Hard to believe: The most surprising – the most troubling – the most dangerous – thing is that reaching the elusive Day 11 cease-fire, difficult as it was to achieve, actually was the easy part. What follows will be surprising, troubling, dangerous – and vital.
They’ve stopped fighting, Israel and Hamas, at least overtly, at least without mass casualties. It’s the most fragile sort of truce, which is to say that it was forced upon the principals but may really only be an overture for the next act.
Here is the perilous element to this whole situation: Benjamin Netanyahu has not achieved his goal – not even remotely – which was to humiliate and then to eliminate Hamas, if not root and branch then surely the poisonous leaves. Hamas has not achieved its goal, either which was to eliminate Israel, root and branch and any seedlings that may remain on the surface of the origin of the Holy Land. Amid it all, antisemitism is spiking here, thousands of miles away.
In the middle of the Middle East muddle is Joe Biden, who didn’t want this dispute, surely did not need it in the middle of a pandemic, and just as certainly regards it as a distraction from the twin main events, which have bedeviled his predecessors all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps to Woodrow Wilson, maybe even to Theodore Roosevelt: China and Russia.
He salvaged some breathing room in May, perhaps by playing a quiet role in the cease-fire. The White House insists it was an indispensable intervention, but presidential assistants always say that and seldom are fully honest, or even fully informed. If nothing else, he helped calm things down. He also quieted the home front here in the United States a bit, but he surely was taken by surprise in three dimensions: First by the outbreak of the crisis, then by the incidents of antisemitism during the May conflict, and finally by the breaking down of the American outlook toward Israel that, in decades of experience in Washington, he thought was permanent.
That American outlook has shifted dramatically.
The president, who in the week following the truce deplored those antisemitic acts, repeatedly found himself on unfamiliar political ground. He expected the usual boilerplate of asserting Israel’s right to defend itself – the notion dates to even before he entered the Senate, in 1973, five years before the Camp David accords – would buy him time and, moreover, buy him some forbearance at home. It did neither.
Some of the usual voices – many Republicans, some Democrats, rather than the other way around, the way it was in olden days – sang the old tune, to be sure. But many did not. Social media and television undermined that melody, flooding American minds with horrifying images of Palestinian suffering.
One of those who was operating out of a different hymnal was U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, who said “our destinies” – Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian cause – “are tied.” You never heard that from Michael Capuano, who preceded Pressley in that seat.
What followed in her remarks was echoed in growing numbers in the Democratic caucus, the view that the U.S. should “not fund state violence in any form, anywhere” and the worry that American tax dollars weren’t so much creating “conditions for justice, healing, and repair” but instead they were creating “conditions for oppression and apartheid.”
The old-time medicine – talking about how Palestinian leaders did not halt the suicide bombings they were supposed to stop, arguing that the Second Intifada that began in 2000 and lasted years created havoc and 1,000 Israeli graves – was like an antibiotic that had been applied too often. It lost its power. The body politics was immune to it.
Then there is the reality that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the administration face: This problem is as tough as their predecessors – Donald Trump’s son-in-law excepted – have said it was, and in fact may even be tougher.
“The situation is not right for fundamental breakthroughs,” said Linda Robinson, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, the nonprofit policy think tank. “These are problems beyond any American administration’s ability to make a difference. We have influence but we do not have the magic wand, and this informs this administration’s view of the Middle East. Neglect would be a terrible choice.”
So you can’t make much of a difference and you can’t ignore it. Not a good place for a president to be.
To complicate matters, Biden’s asset in this situation also is his disadvantage.
The president has the benefit of having known many of the principals for an extended period of time. He has taken their measure and is familiar with the broad outlines of the issues they are confronting. “But much of his knowledge and his experience is dated,” said Roger Porter, who teaches a course on the presidency at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the only person to have had an appointment from the previous nine presidents. “It is easy to assume things are the way they used to be, but all sorts of things have changed. His past knowledge is both a benefit and a liability.”
Biden is the president now. We know he is older, and perhaps he is wiser. But much of his experience came before Israel developed its own weapons industry and before it made a rudimentary peace with Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan, alleviating a good deal of the nation’s security worries. And should Biden really be talking on the phone with Netanyahu constantly?
“This should not be a Bibi-Biden show,” said a national security figure in both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations. “The leader of one country should not have to talk constantly with the leader of another country. It has happened before but hasn’t been productive. Biden did talk with Netanyahu before all this broke, but it was measured and deliberate, and they weren’t on the phone every day. The policy shouldn’t rely on that.”
The tasks ahead: Assuring Israel’s security. Rebuilding the Palestinian infrastructure, especially schools, hospitals, and roads. Keeping a lid on emotions. Worrying about Iran’s role with Hamas even as the United States tries to rejoin the Iran nuclear talks. Providing economic hope to the hopeless. Figuring out the structure of American diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, and the changed relationship with Israel. That’s only a partial list. Who says this is a second-tier problem?
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.