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Biden’s mission impossible

President Joe Biden speaks to the press aboard Air Force One en route from Israel, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Oct. 18, 2023.

President Joe Biden speaks to the press aboard Air Force One en route from Israel, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Oct. 18, 2023.

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

It was the best of trips. It was the worst of trips.

As the bullets, rockets, and bombs flew, Joe Biden set off for Israel this week, serving as a kind of human shield while aiming to give pause and reset some boundaries.

The US president had the best of intentions ahead of his trip:

  • Meet Israeli, Palestinian Authority, and Jordanian leaders not to broker peace — as he fully supports Israel’s war against Hamas, a terror group that massacred 1,300 people and still holds hundreds of hostages, including Americans — but to call for some restraint amid the chaos.
  • Restrain the Israelis from the collective punishment of Gazans and allow a humanitarian corridor for food and water.
  • Restrain the leadership of the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority from rising up into a Third Intifada.
  • Restrain Hezbollah and its Iranian backers from joining the fight in the north.

This was old-school US shuttle diplomacy, buttressing hard power — two aircraft carriers, billions in support to Israel and Egypt – with the soft power of persuasion. It is the kind of power Biden has trained all his life to use. He was making this war his war.

Then came the tragedy at the hospital in Gaza.

That tragedy — a human one, first and foremost — was also a diplomatic one that undermined Biden’s agenda. His position as a powerbroker was deeply weakened. Face-to-face meetings were canceled in Jordan and with the PA. Protests erupted. Blame was assigned even before the smoke cleared.

It was, as Ian Bremmer said so long ago, another example of the GZERO world, in which the great powers flail to restore order in a global structure they can no longer control. The perma-crisis world – wars in Europe and the Middle East, pandemics, climate change, pick your mega crisis — all work to solidify that view. But that doesn’t mean Biden’s efforts were a failure or unimportant.

Let’s pause on that tragedy, which is now a turning point in the war. In the minutes after the blast, Hamas immediately claimed Israel had bombed the hospital. Without any investigation, many mainstream media sources, including the New York Times, followed. Then Israel weighed in, claiming it was not their rocket but one launched from Gaza by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller but related group to Hamas.

There was a difference though: Israel provided some evidence of its claim, while Hamas has still not done so. Biden corroborated the Israeli claim based on US intelligence. New analysis from open sources has shifted to the view that the rocket did come from Gaza, though there is no definitive proof yet. Context also has emerged: The bomb didn’t hit the hospital itself but an adjacent parking lot. This is not to diminish the human impact of the blast, but it’s important to get this right since the event is having such a geopolitical impact.

It is common to dismiss this all as academic. One side will believe what it wants, and the other will believe what it wants. So … who cares if we ever know “the truth”? When the disinformation becomes the information itself, people give up on the importance of truth. The reaction to events buries the facts so deeply they no longer have a consequence.

But it does matter who did it. Justice matters. Accountability matters. Propagandists need to destroy the causal relationship between act and actor because they are not interested in building a lasting peace, but rather in destroying it. Destroy truth and you destroy the possibility of reconciliation. So, however inconvenient the facts are about the bombing in the hospital parking lot, there ought to be accountability.

That kind of investigation requires time and attention to detail. That was part of what the Biden pause and restraint was all about. In these conflicts, details matter.

Avoiding unhelpful generalizations also matters. Terms like “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” are unhelpful, because such broad categories obscure important realities within each society. Millions of Israelis openly disagree with Netanyahu’s policies and yet defend Israel with their lives. These are not contradictory positions. As Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi recently explained, “Israelis have never gone to war so lacking in faith in their leaders …We have never experienced anything like this: a prime minister, in time of war, who is afraid to mingle with the troops because of the outrage he is likely to encounter.”

The same is true for Palestinians. “Most Gazans (and a huge majority of Palestinians) reject Hamas and see its atrocities as a barrier to liberation and statehood,” author Doug Saunders tweeted, concluding that “this is a war of non-representatives.”

Making distinctions and avoiding generalizations matters more than ever, especially if there is a possibility to broker some kind of path forward. As Halevi writes from the Israeli point of view, “Leftwing Jews need to understand that the Jewish people cannot afford the purity of powerlessness, while rightwing Jews need to understand that power requires moral limits. As a people, we must not be indifferent to the anguish of Gaza. And we must not allow that anguish to undermine our resolve to destroy Hamas.”

Biden’s trip might have failed on some levels – the war continues, the people in Gaza and Israel are still suffering, and there is still very much the risk of regional escalation. But on another level, it was a critical sign that the world is not giving up on pushing back against the chaos and that working for and paying for a way out of these conflicts remains a responsibility of big democracies. The same is true for Ukraine. These are all challenges for Canada and other NATO allies. Words of support are important, but that’s a lot different from actual help. Biden is providing both.

Polls show some believe there will never be peace in the region, which is not surprising but depressing. After all, the French and the Germans made peace after two world wars and millions dead. The US and the Japanese made peace after a war that included two nuclear bombs. In Northern Ireland, the Troubles ended. So it is possible. Why? Because people want peace.

One small, virtually irrelevant moment the other day in Montreal reminded me of this desire. I was taking an Uber to the airport, and the young driver and I got into a long discussion about the war. He told me he was a Muslim and an immigrant, and his girlfriend was Palestinian, who had just come from a rally and was in tears about the war. We spoke openly, honestly, and in detail about the situation, sometimes disagreeing and sometimes not. As he dropped me off, I thanked him for the ride and said, “I love your attitude.”

I guess he didn’t hear me that clearly, because he turned around, smiled warmly, and said, “I love you too.’

It hit home. Even though it’s just a minuscule anecdote in a vast, hard world of geopolitics and war, it was a tap on the shoulder, where two strangers from different places badly wanted to hear something the world doesn’t say much these days, as if saying these small things doesn’t matter at all.


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