Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Missiles can come in 140 characters. “The devastation in Gaza is unconscionable,” Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “We must urge an immediate cease-fire. The killing of Palestinians and Israelis must end. We must also take a hard look at nearly $4 billion a year in military aid to Israel. It is illegal for U.S. aid to support human rights violations.”
Without naming him, Sanders was targeting President Joe Biden for not doing enough to stop the escalating conflict between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas. Israeli airplanes continue to bombard Gaza while Hamas is firing rockets at Israeli cities. By Tuesday night, more than 200 Palestinians and 12 Israelis had died.
Sanders’ tweet reflects a broader churn within the Democratic Party, with a new generation of left-leaning legislators seeking a tougher position against Israel than has been the norm in mainstream American politics. On Tuesday, Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib confronted Biden on the tarmac in Detroit to express her disappointment with the administration’s response to the crisis so far. Yet the criticism of Biden also reflects a deeper challenge awaiting the president.
How Biden follows up on his tough talk with Netanyahu today might give us the clearest picture yet of the doctrine he will adopt with other difficult friends.
Israel is just the first salvo. As Biden seeks to remake America’s place in the world, he will likely face similar opposition from sections within his own party if he tries to strike deals with controversial leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Yet given the size, economic clout and strategic importance of countries like India and Brazil, alienating their democratically elected leaders would carry serious risks for America.
How he handles the domestic pressure over Israel could tell us just how much Biden will bend to the left on foreign policy for the rest of his presidency.
On Wednesday, Biden told Netanyahu that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” the White House said in a readout of their telephone conversation. Biden’s tone reflects a shift from their call on Monday, when he told Netanyahu that the U.S. prefers a cease-fire but supported the Jewish state’s right to self-defense.
But Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors today that Israel did not have a “timer” to end the conflict and wouldn’t rule out the occupation of Gaza. And despite Biden’s latest comments to the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. continues to block efforts at the U.N. Security Council to push through a resolution pressuring Israel to seek an immediate cease-fire.
The Biden administration has clearly concluded that publicly angering Israel could backfire and in fact cripple America’s leverage with its ally. Biden’s cautious approach so far with Netanyahu is likely also rooted in fears over Israel’s ability to sabotage any revival of the nuclear deal with Iran. As vice president in the Barack Obama administration, Biden saw Netanyahu try to embarrass the U.S. government over the Iran agreement, including through a controversial address to Congress.
And in truth, America’s influence over Israel does have limits — something that a superpower can’t easily admit in public. President George W. Bush had bluntly reprimanded Israel after it sent troops into the West Bank in April 2002 at the height of the second intifada. “Withdraw without delay,” he told Israel through the media, from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, continued with the invasion for another month.
But this isn’t just about Israel. Several senior Democratic leaders and lawmakers — from Vice President Kamala Harris and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal — have criticized India’s Modi, especially over his abrogation of Kashmir’s special status and his introduction of a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslim immigrants. Yet Biden’s plans to focus America’s foreign policy energies on the challenge posed by China are unlikely to make headway unless he has India firmly by his side. It’s a central pillar of the “Quad,” a grouping also including the U.S., Japan and Australia that is trying to pitch itself as a “democratic” alternative to China’s influence in the region.
It’s the same with Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro has faced the wrath of Harris, Sanders and others in the Democratic Party. He too has criticized Biden over the then-presidential candidate’s comments on the Amazon destruction under the watch of Brazil’s current leadership. Now that Biden’s in power, he will need to deploy a more measured approach with the second-largest economy in the Americas.
That centrist pragmatism, a hallmark of Biden’s decades-long political career, won’t always play well domestically. Shouldn’t the president be responsive to sentiments within his own party? How is Biden’s relative silence on the bombing of schools, hospitals and media offices in Gaza compatible with his assertions that the U.S. under his leadership will defend global human rights?
These are important questions that — like knotty foreign policy challenges — have no easy answers. Yet Biden will find it hard to ignore them if the current war in the Middle East continues much longer. How Biden follows up on his tough talk with Netanyahu today might give us the clearest picture yet of the doctrine he will adopt with other difficult friends.