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Foreign Policy

Biden’s Fivefold Dilemma in Gaza

Apr 30, 2024
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

So far, the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has lasted more than six months. Although the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2728 on March 25, calling for an immediate cease-fire, this does not really resolve the crisis between the Palestinians and Israelis, as the parties are far from reaching consensus on either the cease-fire or the subsequent political arrangements.

Worse, Israel is still sharpening its knives and proceeding with a military attack on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where a large number of Palestinian refugees have gathered.

The crisis reflects the multiple dilemmas of U.S. President Joe Biden’s current Gaza policy, and poses a huge challenge to his re-election. As the 2024 U.S. presidential election campaign heats up, the dilemmas faced by Biden’s team may further intensify.

I believe that these dilemmas are clear in at least five aspects:

First, the Gaza crisis has highlighted the contradiction between the “great power competition” strategy pursued by the Biden administration and the U.S. strategic contraction in the Middle East.

The Biden administration, while pursuing its great power competition concept, attempted a strategic contraction in the Middle East, including the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2021. Contrary to what we had hoped for, the intent of the contraction in the region has not only aroused the concern and anxiety of the regional countries but also prompted some regional actors to take desperate measures.

This is true despite the Gaza conflict, the Red Sea crisis or the intensification of the conflict between Israel and Iran. On one hand, based on traditional interests and alliances, it is difficult for the United States to withdraw quickly from these regional crises. On the other hand, the U.S. cannot be separated from the cooperation and support of other world powers. If the politicians in Washington continue to be obsessed with their so-called great power competition, it will only become more difficult to reduce the tensions in the Middle East, let alone resolve any conflicts.

Second, the Gaza crisis presents a dilemma for the Biden administration’s “values diplomacy” and “human rights diplomacy.” In his first year in office, Biden convened the first Summit for Democracy to reshape the Western world based on values, and he used human rights as a pretext for frequent pressure or sanctions on other countries.

However, by the end of April, Israel’s military operations in Gaza had killed more than 34,000 Palestinians and injured more than 77,000, including more than 13,000 children and 8,400 women. In addition, hundreds of members of UN agencies and humanitarian aid organizations and journalists have lost their lives. Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, is now a wasteland of rubble and devastation.

In the face of the bloody facts and the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, the Biden administration’s advocacy of values-based diplomacy and human rights is more like a burlesque in the international community.

Third, the Gaza crisis puts the Biden administration into a strategic dilemma with regard to the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.” It is well-known that while Israel is not a NATO ally, its military cooperation with the United States far exceeds that of many NATO allies. After the outbreak of the Gaza conflict, the Biden administration not only acquiesced to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military adventures in Gaza in the name of self-defense, but also provided all kinds of military assistance. However, Netanyahu has ignored Biden’s voice calling for him to restrain military operations in Gaza, and has even gone so far as to publicly criticize the Biden administration.

Even though the United States has never interrupted its military aid, Israel has been unable to gain a sense of security from the special relationship. There is no doubt that in the wake of this Gaza conflict Israel’s leaders will have to consider how to respond to new challenges to their national security — for example, how to deal with the next asymmetric attack, how to face a new Middle East in which the U.S. continues to withdraw and how to face a Western world in which antisemitism is on the rise.

Fourth, the Gaza crisis highlights the Biden administration’s dilemma following the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Biden administration faces a great dilemma as it looks for peace between Palestine and Israel. The overarching issue in resolving the current situation in Gaza is how to find a new political consensus. This is a prerequisite for ending the armed conflict and humanitarian catastrophe.

First, the Netanyahu government’s military adventure offered no practical political resolution, which sidelined the Biden administration in a passive role — at a loss in the face of Israel’s military operations.

Second, the current two-state solution supported by the U.S. has been roundly rejected by Israel. On the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Biden administration neither dares to pressure Israel for peace talks nor can muster the courage and capability to put forward a more innovative political solution that can be accepted by all parties.

Even the current two-state solution supported by the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult to implement when facing the erosion of Israeli settlements and the fixed occupation of Jerusalem. The U.S. policy of unconditional support for Israel at the United Nations has not only caused dissatisfaction throughout the international community but has also undermined the foundations of the international order that emerged after World War II.

Given the fact that Israel was established as a state based on a UN General Assembly partition resolution, such practices are tantamount to quenching thirst and will only further weaken America’s international standing and moral authority.

Fifth, the Gaza crisis has become a new obstacle to Biden’s re-election. Historically, American Jews have been pivotal in presidential elections. They have been a reliable vote bank for the Democratic Party and a major source of campaign funds. Support for Israel has been the goal of most American Jewish organizations and lobbies. In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, some 69 percent of Jews voted for Biden.

Biden’s support for Israel will naturally be applauded by a few Jewish voters and lobbies. However, the protracted Gaza conflict may force Biden to continue to pressure Netanyahu, jeopardizing the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel and hence causing these voters and lobbies to withdraw their support.

At the same time, Muslim-Americans, along with left-wing groups — which are also traditional Democratic constituencies — are now extremely disappointed and dissatisfied with Biden’s Gaza policy. In the same vein, the recent spate of pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. campuses does not bode well for Biden’s reelection. If the Gaza crisis remains unresolved, it could be the straw that breaks Biden’s back.

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