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Mon, May

Biden’s Shifting ‘Red Line’ Lets Israel Get Away With Murder

GUEST WORDS

GUEST COMMENTARY - Over the seven months of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza, the United States has worked vigorously to offer maximum support for Israel while trying to give the impression that it is concerned about the massive loss of Palestinian life. The performance has been difficult to maintain, as virtually every American action contradicts the occasional words of concern for the devastation being fully abetted and enabled by American policy.

In recent weeks, political pressures have forced President Joe Biden to try to take more concrete steps to deter what he considers “excessive” Israeli actions. Such Israeli actions — which apparently do not include killing over 34,000 people, wounding over 78,000 more, completely destroying the health, education, and civic infrastructure in Gaza, and a daily flow of war crimes — raise concerns in the White House that Israel’s image around the world is becoming one of a genocidal regime and that image is reflecting on its American patron.

Rafah has become the focal point of this concern. Biden was prepared to support the horrors of the past seven months, but with some 1.4 million people stuffed into Rafah (an area that was crowded when it was home to 275,000 people before Israel’s onslaught), he realizes that a full-scale ground invasion of the kind that we witnessed in most of Gaza will cause a horror show that even Americans and Europeans — most of them, anyway — will not be able to abide.

So Biden made a statement. “Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah — they haven’t gone in Rafah yet — if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem.”

Those words, in typical Biden fashion, were as clear as a muddy lake and left massive amounts of wiggle room for the White House to continue to arm Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza. They also provided a roadmap for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow if he wishes to continue his genocidal campaign and not risk harming the one aspect of Israel’s relationship with the U.S. that Netanyahu cares about: the inexhaustible supply of arms.

Biden’s words are the latest in a series of statements and actions meant less to deter Netanyahu than to deter protesters and the voters who have been abandoning him in large numbers over his genocidal policy in Gaza. As we have seen over the past seven months, these words have, at best, pressed Israel to slow its genocidal attacks just a little and occasionally relent in some small, largely symbolic way, in its staunch efforts to block humanitarian aid from reaching the people in Gaza. 

Problematically, those results may give the impression that Biden is trying to rein Israel in, at least in a limited way, but actually, they help support Israel’s genocidal program. By occasionally allowing a small amount of aid in for a brief period, Israel has a tool with which to fend off half-hearted Western criticism. And, by proceeding more slowly, Israel continues to move inexorably toward its genocidal goal, but because moving slower means slightly less horrific images, or at least fewer of them, Israel again keeps a debate going over its actions rather than making defending it completely impossible. 

False promises, but consistent policy from Biden

Months ago, the pressure was already starting to build. Democratic thinkers and pundits were wringing their hands over the “divisions” in the party. In the Senate, as many as 18 Democratic senators were pushing a bill that would have required all counties receiving U.S. military aid to abide by American and international law and included a regular reporting requirement. 

The bill was specifically aimed at Israel, though it applied to all aid recipients, and Biden desperately wanted to avoid a vote that would show stark divisions among Democrats, even though the bill had no chance of passing into law. The man who had sold himself in 2020 as a “unifier” did not want such damning evidence of his inability to even keep his own party unified.

So, Biden issued a directive that required written assurances from recipients of U.S. military aid that they would only use the weapons in accordance with U.S. and international humanitarian law, and also included a reporting requirement. The key difference is that the White House would control this process. 

We’re seeing the result of that key difference right now.

The memorandum Biden issued — National Security Memorandum 20, or NSM-20 — was greeted with some cautious optimism and a good deal of skepticism. It did nothing to actually change U.S. law regarding the use of American military aid, but the specific reporting requirement might be hoped to bring the sort of scrutiny on how that aid was used that Israel has always avoided.

But with Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken driving the process, the prospects for real pressure were dubious. Israel fulfilled the first part of the memo, which was to submit written assurances about how it would use the aid. No need to tell the truth there. The proof would, ostensibly, be in its report two months later. That would be the test both for what could be done with the report politically by Israel’s critics and, more importantly, whether the White House was going to abide by its own laws regarding aid to Israel. Hopes for the latter were not high.

The report on Israel’s compliance was due to be presented to Congress on May 8. That day came and went with no report. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said, when asked about it, “It will not be transmitted today. We continue to work to finalize the report. We expect to deliver it in the very near future, in the coming days.”

The vague timing of the report is noteworthy, considering the State Department knew from the day Biden issued NSM-20 when it would be due and they’ve been able to make definitive statements about Israeli behavior pretty consistently ever since, including some minor criticism and objections. 

The delay was even more notable as the due date was the very same day that Biden decided to talk to CNN and announce that he intended to withhold certain offensive weapons if Israel launched a “full-scale” invasion of Rafah. 

Finally, the report saw the light of day just after five o’clock on Friday. This is what government agencies do when they need to release something publicly but want the least possible attention drawn to it. Unsurprisingly, according to initial reports, Israel was found to have “likely” violated international law and, therefore, U.S. law in its use of American-supplied weapons; Israel was also found to have been less than forthcoming with the required information; but Israel wouldn’t be punished since “Israel does have a number of ongoing, active criminal investigations pending and there are hundreds of cases under administrative review.”

Israel routinely opens investigations but, with exceedingly rare exceptions, those cases either remain unresolved or, more usually, they are simply closed with no action taken. 

Performative Reports While Rafah Starves

The affair feels very choreographed. Last week, Biden held up a shipment of heavy bombs of the type that Israel has routinely been using to annihilate civilian sites in Gaza. After Hamas accepted a ceasefire and hostage exchange proposal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up both his threats toward Rafah and his ongoing attacks there, both in the air and on the ground. 

That context tends to be missing from reports about Biden threatening Israel if it should invade Rafah. Israel has already begun its invasion of Rafah, but it has not yet stepped up that invasion to the horrific levels that have been seen in other cities in Gaza. It would seem that this level of firepower, killing “only” dozens every day rather than hundreds is perfectly tolerable for Biden.

Israel has seized the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing and shut it down, cutting the area off from its leading source of aid. It also seals in critically ill and injured patients, who can only seek the medical care that is now unavailable in Gaza by going to Egypt. Rafah is the main access point for fuel supplies and most aid for the south, where the vast majority of Gazans are packed in. In other words, Israel is escalating its killing by other means, a tactic which also has the side effect of killing people who don’t get counted in the death toll statistics. 

None of this rises to the point of stopping the flow of weapons to Israel, in the estimation of the United States government. When the State Department finally revealed its report on Israeli human rights abuses, it could not avoid being damning without completely fabricating Israeli behavior, something which isn’t possible given how many State Department staff members are already furious about Biden’s policy and the administration’s refusal to listen to anyone with actual knowledge of the region. 

But the Secretary and President cannot be totally ignored, and thus the report made excuses and found that, while Israeli soldiers and officers engaged in human rights abuses, they did not amount to sufficient grounds to suspend military aid. 

Biden has laid out the framework, and it will work out just fine for Netanyahu. Israel’s closing of the Rafah crossing; its assault that has forced over 100,000 Palestinians, who had already been displaced, many multiple times, to flee once again; and its devastation of an already devastated area does not meet the American standard of a “major ground operation,” according to White House mouthpiece John Kirby

That means Israel can continue these actions indefinitely as far as Biden and Blinken are concerned. This allows Netanyahu to wage a prolonged war, and, crucially, to massively increase the already considerable number of fatalities among Palestinians from curable disease, malnutrition, starvation, lack of access to medical care for chronic conditions, and other causes that are not included in death tolls. 

This also illustrates the danger of the credulity of too many in the foreign policy community who were so quick to applaud Biden for changing his policy. It’s true the public pressure is having an effect, but it has not yet forced Biden to change his policy in a material way that would affect Israel’s behavior. His statement this week did not represent that shift, though it was at least an indication that sufficient pressure and enough Israeli obnoxiousness could bring it about eventually. The pressure must continue and increase, a fact that, while it may be lost on some in the DC foreign policy bubble, has not escaped those brave students and other protesters

(Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy. He is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. Mitchell’s previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Director of the US Office of B’Tselem, and Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.  This article was first featured in ScheerPost.)