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Who’s the superpower around here?

Who’s the superpower around here?

A decisive American president can do anything he wants, whether or not a powerful lobby opposes him

Specials

After his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, Bill Clinton vented his fury before his staff about his visitor’s apparent presumptions about the balance of power in the bilateral relationship. “Who the f**k does he think he is?,” Clinton reportedly bellowed. “Who’s the f**king superpower here?” Twenty-seven years later, another American president should be asking himself the same question about the very same Bibi Netanyahu and the country he leads.

Forgive me for not taking seriously the repetitio ad nauseam statement that "the Biden administration has been working hard to change Israeli policy." Too many defenders of our policy towards the tragedy of Gaza usually add the comment that it is not "politically feasible" to issue a demand and then crack down on the Netanyahu government if it does not comply for fear of the backlash from the powerful so-called Israel lobby.

Are Biden’s apologists telling us that the United States, and by extension its president, is a powerless weakling reduced to begging the leader of a small country that owes the U.S. for its very existence to do far more to protect the lives and welfare of the inhabitants of Gaza, who have suffered three months of —in Biden’s own words — ‘indiscriminate bombing’? The situation in Gaza is now so bad that the UN’s humanitarian chief declared the Gaza Strip “uninhabitable” as of last Saturday.

Biden is president of the United States, still the most powerful country in the world by almost every measure and a country without whose support Israel has no future. A firm public demand to cease and desist immediately would have enormous domestic political repercussions in Israel — far less in the United States. Biden would not have to publicly threaten to cut off weapons deliveries; a few words delivered in private to Netanyahu and a few members of his war cabinet would probably suffice.

Most of Netanyahu's government would desert him. Even the most hawkish of the Israel Defense Forces’ leadership would not want to test an American president’s resolve. Netanyahu's refusal would accelerate the departure of secular Israelis from the country — alongside many Haredim, especially those who hold U.S. passports.

A decisive American president can do anything he wants, whether or not a powerful lobby opposes him. Eisenhower did it, forcing David Ben Gurion to withdraw from Sinai in 1956. Carter did it, in his “walk in the woods” at Camp David in 1978, forcing Menachem Begin to abandon Sinai settlements and agree to a peace treaty with Egypt. Reagan did it in June 1982, forcing Begin to order a ceasefire in Beirut. George H. W. Bush did it in 1991, withholding $10 billion in aid after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to stop settlement construction. Israel caved in each case. No one believes Netanyahu is made of the same stuff as Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin nor Yitzhak Shamir.

Biden seems not to understand that his stance supports Netanyahu’s political survival, not the long-term interests of Israel. Bibi does not care how much damage he does to Israel as long as he stays out of jail. He has sacrificed the Jewish homeland to his personal interests. He and his government have presided over a slaughter of innocent civilians unprecedented in any of Israel’s previous wars. Their rhetoric reinforces the view gaining currency across the globe that Israel has decided to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their homeland; South Africa has brought a case of genocide before the International Court of Justice which is scheduled to take it up later this week.

Israel’s war against the Palestinians has reignited the perception among the vast majority of countries in the so-called Global South that the Palestinians are the new manifestation of the conflict against colonialism and imperialism. UN votes demanding a cease-fire have grown increasingly one-sided against Israel, further isolating the U.S. in the process. If Israel’s bloody campaign against Gaza does not end soon, the Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab countries may survive in name only; popular revulsion against Israel in those countries will rob them of any value. Biden owes it to Israel, a country long dear to his heart, to stop Netanyahu’s recklessness and that of his nationalist-religious extremist allies.

Netanyahu has no plan for the post war. Instead, it appears that he has a plan to keep the war going as long as he can, possibly by attacking Lebanon (which Biden "firmly" opposes), not to mention depopulating Gaza by forcing its now-homeless inhabitants into Sinai or deporting them elsewhere (which Biden also “firmly” opposes). Left unchecked, Netanyahu’s intransigence will drag the United States into military actions we do not need; American hawks are now demanding we bomb the Houthis. Tomorrow, it might well be hostilities with Iran.

Biden’s continued, full-throated support for Netanyahu mystifies. His initial embrace of Israel and unconditional material and moral support were to be expected. It was an emotional reaction to the horrors of October 7. While Biden has earned a great deal of praise for his handling of the Ukraine war, Israel’s war in Gaza has shifted American attention from Ukraine. In effect, the American president has become bogged down dealing with a war marginal to American interests and diverting attention and resources from a conflict whose outcome is a vital interest to the United States. Biden’s policies have caused others to see America as either weak or complicit. He has allowed Netanyahu to get away with “flipping the finger” to the United States, a serious blow to the prestige of the superpower.

The Gaza war has also dealt a serious, if not mortal, blow to Biden's reelection. Given its large Arab-American population, Michigan is lost. Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin also have significant Muslim and Arab populations. He is about to lose the Armenian vote unless someone cracks down on the hoodlums who have viciously attacked Armenian clergy in Jerusalem. As a politician rooted firmly in the 1990s — especially the 1992 Clinton-Bush face-off — Biden may fear the loss of Jewish support in the coming election.

That fear looks misplaced. A recent survey indicates that nearly half of young Jewish-Americans do not support his current policies towards Israel, while Christian Zionists, who form a significant part of the Republican base, are unlikely to vote for Biden in any event. One also wonders why Biden, if politics are indeed the driver of a misguided policy, would support a foreign politician who has demonstrated his hostility towards every Democratic president since 1993.

Biden has a very short window within which he can cut off Netanyahu before he can carry out his apparent war aim to depopulate Gaza and carry the conflict to Lebanon and possibly beyond — a conflict, in other words that could very well drag American forces into another endless Middle Eastern war. A quick and decisive decision, combined with real diplomacy to exploit the crisis and craft a workable solution to 75 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would recover America's reputation.

Now is the time, in other words, for the superpower in this relationship to assert its own interests.

U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applaud the choir after they sang the national anthems in a meeting with Israeli high school students on December 13, 1998 (Reuters)

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