Edited by Sam Thielman
PRESIDENT BIDEN SAID SOME LOVELY THINGS in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. One that sticks with me is something he said to the parents of those Israelis whose children Hamas killed: about how there will be times when memories of them become front of mind, but as a comfort, not a painful reminder of their loss. Those memories will fortify parents to be the people their children saw. That rang as wisdom from a man who learned those awful lessons the hard way.
But to the parents of those Palestinians whose children Israel has slain, Biden had no message at all. And to them, I suspect, his administration's actions speak the loudest of all.
There was a strange media narrative I saw throughout Biden's quick trip to Israel, one that portrayed Biden as urging restraint on the Israelis. On Al Jazeera, I heard an analysis that Biden could go back to Washington successfully, having secured acquiescence from Israel to permit humanitarian goods into Gaza from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing. Biden also unveiled plans for $100 million in U.S. aid to Gazans.
But it was hard not to notice that he will provide a reported $10 billion in aid to Israel out of a $100 billion package for aid to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and Pacific allies/clients. That's on top of ammunitions deliveries to the IDF and the two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups on-station or en route to Mediterranean waters near the Levant, to say nothing of the $3 billion-plus the U.S. provides Israel annually. It took until this week, following Israel's chilling order for over a million people to rapidly flee northern Gaza, when the sheer horror of human devastation Israel is inflicting on Gaza became unavoidable, for Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken to gingerly mention restraint to the Israelis. Before then, Israel had and continues to have total American support for cutting off fuel, food, water and medical supplies to the besieged.
This is not going to be the newsletter that adjudicates what happened at the al-Ahli hospital. Since Tuesday night I've had a number of people message me asking whether it was an Israeli JDAM or a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, and I have more questions and suspicions than I have answers that clear my bar for publication. But before the explosion at al-Ahli, the World Health Organization tallied 115 attacks on healthcare infrastructure—hospitals, clinics, ambulances, medical workers themselves—since October 7, 51 of them in Gaza. Medicins Sans Frontiers' Jerusalem-based coordinator for Palestinian aid, Guillemette Thomas, said on Thursday that "today, medical staff suffer the same fate as the rest of Gazans: they have been constantly bombed for the past 10 days." On Tuesday, Israel also attacked a U.N.-run school where some 4000 people had sheltered, killing six. When Biden spoke in Tel Aviv about not letting Hamas "break your resolve," he didn't elaborate on what the Israeli military and government is resolved to do.
Blinken and others recognized over the weekend that opening a so-called "humanitarian corridor" for Palestinians into Sinai is what he called "a nonstarter." It inevitably raises the specter of the Nakba—which is to say fears based on history that the Israelis won't permit Palestinians back into Gaza. Whatever the modalities of getting aid into Gaza—again, amidst conditions of total siege, which is unmistakably collective punishment, so there's an arsonist-as-firefighter element at work here—the administration clarified its position at the United Nations on Wednesday. There the U.S. vetoed a resolution demanding "humanitarian pauses" in the forthcoming Israeli sack of Gaza (and I presume Hamas rocket attacks) for the delivery of needed assistance to desperate people, as Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the resolution "did not mention Israel’s right of self-defense." That put the U.S. squarely on the side of the continued bombing and potential re-invasion of Gaza, not the provision of aid—to say nothing of the preservation of life.
The Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman on Wednesday that Biden
has, I think, put the United States in a position that I am not entirely sure anybody in his administration realizes. The United States is going to be vilified not just in the Middle East as a result of its unlimited support for Israel. What we are seeing now is only the beginning. The munitions that are being sent, the aircraft carriers that have been sent to the eastern Mediterranean, the huge bill that they’re going to put before Congress for — I’ve seen a figure of $100 billion* — is going to cement in people’s minds the idea that the United States and Israel are one, which means that whatever happens in Gaza, going forward, in terms of people being killed, innocent civilians being killed, in terms of population being expelled — basically, we’re talking about ethnic cleansing of northern Gaza — and, heaven forbid, people actually being forced out of Gaza into Egypt, which is still a possibility, even though the Egyptians have resisted — all of these things will be put down not just to Israel, but to the United States.
*see above, that's not going to be $100 billion for Israel alone.
Some in the U.S. government clearly know this. A diplomat named Josh Paul has resigned in outrage because of it. FOREVER WARS pal Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official, has some worthwhile thoughts about Paul's decision, including a trenchant observation that ideological commitment to liberal internationalism can't resolve a contradiction between its "idealized rhetoric that justifies extreme imbalances of power and practices of exclusion that perpetuate oppression."
Many have commented that a ceasefire won't be nearly sufficient to redress the conditions of apartheid Israel imposes on Palestinians that are the root cause of all the violence. That's right, although a ceasefire—still politically marginal to the U.S., Israel and indeed European governments—is the first step in getting anywhere close to that objective. And there Biden's words in Tel Aviv were perhaps even more distressing. Toward the end of his remarks, Biden tucked in the gentlest of nudges toward "a path so that Israel and the Palestinian people can both live safely, in security, in dignity, and in peace. For me, that means a two-state solution."
Leaving aside the dubious viability of the two-state solution decades after the breakdown of the Oslo process, that was an overdue recognition from Israel's great-power patron that the war has no military solution, only a political one. But for Biden not to press the point—to get Israel to actually pursue a political solution that secures Palestinian freedom and security, which is also its security—is to consign Gaza, and Palestine, to its Israeli fate. However much Biden now vaguely references "mistakes" that the U.S. made after 9/11—and his unwillingness to name them speaks to how U.S. elites have resisted learning from them—it's also what the United States did throughout the War on Terror: issue an eye-rolling concession that sure, it's a political conflict with no military solution before dropping the bombs, launching the missiles and raiding the homes. And the devastation will remain long after the words are forgotten.
THIS TUESDAY PIECE in the Washington Post sure seems to contain a concession from Hamas that it significantly miscalculated on October 7, even as the Hamas PR guy labors to spin it as a display of Israeli weakness:
A senior Hamas official, speaking from Beirut, insisted that Iran was not involved in the Hamas assault, in which at least 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers were killed and nearly 200 taken hostage. He said Hamas had not anticipated the scale and speed of the collapse of Israel’s defenses and that Hamas was caught off guard also by the ferocity of Israel’s response; over 2,700 Palestinians have died in Israeli airstrikes.
“Of course the Iranians help us and train us and give us support, but this operation specifically was very confidential and secret,” said Ali Barakah, who heads Hamas’s international relations department. He described what he said was intended as a “limited operation” to trade Israeli hostages for Hamas prisoners and said the expectation was that Israel would conduct limited airstrikes against Gaza before embarking on negotiations.
My emphasis. I pass this on because in national-security circles and beyond there has been a fair amount of "what was Hamas trying to accomplish through its attacks on civilians" speculation. My overwhelming experience in covering wars is that miscalculation is an inextricable feature of all combatants, and we really ought to hold space for that when attempting analysis.
MY FRIEND MATT DUSS asks if Biden realizes the foundations of his administration's Mideast strategy have collapsed:
The authors of Biden’s Middle East approach clearly believe it to be cold, hard realpolitik. But realpolitik would reflect an actual cost-benefit calculus of the region’s many armed actors and cash-rich monarchies—mainly, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This approach doesn’t.
In truth, it’s just a bad form of utopianism—another dream palace, now collapsed in the deluge of destruction that we see once again in Israel and Palestine. The past week showed that the choice is not between realpolitik and values, but rather between a U.S. security strategy that ignores human rights and one that works.