It's time for Biden to tell Netanyahu that enough is enough in Gaza

A Biden America was meant to stand up for democracy, law and human rights at home as abroad. (AFP)
A Biden America was meant to stand up for democracy, law and human rights at home as abroad. (AFP)


  • The US should stop arming Israel in honour of the UN’s resolution. US foreign policy could get warped by its stance on the Gaza War.

The White House described the recent phone call between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “tense and challenging." And what else could it have been? For the first time since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October and Israel began retaliating massively against the whole Gaza Strip, Biden demanded an immediate ceasefire. He apparently added an or-else: “If there are no changes in their policy," said a spokesperson, “there will have to be changes in ours."

That still seems too little too late to lots of people, even and especially in Biden’s own government. While Biden was on the phone with Netanyahu, I was talking to Annelle Sheline, who last week resigned very publicly from her mid-level job in the State Department in protest over what she regards as American failures to observe international and US laws in supplying Israel with weapons even as it commits humanitarian crimes in Gaza.

Take the ceasefire Biden has demanded. Wasn’t that already the gist of a resolution by the United Nations Security Council? The US had let it pass by abstaining rather than exercising its veto. But then the White House went out of its way to emphasize that the resolution was “non-binding." Why, wonders Sheline, who has a PhD on political Islam and helped write human-rights reports on the Middle East before resigning. Security Council resolutions are meant to be binding; that’s the whole point.

At the exact same time, moreover, the Biden administration was also readying previously agreed shipments to Israel of huge bombs—the kind that have been flattening much of the Gaza Strip—and even preparing future sales of fighter jets, missiles and other weapons. By mixing his signals, Biden is sending no signal at all.

To Sheline, these US arms sales are illegal. She points to two laws. One prohibits the US from arming foreign military units which “credible information" implicates in human-rights violations. The other bars support for governments that restrict humanitarian aid. By now, evidence of Israeli violations on both counts seems overwhelming—from blanket rather than precision bombing to blocking aid and causing starvation. Just this week, Israel struck well-marked trucks in an international aid convoy, killing seven.

Sheline represents a larger shift in US public opinion. Whereas about half of Americans still approved of Israel’s Gazan campaign in November, when the shock of7 October was fresh and the worst of Israel’s bombing yet to come, a majority now disapproves. Opinions are polarized, of course, with many older people and Republicans backing the Israeli government to the hilt while younger and left-leaning demographics turn against Israel. Among the electorate, as in Congress, the mood is in flux, and not in Israel’s favour.

That turn is even further along within the government. Sheline is the third diplomat to resign over the Israel-Gaza conflict, and one of many who have signed onto cables in the internal dissent channel. Since she quit, many colleagues have shown support. Resistance is also building in other departments, and apparently even inside the White House: First Lady Jill Biden is said to be horrified by the suffering in Gaza and to have urged her husband to “stop it, stop it now."

Another tragedy, Sheline told me, is that Biden was supposed to be the good guy, and the US a good country. A Biden America, unlike the alternative version peddled by Donald Trump, was meant to stand up for democracy, law and human rights at home as abroad. That claim is looking more hollow by the day, and the US less credible and more hypocritical abroad to many people. The conflict in the Middle East is threatening to take hostage Biden’s entire foreign policy .

Whenever the world calms down to think clearly, it must apportion blame for the immense misery of the past six months. Hamas deserves the most, but Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners are due their share, as are other parties in the Middle East. By contrast, Biden, I believe, genuinely tried to empathize with all sides and to find a balance between justified Israeli self-defence and humanitarian restraint. But in that attempt he has failed, as Netanyahu repeatedly and brazenly snubbed and ignored him.

UN resolutions and tense phone calls to Netanyahu are no longer enough. One of Biden’s predecessors, Bill Clinton, allegedly emerged from a meeting with Netanyahu in 1996, venting in frustration: “Who’s the... superpower here?"

If Netanyahu now ignores Biden and the Security Council and fails to cease fire, the US must vote to condemn Israel at the UN and immediately halt all shipments of arms to the country. ©bloomberg

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