Last week, after the guns fell silent and bombs stopped dropping in Gaza, President Joe Biden stepped on the podium at the White House and took a sort of a victory lap. A cease-fire was in effect, the result of his ‘quiet diplomacy'. He and members of his administration had worked tirelessly to achieve the breakthrough, he claimed.
“One of the reasons why we’re able to get the cease-fire in 11 days? They didn’t do what other people have done. I don’t talk about what I tell people in private. I don’t talk about what we negotiate in private. But what I can assure you, though, is that the last time took 56 days and then six months to get a cease-fire.”
We are not familiar with Biden beating his own drum. Nothing wrong with it though. After all, everybody agrees he did put pressure on Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, which eventually forced him to change course. Sure, it took him 11 days to relent, and when he did much of Gaza was reduced to rubbles. His goals met, Netanyahu claimed victory and ordered a halt to the slaughtering. Biden seemed pleased with that.
Despite all the cheering and applauding directed at him, Biden had done nothing that was out of the ordinary. At least it so seemed from outside. Like all his predecessors, he made the obligatory statements about ‘Israel’s right to defend’ – against a territory that it keeps occupied for over 50 years. He obligingly singled out Hamas as the aggressor and labeled it a terrorist organization. In order not to put public pressure on his friend Bibi, he also refrained from demanding a cease-fire and instead asked for de-escalation of violence. Privately, we are told, he was far more direct and confrontational, a version confirmed by Israeli media sources.
However, what Biden said next at the White House presser was quite out of the ordinary. In a clear departure from the past, he used the word ‘equal’ in describing what the two sides – Israel and Palestine – deserved. "I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy," He said, "My administration will continue our quiet and relentless diplomacy toward that end."
It was the first time a US President had used the term ‘equal’ to describe the rights of Israel and Palestine. This not-so-subtle departure from past traditions did not go unnoticed. The Atlantic in an article ascribed this ‘shift’ to the growing push by progressive Democrats to focus on human rights. It quoted Martin Indyk, a former US Ambassador to Israel, who expressed surprise at Biden’s new approach. “All of the sudden, and I mean all the sudden, the word equal is appearing in [President Biden’s] rhetoric and the rhetoric of the (US) secretary of state,” he said.
Neither did it go unnoticed by the opposition, which immediately blamed Biden for betraying Israel. “President Biden’s name should be written on the Hamas rockets fired into Israel,” thundered Senator Ted Cruz. “Because it is his weakness, his appeasement, his moral relativism and ambiguity, his lack of backbone to stand up and stand with Israel that is causing this war in the Middle East,” he explained.
That was clearly a voice from yesteryear. Ted Cruz and other Republicans who had argued in defense of Israel, could not see how the tide was beginning to change. Politics in the US has moved to the left and many in Congress made no secret of the abhorrence they felt at the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli attack. One of them even compared the Israeli policy to that of South Africa’s discriminatory practice called apartheid. Another, herself a Palestinian-American, asked, “how many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter?”
Perhaps the best illustration of this change came in the form of an op-ed in the New York Times, penned by Senator Bernie Sanders, himself a Jew. He asked, “Why is the question almost never asked: “What are the rights of the Palestinian people?”
Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times in a blistering op-ed titled ‘The ‘unshakable’ bonds of friendship with Israel are shaking,’ questioned why the US was always blaming Hamas but not Israel for the same crime. “If you oppose war crimes only by your enemies, it’s not clear that you actually oppose war crimes,” he wrote. By recognizing ‘equal rights' of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace, security and prosperity, Biden was responding to these sharp questions raised.
But, what do ‘equal rights’ mean when one is the oppressed and the other oppressor? Fareed Zakaria, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, reminded Biden that the economic gap between the two was a chasm, and the military gap too large to describe. “For every Israeli killed (by Hamas), there are 20 to 30 Palestinian deaths (at the hands of Israel).’
There is no denying that the US policy towards Israel, since the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948, has been characterized by its complete political, economic and military support. In 1973, when Egypt launched a surprise attack and was on the verge of victory, the US demanded a halt and, to force, threatened to use nuclear bombs. Although Israel is a nuclear-powered state with the largest economy in the region, the US continues to pump in $3.8 billion annually in economic aid. In comparison, the Palestinian Authority receives an annual aid package to the tune of $265 million. Israel is also the recipient of the most advanced military hardware from the US, some of which Saudi and Qatari money cannot buy. The two sides also share military intelligence and often coordinate action targeting the opposition, be it Iran, Syria, Hamas, or Islamic State.
Biden has already approved new weapon sales to Israel worth nearly $735 million. He has also promised to replenish Israel with batteries for its ‘Iron Dome’ shield, the vaunted air defense system that was used to intercept and destroy Hamas rockets launched from Gaza. In a statement following the ceasefire, Biden took pleasure in mentioning that the Iron Dome technology was developed jointly by the US and Israel. "I assured him (Netanyahu) of my full support to replenish Israel's Iron Dome system to ensure its defenses and security in the future," he said.
If Biden is serious about the Israelis and Palestinians having equal rights and opportunities, he may begin by addressing the current ‘inequality’ in economic aid that the two territories receive. And yes, he may consider helping the Gazans by giving them the same “Iron Dome’' shield to protect them from Israeli bombs. After all, in his own words, the two sides 'equally deserve to live safely and securely'.
We do not doubt the earnestness of President Biden. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to US Congress, had shaken the House by asking a simple question, what about the Palestinian children? Last week Biden met Tlaib in Detroit and spoke tete-a-tete for several minutes. Later, addressing guests at a Ford motor factory, Biden praised Tlaib for her intellect and courage. He also promised the tearful Tlaib that he would do everything he could to ensure that her family - including her ailing grandmother- in the West Bank remained safe.
We know Tlaib's family won't be safe until the Israeli occupation ends. Biden has lent his support to the ‘Two State Solution,’ something that can happen by bringing an end to the occupation. This will take time, we reckon, as it involves complicated negotiations with both sides. Meanwhile, he could demonstrate his commitment to ‘equality’ by offering an American version of “Iron Dome’. Would you, Mr. President?
The writer is a journalist and author based in New York.
25 May 2021, New York