/ 7 November 2023

Israel v Gaza: Where is Biden?

US President Joe Biden. (Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For Israel to claim that they do not deliberately target civilians and then to hit a refugee camp with a bunker-buster bomb, predictably killing a large number of civilians, is disingenuous barbarity. 

Add to this besieging the entire population, a medieval tactic, and sending Palestinians who are in Israel back into Gaza, and you have a narrative that is increasingly turning from horror at the Hamas attack on Israel to horror at Israeli barbarity.

If Hamas has one day of unspeakable savagery, does that entitle Israel to an open licence to kill Palestinians on a large scale?

Make no mistake — even if every last capability of Hamas is ground to gore and dust, this will not end the impulse to conflict, but intensify it. Not only does the conflict not address the underlying causes but it will dig a deep well of resentment and anger that could fuel angry conflict for decades to come.

US President Joe Biden is in a unique position to change the whole dynamic. The Republican Party is in the thrall of Trumpism, which ultimately comes down to feeding the ego of the failed former president.

All Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to do to lose Trump’s friendship was to congratulate Biden on his win.

The Republicans have also attached themselves to the cause of Putinism, which increasingly brings Russia and Iran closer, a position that sharply contradicts the Republicans’ supposed undying attachment to Israel and implacable opposition to Iran.

Yet Biden — who is old enough to have experienced all of that in real time, as he frequently reminds us — is behaving as if the past 50 years did not happen.

We are at a unique juncture in history where resolution of the Israel-Palestine problem is actually possible, with firm leadership from the US that balances support of Jewish aspirations with support for Palestinian rights.

Such an apparently intractable conflict can be resolved. We have evidence from the end of Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the negotiated end of apartheid in South Africa.

Biden should have a long enough memory to know how hard those problems seemed at the time. In Northern Ireland, the British position was that the IRA were terrorists and you cannot negotiate with terrorists. The societal divisions were horrific — if a person was in the wrong street at the wrong time, it could be the end of them.

I can add my own personal experience of South Africa. While I was not in the thick of the struggle, an academic colleague, David Webster was assassinated by the apartheid security police. I remember at the time feeling an increased determination to carry on; I can barely imagine the rage of black South Africans at the horrors inflicted on them on a daily basis in the name of “Christian anti-Communism” and “fighting terrorism”.

The worst tipping point we experienced during negotiations to end apartheid was when a far-right thug assassinated popular leader Chris Hani, hoping to plunge South Africa into an all-out racial war. Despite extreme anger and some volatile riots, we got through that. 

Today, South Africa is a largely peaceful society, with problems that are increasingly divorced from its racist past.

The key missing ingredients in the Israel-Palestine conflict are external pressure to end the conflict, backed by major actors with the capacity to make an agreement stick, and a lack of internal will to come to a settlement.

Both of these are soluble problems.

The US is Israel’s biggest backer by far. Telling Israel that they have a blank cheque to respond to 7 October, while footnoting a plea to minimise civilian casualties, is not pressure to negotiate a long-term settlement. Rather, it is encouraging the current far-right Israeli government to ethnically cleanse itself of the Palestinian problem.

Internally, there is a large Israeli peace movement that will have difficulty mobilising sentiment in the wake of 7 October but could be energised by atrocities from their own side.

What is really missing internally is an ability to understand the psyche of the other side; this was something that Nelson Mandela used with great skill in South Africa. Remember why the rugby team are still Springboks?

From an early age, I remember my mother telling me how, even though I only had one Jewish grandparent, I would be a target for extermination if another Hitler arose. That understanding has kept me a firm opponent of all forms of racism, particularly extremes such as xenophobia and ethnic cleansing. 

An Israeli government with at least one openly fascist cabinet member is an abomination. If Israel can only survive by becoming its own worst enemy, should it exist?

At the same time, if Palestinians understood the Jewish memory of the Holocaust, they would have a better starting point for finding leverage for negotiating peace. The seventh of October was the exact opposite of what it takes, evoking memories of pogroms; sadly, the Israeli over-reaction with extremes of barbarity could be an opening.

The US is uniquely positioned today to force the issue, with a divided opposition and a president who ought to have the broad sweep of history at his command.

But where is President Biden?

He has frequently justified his position of staying on long past any reasonable retirement age by his unique perspective that is critical to navigating the major inflection points we face today.

So, where is he? Back in 1973?

The author is an emeritus associate professor of Computer Science at Rhodes University.