President Joe Biden was right. Israel has an absolute right to defend itself. And the fact that Israel was largely protected by the Iron Dome from more than 4,000 rockets Hamas sent its way in the latest round of fighting, while Gaza is largely unprotected from Israel’s air response, doesn’t mean that Hamas didn’t attack Israel. Whatever Hamas’ reason for unleashing its arsenal, every rocket launched constituted an act of terror and a war crime. Those crimes cannot be ignored or excused simply because Israel struck back.
Nor is the comparison of lives lost a proper measure of anything. Would anyone really suggest that Israel should shut down the Iron Dome to prove just how destructive indiscriminate Hamas rocket fire really is? But the foolishness of that suggestion and the need for Israel’s self-defense shows why the call by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others to block arms sales to Israel are dead wrong. Last week, they introduced resolutions disapproving of the U.S. sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel. The effort is going to fail; they know that. But they have a larger agenda. The proposed resolution is part of a process that seeks to chip away at American support for Israel at every opportunity.
Sanders was indignant: “At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza, and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a congressional debate,” he said, clearly ignoring that Hamas rockets were raining down on Israel (and Gaza) in what for Hamas was a war of choice.
While all that was going on, Biden did his work mostly behind the scenes, in what he describes as quiet diplomacy. But whether the ceasefire leads to larger agreements or merely restores a period of relative calm depends on how the administration chooses to proceed. And it is here that Biden can lead.
According to Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Biden inherited a very bad hand,” from the Trump administration. “And the real tragedy here … is there’s no clear pathway to stop the suffering of asymmetrically the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis as well.”
Miller is right, but that doesn’t mean that the situation doesn’t present the administration with a meaningful opportunity. With the influence Biden earned from supporting Israel while it was bombarding Gaza, and his past history of support, he should be able to leverage some targeted yet meaningful concessions to address many of the underlying, but not terribly strategic, issues that cause great consternation and concern to those critical of Israel’s treatment of its Arab population.
We are not talking about orchestrating a negotiated settlement. That’s clearly not in the cards right now. But there are things Israel can do to alleviate issues of concern to its Arab citizens and Palestinian population that could make life for them more pleasant and less restricted, and eventually lead toward more comprehensive discussions.
Small steps. Quiet diplomacy. A delicate political hand of encouragement. Joe Biden was built for this.