What explains US President Joe Biden’s seemingly unconditional support for Israel in the wake of the horrific attacks that the militant Palestinian group, Hamas, launched against multiple targets in Israel on 7 October resulting in over a thousand civilian and military casualties?
At one level, the answer is relatively straightforward. Israel is a long-standing American ally in the Middle East.
Consequently, it has, for the most part, regardless of the party in power in Washington, DC, generally enjoyed a substantial degree of bipartisan support.
Not All US Administrations Have Been as Generous
Interestingly enough, on occasion, some administrations regardless of party affiliation, have been more or less generous toward Israel. For example, the Republican administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, adopted an unequivocally tough-minded stance toward Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Yet, when Israel found itself both flat-footed and besieged during the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, the Nixon administration, fearing a possible Soviet nuclear threat to Israel, placed US nuclear forces on the highest level of alert.
Few Republican administrations, however, could match the willingness of the Trump administration in terms of its diplomatic largesse toward Israel. It granted Israel a long-standing demand that the US Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Beyond that, as is well-known, it also helped forge the Abraham Accords which holds out the promise of a possible reconciliation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states.
Democratic administrations have been both generous toward Israel and have also found themselves at odds with particular Israeli governments. The second Clinton administration, for example, made a good-faith effort to broker a deal in 1993 between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The Obama administration, often found itself to be at odds with Israel.
Matters reached a particularly low ebb, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accepted an invitation from a Republican dominated Congress to address both houses in 2015. Quite understandably, the Obama administration saw this gesture on Netanyahu’s part as a deliberate, calculated diplomatic snub.
Despite these vicissitudes, before remitting office Obama administration authorized a $38 billion arms deal with Israel which including g the joint development of the F-35 advanced fighter aircraft as well as the Iron Dome missile defense system. The latter, of course, has proven to be extraordinarily helpful in enabling Israel to cope with the rocket barrage that Hamas has unleashed since the onset of the most recent conflict.
Biden's Policy Towards Israel So Far
Some observers have argued that the Biden administration has been too indulgent toward Israel following the outbreak of the war with Hamas. A mid-level State Department official. Josh Paul, the director for Congressional and public affairs in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the United States Department of State resigned in the third week of October stating that arming Israel at this juncture was “shortsighted, destructive (and) unjust”. He also went on to characterize the current administration’s policy as “intellectually bankrupt”.
Despite his sharp criticism and resignation as well as the calls for restraint and peace on the part of several left-leaning Jewish (not to mention Palestinian) organizations the administration appears steadfastly supportive of Israel at this very fraught time.
Thus far, the administration has only issued two caveats.
First, it has committed $100 million in humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Second, President Biden in his public remarks in Israel has cautioned its leadership not to be “consumed by rage” — a fate that befell the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
What explains the administration’s willingness to give Israel this degree of leeway amidst the current crisis? Obviously, Biden's mostly full-throated support stems from America’s enduring security alliance with Israel. However, that alone does not explain his mostly unstinted succor to Israel.
A series of other, compelling domestic political considerations that are at work.
'Rally Around the Flag'
Among other matters, he faces a national election next year. With his personal popularity at a fairly low ebb a dramatic set of actions designed to bolster the security of an ally usually generates what political scientists have called a “rally around the flag” syndrome.
This concept suggests that when a president takes a theatric action in foreign policy the public generally pulls together around him. Related this possible political calculation, a substantial portion of the US citizenry are genuinely horrified with Hamas’ actions. Consequently, adopting a tough stance toward the organization also plays well with significant domestic audiences.
Beyond these considerations, Biden also, no doubt, wants to ensure that his Republican opponents, especially those running for the presidency, cannot take partisan pot shots at him for appearing weak on terrorism or wavering on his support for Israel, a currently embattled ally. A largely unyielding posture on his part on both issues effectively protects him from such possible challenges.
Finally, public knowledge of and interest in the Arab world let alone the extraordinary complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the United States is extremely limited. In a related vein, Arab-Americans constitute less than 2 percent of the US population. Consequently, his administration is unlikely to face any significant electoral backlash for adopting policies that mostly favor Israel’s concerns and needs as opposed to the plight of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.
Nor, for that matter, is the administration especially concerned about the views of the Arab world, let alone Iran, with which it has, at best, a testy relationship, to begin with. The vast majority of the Arab states, in any case, have unrepresentative governments which enables them to frequently disregard the sentiments of their citizenry many of whom are pro-Palestinian.
Their leaderships may feel compelled to make some nod to the views of their citizenry to tide over the current surge in anti-Israeli sentiments. However, their public posturing aside it is hard to imagine how Arab states ranging from Egypt to Jordan, to Iraq and Saudi Arabia are likely to uphold Palestinian rights at the cost of their long-term diplomatic ties to the United States.
This confluence of factors, domestic and external, largely explains the posture that the Biden administration has adopted toward Israel during the present crisis.
(Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington and is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)