Inside Story

Too little, too late

In the tortured history of America’s relationship with Israel there has scarcely been a more fraught moment

Tony Walker 11 March 2024 1518 words

Red line? Joe Biden campaigning in Atlanta on Saturday. Peter Zay/Anadolu via Getty Images

Five months into the Gaza war and on the eve of Ramadan, one thing is clear. Progress towards resolution of an historic conflict is not at hand.

We may get a temporary ceasefire and the release of some hostages in exchange for some of the 4500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but we are unlikely to see a resumption of Middle East peace efforts scarred by years of failure.

Israel’s pursuit of the Hamas leadership — notably Yahya Sinwar, the political chief on the ground in Gaza, and military commander Mohammed Deif — will likely continue until both men are found, dead or alive. That’s assuming Sinwar and Deif are still in Gaza itself, which is far from clear.

In the meantime, the world is mobilising to funnel humanitarian assistance into Gaza by land, sea and air. The American air drops into Gaza represent an extraordinary spectacle: on the one hand, Washington continus to arm Israel with munitions used to cause death and destruction among Palestinians; on the other, it is seeking to circumvent Israeli restrictions on the supply of aid across the strip’s land borders.

In the tortured history of the Middle East and America’s complex relationship with Israel — going back to Dwight Eisenhower presidency in the fifties, when pressure from Washington brought an end to the Suez crisis — there has scarcely been a more confounding moment.

In 1956, Eisenhower brokered a halt to what was known as the “tripartite aggression” after the nascent state of Israel had joined Britain and France in confronting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal. In some ways that was a high point of America’s playing an honest-broker role in the Middle East, matched by Jimmy Carter’s mediation of the Camp David Accords in 1978, which ushered in a cold peace between Israel and Egypt.

In the years since then, constructive US influence in the Middle East has waxed and waned depending on circumstance, with sporadic interventions such as President George H.W. Bush’s push to kickstart a peace process in the wake of Gulf War I.

Bill Clinton tried but was let down by poor preparation for a Camp David II summit in 2000 between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat deservedly got much of the blame for the failure of Camp David II, but Barak, who refused to meet Arafat one-on-one, and Clinton’s feckless Middle East negotiators were also culpable.

Judged against the performance of his predecessors in managing a Middle East crisis, and depending on how the Gaza war ends, history is unlikely to be kind to Joe Biden. As things stand, the fair judgement is that Biden, with his sights firmly on his own re-election prospects, has been far too indulgent of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden might argue that his strategy of not allowing questions to arise about Washington’s support for the elimination of the Hamas leadership will prove to be correct, both politically and strategically. But his tardiness in calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, and his sanctioning of repeated US vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions demanding such a pause, has left him wide open to criticism that he has acted as Netanyahu’s enabler.

Belatedly, the US president appears to have realised both the political costs for him domestically, where many in his Democrat base are outraged, and the concomitant damage to America’s international reputation. He has consequently begun to step up his criticism, in public and private, of a war that has filled TV screens with shocking images of civilian casualties and deprivation.

This has taken far too long.

In remarks picked up last week by a “hot mic” after his State of the Union address, Biden told a Democrat legislator that a “come to Jesus” moment was approaching in his relations with Netanyahu. He made it clear he would regard an Israeli assault on Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip — where about half Gaza’s 2.3 million population are huddled — as the crossing of a “red line.”

Interviewed, Netanyahu rebuffed the president, saying he would not be deterred from pursuing the Hamas leadership at risk of adding further to Gazan deaths and injuries.

In all the history of a blood-drenched Israel–Palestine conflict one date stands out: 4 November 1995. That was the evening on which Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot by an Israeli zealot opposed to peace with the Palestinians.

Not only did Yigal Amir assassinate Rabin, he also destroyed progress on the “two-state solution,” towards which Israel’s fallen leader and Arafat were groping via implementation of the Oslo Accords signed on the White House lawn in Clinton’s presence in 1993.

Among the bleak consequences of the Rabin assassination was the coming to power of Netanyahu, leader of the nationalist Likud bloc. To say Netanyahu has been a blight on Israeli and Middle East politics ever since would be an understatement.

In his years in power, either as prime minister or opposition leader, Netanyahu has contrived to stymie legitimate peace efforts to the point where any kind of peace in our time, even if the Gaza conflict subsides, has come to resemble a mirage.

Netanyahu may well be consigned to history if and when the war in Gaza ends and elections in Israel are held, but his malign influence will endure in the form of an explosion of settlements in the Occupied West Bank and a less obvious transfer of Jewish settlers into Arab East Jerusalem.

By latest count, Israel has turned the West Bank into a Swiss cheese of settlements and settler outposts, with something like 200 settlements and 220 outposts on land occupied in the 1967 war. All are illegal under international law since they involve a transfer of members of the victor’s population into territory seized in war.

In all, some 500,000 settlers are now living in the West Bank and 250,000 in East Jerusalem, a total of about 10 per cent of Israel’s population.

Even as late as this month, in the midst of the Gaza war, the ultra-right Netanyahu government, whose leader is beholden to extremist elements, has continued approving new settler housing in the Occupied Territories. This could hardly represent a more pointed affront to international efforts to calm the situation, given the fact that settler violence in the West Bank has spiralled since the 7 October Hamas pogrom on Gaza’s boundaries.

Behind all this is an assumption that Netanyahu is hoping to hang on to leadership, and avoid jail on corruption charges, pending a return to the White House of a president who could be expected to look more favorably on his tenure. But there is a long way to go between now and January 2025, when Trump might get his hands on power and thus loosen restraints, such as they are, on an Israeli government.

In the meantime, there is much loose talk these days about a “two-state solution.” This is glib posturing: anyone who knows anything about the Middle East understands that we are very far indeed from a realistic consideration of two independent states, one Israeli, one Palestinian, living side by side.

When next you hear a politician talking about a two-state solution without any realistic prospect of such an outcome coming about, or of that politician actually doing anything about it, reach for the smelling salts. In reality, there is barely a pulse detectable in America, or among its allies, of a willingness to exert real pressure on Israel to engage realistically with the Palestinians towards a two-state solution.

Such is the depth of animosity and mistrust — and, yes, raw hatred — between Palestinians and Israelis that, short of divine intervention, or the arrival of an Israeli or Palestinian Nelson Mandela, or preferably both, there is little cause for optimism.

In fact, there is hardly any cause at all, not least because the Israeli right is adamantly opposed to a two-state outcome, leaving aside the likelihood of civil conflict if any leader in Israel proposes the dismantling of settlements and moves towards negotiations on a Palestinian state — even if there was a Palestinian entity capable of assuming leadership responsibility across the West Bank, and Gaza.

This might be hard to accept for the two-state-solution industry among academics, commentators and politicians groping for an off-ramp for the world’s most confronting conflict. But there has scarcely been a bleaker moment in a history burdened by failure and a feeble US presidency.

If there is a counterpoint to Biden’s weak hand, played weakly, it is Ronald Reagan’s example when he picked up the phone in the Oval Office in 1982, responding to what he was seeing on his television screen, and rang Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

In its invasion of Lebanon to rid that country of its Palestine Liberation Organisation presence, Israel was using its airforce fighters as “flying assassination squads” to pound Palestinian positions in Beirut.

“Menachem, this is a holocaust,” Reagan said. The Israeli offensive ceased.

Contrast that with Biden, who can’t even persuade Netanyahu to faciliate aid shipments into the Gaza Strip. This is both shameful, and farcical. •