus against the impunity that the United States has long provided Israel for unambiguous violations of international law. Jordan’s King Abdullah II railed that “in another conflict”—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the U.S. condemned “attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity, and basic necessities.” International law, he continued, “loses all value if it is implemented selectively.”
Abdullah is not the only one taken by the similarities between Ukraine and Gaza. On a Zoom briefing arranged by the writer Peter Beinart a week into the conflict, former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg said the Israel Defense Forces’ approach—flattening infrastructure with air strikes and artillery to make urban warfare easier for tanks and infantry—amounted to a “Russian military strategy.”
The diplomats are right: Biden’s green light to Israel creates doubt in the legitimacy of the “rules-based international order.” It also clarifies what that order truly is. For while the rules-based international order sounds like “international law,” in reality it is the substitution of international law with the prerogatives of American hegemony. Biden is not engaging in hypocrisy, exactly, in punishing Russia for acts that he materially supports when Israel does them. He is engaging in exceptionalism.