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How Biden can overcome his Middle East credibility problem

The Biden administration has a huge credibility gap that it needs to overcome (File/AFP)
The Biden administration has a huge credibility gap that it needs to overcome (File/AFP)
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05 Jun 2024 10:06:08 GMT9
05 Jun 2024 10:06:08 GMT9

President Joe Biden took a risk on May 31 by announcing a US plan that he hoped both Israel and Hamas would agree to. He said that the offer to Hamas was an Israeli plan, but before his words even reached the group’s leadership, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ruled it out.

Hamas, which had given its initial approval, might hesitate after hearing the Israeli negativity and Netanyahu’s insistence on not ending the war. For Hamas officials, the last proposal that was given to them as a US-backed offer, which they also accepted only to have Israel reject it without any consequences, is still fresh in their memory. After that acceptance by Hamas, Israel launched its attack on Rafah, capturing the Egypt-Palestine border crossing and the entire Philadelphi Corridor, in violation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

This is exactly the problem with the Biden administration’s policy. The American officials are fickle. They do not put real weight behind their own proposals. This time, Biden might hope that, by using the bully pulpit, he can get the Israelis to agree.

Whether it was done on purpose or not, the timing of the presidential statement appeared to have ensured at least a 24-hour window during which the hard-line religious Zionists in Israel would not be able to respond. The announcement was made after Friday sundown in Israel, meaning that Cabinet ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, devout Jews who do not listen to the radio or watch TV on the Sabbath, would most likely not know of it and would surely not be able to respond until after sundown on Saturday.

For Hamas officials, the last proposal that Israel rejected without any consequences is still fresh in their memory

Daoud Kuttab

Sundown on Saturday is exactly when the weekly protests by families of the hostages and others who want the war to end are at their climax. The American offer to save the lives of Israeli hostages came a day after Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi appeared to dash any hopes of the hostages being released alive. On Saturday night, a much more powerful demonstration took place. But that has hardly made a difference to the far-right Israelis who Netanyahu depends on to stay in power. Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have said they will force the government to collapse if Netanyahu agrees to the plan. Opposition leader Yair Lapid has offered a safety net to ensure the government does not fall if the PM approves the ceasefire and prisoner release deal.

The potential for either or both sides to refuse the American offer is largely because Biden has been unable to say what he wants and to mean what he says. For months, the US president strongly advised Netanyahu not to invade Rafah, only to have the Israeli leader ignore the suggestions of Israel’s closest ally by bombing and then moving into Rafah. Why would the Israelis or Hamas believe that Biden is now serious?

One way to overcome such suspicions would be for Washington to turn the offer made publicly by Biden into a UN Security Council resolution it would support. As Biden said, the world has been calling for a ceasefire and the UNSC is the perfect venue to translate words into action. An added ingredient could be using Chapter VII of the UN Charter when introducing such a resolution. This chapter is meant to be an international instrument to hold countries accountable by putting economic and even military pressure on them if they violate international law.

Biden can also follow the example of many European countries by recognizing the state of Palestine to demonstrate America’s support for the two-state solution. It makes no sense to repeat ad nauseum the term “two-state solution” without acting to make it a reality. The US recognized Israel back in 1948 before it had any qualifications for statehood, while it is today preventing Palestine from being a full member of the UN even though it has all that is needed for a state. By inserting self-determination into his speech last week, Biden took an ideological step in that direction. But for Tel Aviv to take him seriously, he must follow through with his threats once they are ignored by Israel.

For Tel Aviv to take Biden seriously, he must follow through with his threats once they are ignored by Israel

Daoud Kuttab

The Biden administration has a huge credibility gap that it needs to overcome. Suppose the ceasefire and prisoner exchange deal is accepted by both sides. In that case, the White House and all the levers of power in the US must be used to ensure that all parties take America and what it wants seriously.

Another area that Biden can use to show seriousness is to deliver on his electoral promises. He promised to allow the reopening of the Palestinian mission in Washington and to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem to serve the people of Palestine, as was the case for decades before former President Donald Trump closed it down. No one can blame a president for attempting to fulfill a promise he ran on in 2020.

One more point of pressure that this and every president can and should utilize is to honor US law. American law is clear that countries that put any obstacles in the way of the delivery of humanitarian aid cannot receive US taxpayer support. Israel receives billions of dollars annually from Washington, while it has now failed in the simple task of ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Biden and his entire administration have long been pushing Israel in this direction, with Tel Aviv merely going through the motions and failing to fully respect this request. The president has a legal obligation to enforce US law on this, as well as on American weapons being used by Israel to commit war crimes.

Engaging with Hamas and asking it to come to the table requires that the Biden administration build up the political courage to take on Netanyahu and his choir of supporters in the US. It requires the willingness to show seriousness in more than just words, even after those words have come from the White House itself.

  • Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a director of Community Media Network. X: @daoudkuttab
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