On the one hand, his enthusiastic obsession with achieving a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel held the potential of an enormous boon to Israel.
The White House was pressing hard for this agreement despite the obvious distaste most of Biden’s supporters had for Israel’s far-right government and its corrupt Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
But after Hamas launched its murderous assault, killing some 1200 Israelis, injuring thousands more and taking some 240 captive, Biden fully embraced Netanyahu.
The president made excuses and provided cover for Israel, refusing to rebuke it even when its leaders explicitly stated their intention to ignore the laws of war, to punish the people of Gaza collectively, and to abandon even the pretence in their attacks.
Israel had just suffered the worst attack from Palestinians in its history. The country was enraged and screaming for vengeance. It was a moment for the United States to restrain its ally.
Instead, Joseph Biden not only gave full approval to Israel’s actions but sent two aircraft carriers and other ships to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter anyone from coming to the defence of Gaza’s civilians.
This response was firmly rooted in the president’s generational idealisation of Israel. His bond is personal and irrational. It is connected to an Israel that, if it ever existed, certainly has not for many years.
His record speaks for itself. The seven-time senator from Delaware has been a staunchly pro-Israel voice in Washington for five decades.
Biden loves to tell his story about meeting Golda Meir and her telling him that Israelis will prevail (in the disastrous 1973 war, in that case) because they “have nowhere else to go”.
When Biden was vice president under Barack Obama, one of his primary roles was to reassure the pro-Israel community that the president was going to support Israel’s security no matter what.
As soon as Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, Biden committed the United States to backing Israel’s actions, regardless of how bloody and excessive they became.
Biden’s decision implied that his administration had approved Israel’s objectives and strategy for its campaign in Gaza and would follow its lead.
This put the United States in a difficult position because Israel had never had a political strategy for the war. Its only goal is military: to destroy Gaza and Hamas.
What is Biden Thinking?
The opacity of the policy process around Israel and Gaza makes it harder than usual to divine the thinking behind it.
Since its term in office began, the Biden Administration’s Middle East policy has been based on a hawkish approach to Iran.
It starkly contrasts with Obama’s approach, which was to bring Tehran into a partnership with Arab Gulf states allied with Israel while countering growing Chinese influence in the region.
Biden still clings to this idea and continues to promote Saudi-Israeli normalisation.
However, he now sees the Palestinians as an obstacle to this process, rather than the irrelevant party he assumed they were before 7 October.
It is entirely possible, as a result, that he now believes that more will be required of Israel than merely allowing some fantastical vision of a two-state solution to remain alive.
Yet Biden still resists the growing trend around the world, including in the United States, to move from a romantic fixation on two states to a political solution based on equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
This comes back to President Biden’s attachment to Israel’s exclusivist Jewish nature, which, like many of his generation, he can’t recognise as being biased and the basis for its much-criticised apartheid system.
The Fallacy of Domestic Concerns
As always, there is also the domestic aspect of American support for Israel. Biden seems to have badly misread the political map in the United States on this issue. And that error comes at the wrong time for him.
Because of the absurd electoral college system for presidential elections, states that don’t regularly vote Democratic or Republican are generally the “battlegrounds” where US elections are won and lost.
Arab and Muslim voters and other supporters of the Palestinians are increasingly saying they will not vote for Biden, and critical states like Michigan and Pennsylvania have significant Muslim populations.
Biden’s support for Israel’s bombardment also risks a significant loss of enthusiasm even among those who will still vote for him out of greater loathing of Donald Trump.
That enthusiasm was a major factor in getting voters out to polls for both Biden’s 2020 election and the Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in 2022.
Making matters worse, the cadre of donors whom Biden might be trying to win over—right-wing Jews and their Christian Zionist counterparts—seem wholly unmoved by Biden’s support for Israel’s Gaza campaign.
Major pro-Israel donors do not seem to be switching sides, and pro-Israel lobbying groups have focused their energies on supporting Israel’s cause rather than offering praise for the Biden Administration.
There can’t be a good reason for backing week after week of outright massacres of innocent civilians in Gaza. Ultimately, it is the lack of value that Biden places on Palestinian lives that pushes him to back Netanyahu’s assault.
The fact that the president is entirely off base in what he may think are strategic, security, or political gains in his stance makes it even sadder.
Photograph courtesy of US Embassy Jerusalem. Published under a Creative Commons license.