World / Comment / December 4, 2023

Biden’s Bear Hug of Netanyahu Is a Disaster

The renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas shows the incoherence of mixing humanitarian words and bigger bombs.

Jeet Heer
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

The humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas, which was always fragile, is now over. Even during the pause, Israel continued to kill Palestinian civilians, albeit in smaller numbers than before the hostage exchange with Hamas started. On Friday, the Israeli government cited a Hamas rocket attack as reason for ending the pause. More than 700 Palestinian civilians have been killed since the resumption of bombing, adding to a death toll of more than 15,000—the large majority of whom have been civilians.

The high civilian death rate brings to the fore the fundamental policy contradiction that has bedeviled the Biden administration since the start of the conflict: how to reconcile the stated desire to minimize civilian death with the full-throttle support of Israel that the administration is committed to in practice.

Speaking on Saturday at a National Defense Forum, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added to the chorus of public rebukes the Biden administration is making of Israel’s treatment of civilians in the current conflict. Lloyd told the audience, “I have personally pushed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties, and to shun irresponsible rhetoric, and to prevent violence by settlers in the West Bank.”

As befits his position as the cabinet official overseeing the Pentagon, Austin’s criticism of Israel focused not just on the violation of international law incurred by indiscriminately killing civilians but also on the fundamental incoherence of Israel’s military strategy. Austin noted, “In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Austin’s caution is sober and compelling, but it ignores the fact that Israel’s incoherent policy is paralleled by the Biden administration’s equally incoherent handling of Israel. Since the Hamas massacre of October 7, Biden has followed what has been called a “bear hug” strategy of holding tight to Benjamin Netanyahu as a way to contain and channel Israel’s response. As Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sums up the strategy, “Bear-hugging America’s ally, [Biden] apparently figured, was the surest way to restrain it—or the only way he was willing to try.”

In recent days, the bear hug has been accompanied by louder public criticism of Israel’s disregard for civilian life—sharp words that previously had been only uttered privately. At a press conference in Tel Aviv on Friday, just hours before the humanitarian pause was broken, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that in speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “I underscored the imperative of the United States that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in Northern Gaza not be repeated in the South.”

But this rhetorical emphasis on civilian life amounts to little in practice, because on a policy level the Biden administration refuses to put any conditions on aid to Israel. There is absolutely no incentive for Netanyahu’s government to heed the pleadings of Austin, Blinken, or even Vice President Kamala Harris, who has spoken in similar terms. On Sunday, Harris said, “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. As Israel pursues its military objectives in Gaza, we believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians.”

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The true nature of the Biden approach to Israel was caught by a Wall Street Journal headline reading, “After sending massive bombs, artillery shells, U.S. also urges Israel to limit civilian casualties.” This is Biden’s bear-hug strategy in its essence: “Send bigger bombs, leavened with humanitarian platitudes.”

The bear-hug strategy has failed in the most direct way possible: Far from being restrained, Israel is fighting one of the most ferociously murderous wars in the 21st century. It’s a war that, as Lloyd Austin notes, makes little strategic sense. Far from defeating Hamas, it will radicalize a new generation of Palestinians. Realizing this reality, Netanyahu is now shopping around a proposal to “thin out” Gaza’s population and expel the surviving residents into neighboring countries—a proposal that he is pitching to the leaders of both parties in Congress.

This policy, amounting to a second Nakba, would not only be a moral atrocity; it would destroy the reputation of Israel and the United States around the world for decades to come. The consequences of this policy, in terms of future terrorism and also loss of international credibility and fraying of alliances, would be incalculable.

The only way for Biden to stop this catastrophe is to reject the bear-hug strategy and openly set forth the consequences to Netanyahu of pursuing ethnic cleansing. But there’s little evidence that Biden has either the inclination or the will to take such a step.

Politically, Biden is also undermining his own chances for reelection. Support for Israel continues to sink, particularly among key demographics that make up the Democratic coalition: the young, people of color and women. A Gallup poll released on Thursday showed that Israel’s policies in Gaza divided the country almost in half: with 50 percent supporting Israel and 45 percent opposing. But among the groups that helped Biden win in 2020—and that he needs to motivate again in 2024—the numbers are starker. Among women, 52 percent oppose and 44 percent support. Among voters aged 18 to 34, 67 percent oppose and 30 percent support. Among people of color, 64 percent oppose and 30 percent support. Among Democrats in general, 63 percent oppose and 36 percent support.

In other words, by giving the bear hug to Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden is giving the cold shoulder to women, young people, people of color and a strong majority of his own party. If these voters remain demoralized a year from now, then Biden’s chances for reelection are bleak.

Biden’s 2020 victory was strong in the popular vote but exceptionally narrow in the electoral college. A shift of less than 45,000 votes in three states (Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin) in 2020 would have led to Donald Trump’s reelection.

The bear-hug strategy has already failed and continues to be an unfolding disaster. It endangers the long-term security of the United States as well as its international reputation. It also divides the coalition Joe Biden needs to win reelection.

The Biden administration is now becoming more vocal in criticizing Israel. That’s a welcome shift. But they also need to start criticizing their own failed strategy.

Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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