Israel tanks
Israeli tanks roll along the border with the Gaza Strip on February 23, 2024 Image Credit: AFP

That which is falling should also be pushed, a philosopher once said. Maybe that applies also to the increasingly fraught relationship between the US and Israel, close friends whom geopolitics is nonetheless pulling in opposite directions.

Nobody predicts a complete rupture. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its indiscriminate war in the Gaza Strip, which may yet be ruled genocidal, is leaving Biden little choice. He must distance himself if he doesn’t want to sacrifice American credibility in the Global South forever.

For months, Netanyahu has ignored or snubbed Biden’s demands to scale down Israeli bombing, to allow more humanitarian aid, and above all to commit to a two-state solution as the only long-term way out of the recurring spirals of Jewish-Palestinian hate.

Slowing down or even phasing out US military support for Israel is a possible policy option. It would be a campaign gift for Biden’s likely opponent in this year’s presidential election, Donald Trump. In any case, money and weapons to Israel have now become wrapped up with aid for Ukraine. (The two are mixed in the same supplemental budget request so that aid to Kyiv stands a chance of getting through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.)

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That leaves the UN as the better venue for a bold American gesture. Israel has few friends in the General Assembly, where a huge majority of states has voted for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (and the US was one of only 10 countries voting the other way). But those resolutions are non-binding. What really matters is the Security Council, where Washington wields a veto.

In that council, the US has so far shielded the Netanyahu government three times since the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. It cast its most recent veto this week, to nix a resolution brought by Algeria. That one also would have insisted on an immediate ceasefire. On two other occasions the US abstained, allowing the council to pass resolutions demanding humanitarian “pauses” — Washington viewed that word as acceptable because it implies only a temporary suspension of Israeli bombing.

A new line in the White House

Now, though, the US is firming up its language. In its draft for a council resolution, it plans to demand a “temporary ceasefire” (notice the baby step up from “pauses”). The text also explicitly warns Netanyahu against assaulting Rafah, where more than a million Gazans have sought refuge since being bombed out of their homes. The American wording isn’t as strong as a statement issued by Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which says an offensive against Rafah would be “catastrophic.” But it suggests a new line in the White House.

Biden ought to go further in that direction. So Netanyahu should expect more US abstentions in the general assembly as well as the security council, and maybe even some American initiatives for resolutions that would put pressure on Israel or even impose costs.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and veteran Mideast negotiator, envisions a measure that would get Netanyahu’s attention: The US should sponsor a resolution in the security council that would build on Resolution 242, adopted by states including Israel and its Arab neighbours after the Six-Day War of 1967. The American language would formally enshrine the two-state solution in international law as the goal to be pursued by all sides, including Israel.

An even more drastic move, if Netanyahu stays intransigent, would be for Washington to recognise a Palestinian state at the UN. That gesture would be the obverse of the predation by Zionist settlers in the West Bank: It would create facts not on the ground but in international law.

None of these steps, admittedly, would make the process of achieving a two-state solution any easier. Right now, the US is struggling just to keep negotiating a ceasefire and hostage release with Israel, Egypt, and Qatar. Even harder is reforming the Palestinian Authority so it can govern and inspire trust. As is persuading Israelis and Palestinians, all of them traumatised, to give a new peace process a chance.

But Biden must heed one lesson of 75 years of US-Israeli history. In their successive wars against Arabs, the Israelis were usually influenced by the “Iron Wall,” a strategy of overwhelming force associated with a right-wing Zionist of the early 20th century, Vladimir Jabotinsky. The lesson is that “Israel has never ended a war without being ordered to do so.”

Presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower understood that; in effect, he coerced Israel to moderate its campaigns when those threatened to jeopardise global stability. Biden too must now temper the Jewish state with all the diplomatic means at his disposal, even if that means pushing. — Bloomberg

Andreas Kluth is a columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics