Bombs Away // Is the president Israel’s friend or foe?

President Biden’s pausing a shipment of certain bombs to Israel earlier this month and his opposition to a full-scale invasion of Rafah were deeply disappointing. And surprising.

A less noticed surprise followed last week, when the White House advanced a future $1 billion arms sale to Israel (atop $14 billion in a bill Mr. Biden signed mere weeks earlier). The new weapons transfer needs only to be approved by a Congressional committee and then Congress.

What gives? Has Mr. Biden, as his arms delay and words of warning were described in some media, “abandoned” Israel? Or is he still the stalwart defender of Israel’s right to destroy her declared mortal enemy that he declared himself to be in the wake of the October 7 massacre?

In the current political atmosphere, where every political actor must be either a knight in shining armor or a dragon, some have concluded that Mr. Biden has scales and is breathing flames at Israel. Either he never really was a friend or, if he was, he has now gone over to the dark side.

But looking at it objectively, it’s the promise of another billion dollars of arms, not the insistence on a more delicate operation in Rafah, that reveals the man.

Not only because he has a lengthy record of impassioned support for Israel, since his Senate days in the 1970s. But also because he still insists—despite his opposition to a full-scale onslaught against Rafah—that he unequivocally wants to see Hamas defeated and to read Yahyah Sinwar’s obituary.

And because, even after his weapons pause, he decries Hamas’ use of hospitals and schools for military purposes, and declares its ultimate responsibility for civilian casualties.
And because he still rejects the cynical, ugly canard that what is happening in Gaza is genocide. And still is working to promote normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

So what’s with the withholding of bombs?

There are two possible answers: the cynical and the other.

The cynical one—and it might be true, at least in part—is that it’s domestic politics at play. The president wants to win reelection in November and an important swing state is Michigan, which has the highest number of Arab Americans of any state in the country.

Those citizens have generally berated him for his support of Israel and so he felt that an expression of opposition to a full-scale operation in Rafah might soften their shunning. Not likely, but the man is entitled to his hopes.

The other answer is that he genuinely believes, rightly or wrongly, that it’s in Israel’s best interest to hold back from launching a major attack on Rafah.

He may be entirely honest—sometimes politicians are—in his concern about the toll on civilians that a full-scale bombing campaign on the city would likely take (the area has absorbed masses of refugees from elsewhere in Gaza). Both from a humanitarian perspective and because large numbers of new civilian casualties would further ostracize Israel and aid the efforts of those bent on portraying her as evil.

The other concern Mr. Biden voiced in an interview about his arms pause is that he feels that Israel needs to have a “day after” plan for Gaza, a framework of how the region, post-Hamas, might be responsibly governed. He blames Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for refusing to offer one.

That concern, as it happens, is echoed by senior military experts in Israel, including the current defense minister. Having a post-war plan in the wings, ready for implementation soon after a decisive victory, they say, is key to preventing some malevolent element from seizing upon a government vacuum to establish its own Hamas-style regime.

National Security advisor Jake Sullivan recently said that “ironclad”—the president’s repeated characterization of his administration’s support for Israel—“doesn’t mean you never disagree; it means you work through your disagreements—as only a true friend can do.”

Seeing Mr. Biden as a true friend who, out of concern for Israel’s future, simply disagrees with Mr. Netanyahu is an option. So is feeling that his concern is misguided, that even well-meaning friends can be wrong.

What shouldn’t be an option, though, is declaring that he is not a friend at all, that he has, chalilah, abandoned Israel.

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