The fighting between Israel and Hamas has, as it always does, thrown everything into chaos. This is most obvious and impactful for Israelis and Palestinians living under rocket barrages and airstrikes, but it has upended things in the U.S. as well. Some think that the U.S. is doing too much, others not enough. There are Members of Congress who do not want President Biden to push Israel toward a ceasefire while Hamas is still shooting rockets or to even push Israel toward a ceasefire in any scenario before it is ready, and other Members of Congress who want to cut off military assistance to Israel in the midst of it fighting a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. The one thread that seems to unite many people across all sides at the moment is a conviction that whatever the U.S. is doing is the wrong approach.
I am firmly in the camp that thinks the U.S. should be working toward a ceasefire. In the past, this was not a controversial position; the U.S. played this role in 2006 under the Bush administration during the fighting between Israel and Lebanon, and it played this role in 2014 during the Obama administration during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. The fact that this is now considered in some quarters to be an outrageous proposition says more about the people making that case than it does about anything else. Rockets are killing Israeli civilians, who do not want to be consigned to bomb shelters for another two weeks or worse. Airstrikes–and rockets that do not clear the Gaza border–are killing Palestinian civilians, who have suffered plenty for years and are about to run out of water and working sewage systems. This has nothing to do with tying anyone’s hands, but is a recognition of the fact that the U.S. can and should play whatever role it can in bringing the fighting to an end, particularly since there is no scenario in which Israel is looking to invade Gaza and eliminate all Hamas presence once and for all. This is part of what it means for the U.S. not to abdicate its leadership role on the world stage.
Pushing Israel toward a ceasefire and then delivering one is not just about the ceasefire itself. Whether the Israeli government grasps this or not, it is intimately connected to what Israel wants the Biden administration to be doing right now, which is shielding Israel from repeated efforts to pass a one-sided resolution in the United Nations Security Council. The amount of flak that President Biden is taking right now is astounding. The other fourteen members of the Security Council have been on board for days with a resolution demanding a ceasefire that makes no reference to Hamas’s rockets. Momentum is growing among Congressional Democrats to call for the U.S. to halt arms sales to Israel, even though the call will only be symbolic. As the fighting has continued, constituencies in the Democratic base are increasingly comfortable charging that Israel is an apartheid state while denouncing Israeli war crimes. Israel’s disinformation campaign about a ground invasion that was aimed at the foreign press in order to trick Hamas fighters into underground tunnels that were about to be bombed, and Israel’s subsequent strike on the Gaza office building that housed the Associated Press, did Israel no favors with the media. And as always happens, the longer fighting continues the higher the civilian death toll, and with it demands for the U.S. to hold Israel to account.
It is entirely unrealistic to expect Biden to ignore all of this, from either a policy or a domestic politics perspective. It is not how either of those two arenas work, and complaining about Hamas behavior or double standards for Israel may be completely fair, yet it does not change this fundamental equation. It is hard enough for any president to shut everything out while Gaza is being pounded; harder for a Democratic president with a large progressive contingent in Congress; and even harder while Israel is not only conducting military operations, but publicly admonishing the president to effectively mind his own business and yet still expecting that the U.S. will hold off the UN and the rest of the world from trying to impose any consequences. Biden calling for a ceasefire creates the space for what is more important to Israel, which is the U.S. standing firm in the Security Council. Hammering away at Biden for having the temerity to request that Israel begin to wind things down after over a week of a sustained Gaza air campaign not only misreads the rest of the chess board, it is penny wise and pound foolish.
Brokering a ceasefire that actually holds is only the tip of the iceberg. If the U.S. does that and walks away, it will be setting the stage for the next Israel-Hamas conflict, whether that be in a month, a year, or a decade. The past two weeks may have damaged Hamas’s military capabilities, from commanders to rocket launching pits to tunnels, but it has only boosted Hamas politically. The fact that Hamas’s position is ultimately strengthened in these exchanges with Israel is why they keep on happening, since Hamas is not immune to rational self-interested calculation. It is not because all Palestinians are genocidal against Jews, and it is not because all Palestinians support terrorism designed to drive Israelis into the sea. It is because Palestinians are upset about many things, from statelessness to a lack of control over basic elements of their daily lives to Israeli humiliations large and small to a conviction that nothing will ever improve. It is myopic to expect Palestinians in Gaza to be grateful about Israeli knocks on the roof or verbal warnings to leave their houses before they get blown up; it can simultaneously be evidence of the care that Israel takes to minimize civilian casualties and also something that leaves Palestinians homeless and furious at Israel. In that scenario, it is human nature that they will rally around the flag and support the entity that is fighting back, and not the entity that is coordinating on security with Israel and tamping down efforts at popular protests in the West Bank.
There is no purely military solution to Gaza or to Hamas, anymore than there was a purely military solution to Vietnam or than there is a purely military solution to Afghanistan and the Taliban, and it shouldn’t take fighting like this for people to realize that. The U.S. needs to help undermine Hamas politically. One way to do that as soon as a ceasefire is in place is to put Hamas on its heels and force it to choose between a massively unpopular position or a loss of control and influence. Gaza will require an enormous amount of assistance for reconstruction and humanitarian aid, and it is clear that taking a hands-off approach once the money hits Gaza’s shores or enabling Qatari funds that get distributed by Hamas may help Palestinians incrementally but does nothing to erode Hamas’s standing. The U.S. needs to take control of reconstruction efforts and force Hamas to either step back, or to publicly reject Gaza being rebuilt and Palestinian quality of life measurably improving. As I argued with COVID vaccines, this is another opportunity for the Abraham Accords to be meaningful in an immediately tangible way. If Gaza reconstruction is handed to the UAE and Bahrain, not only will it allow them to work with Israel in ways that will be beneficial to all three economies, it will allow the normalizing states to demonstrate that they are actively working on behalf of Palestinians and sideline Hamas at the same time. Without an effort along these lines, Palestinians who live in Gaza will continue to suffer, Hamas will continue to harden its control and expand its support as it plays off hatred of its seemingly implacable and immoveable Israeli foe, and we can all count on the next cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat.
Finally, the U.S. should not use the current fighting to put new restrictions on security assistance to Israel. The irony is that when rockets are falling on Israel–and nobody should forget that this fighting started with Hamas rockets on Jerusalem based on the pretext that rockets on Israeli civilians is somehow defending al-Aqsa–and Israel responds, it is when the most attention is on security assistance to Israel despite it being the time when security assistance to Israel should be the least controversial. But the U.S. should absolutely be using this opportunity to remind the Israeli government that it wants to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict crowding everything else out, and that means removing all of the thorniest issues from the spotlight. It’s not particularly credible to argue that Hamas shot rockets because it is really defending the Temple Mount or preventing evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and neither is it particularly credible to argue that Israeli actions in Jerusalem have not provided Hamas with the most convenient excuse possible. President Trump claimed to have taken Jerusalem off the table, when in fact he did no such thing; he only made the issue even more heightened. Biden cannot take Jerusalem off the table either, but he can press Prime Minister Netanyahu to do what he can to lower the temperature over it. That means not only taking a step back from evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and urging the Israeli police to be smarter when it comes to restrictions around Ramadan or responding to stones on the Temple Mount with tear gas. It means not breaking ground on new neighborhoods in Givat HaMatos and Har Homa E, not demolishing homes in Silwan, not refusing to grant building permits in Palestinian neighborhoods or revoking permanent residency permits in an effort to push Palestinians beyond the security barrier into Kufr Aqb. None of this will bring about two states or turn Hamas into dust, but it will take away Hamas’s most potent issue and quiet things across the board.
Biden and his team have a lot on their plate. They may want the Israeli-Palestinian issue to just go away, but it’s not. If they want to spend less time focusing on it, it is critical to not only work to end the short-term crisis but to lay the groundwork for averting the next one.