Words Over Deeds: Why Biden Isn’t Pressuring Israel

One could be forgiven for thinking that President Biden’s tough words on the Israel-Hamas war in his State of the Union address and his MSNBC interview on Saturdaywas the beginning of a much more critical U.S. policy toward Israel. After all, the president called for at least a temporary cease-fire, laying out, in his most emotional terms to date, the losses and suffering of the people of Gaza and delivered an unmistakably sharp signal that Israel must make the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza a priority. Those callscame on the heels of Vice President Kamala Harris’s high-profile meeting with Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rival and likely successor — a snub to Mr. Netanyahu who has been denied a White House visit.

Nonetheless, far from presaging a major shift in policy, the president’s words and the vice president’s meeting were more likely part of the now familiar passive-aggressive approach the administration has deployed against the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history.

President Biden has sent a number of signals — chastising Israel for indiscriminate bombing, assisting with airdrops and creating a maritime corridor for humanitarian assistance — that he’s frustrated by some of Israel’s actions, especially its inattention and even opposition at times to facilitating assistance into Gaza. He is further angered by Israel’s unwillingness to restrain settler violence against West Bank Palestinians and its rejection of any role for the Palestinian Authority in governing Gaza. But he has consistently refused to impose any serious consequences on Israel.

Make no mistake. The “I’m unhappy with Israel but won’t do much about it” policy is Mr. Biden’s policy— driven by the president’s pro-Israel sensibilities, politics and the policy choices he faces in dealing with the current war. At the same time, Mr. Biden surely knows that there are costs both at home and abroad for allowing Mr. Netanyahu to run roughshod over U.S. interests and values. Therein lies his dilemma.

Understanding why President Biden hasn’t imposed costs on Israel during five months of its war against Hamas begins with his bond with the Jewish state.

Early in his career, it was easy for an impressionable young senator who made his first visit to Israel at age 30 to connect with the saga of Israel’s struggle for independence and its fight for survival in a hostile neighborhood. In the years since, Mr. Biden has repeatedly recalled his father’s references to the Holocaust and the dangers of silence in the face of evil. No other president describes himself repeatedly as a Zionist; no other occupant of the White House has asserted that if there were no Israel, “We’d have to invent one.”

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