Joe Biden is exasperated by Israel but will not stop its war

SIXTY-SIX BUNDLES of food drifting on parachutes onto the beach of Gaza on March 2nd made for an incongruous sight after five months of war: as Israel dropped American-made bombs on Gaza, America’s air force dropped ready-meals. The aid operation, conducted jointly with Jordan and repeated on March 5th, symbolised not the power of America, but its frustration at its limited ability to influence Israel’s fight against Hamas.

President Joe Biden has sharpened his tone towards Israel of late, saying he would accept “no excuses” for delays in increasing humanitarian supplies to Gaza. He faces growing pressure, at home and abroad, over the appalling toll of the war, not least the mass displacement of Gaza’s population, the death of thousands of civilians, and spreading hunger and illness.

Mr Biden is making plain his displeasure with Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, in other ways, too. On March 4th and 5th his administration welcomed Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet, as an alternative prime minister, granting him meetings with the vice-president, Kamala Harris, and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, among others. Mr Netanyahu, who has yet to set foot in the Biden White House, was furious.

Ever since Hamas’s gruesome assault on Israeli communities around Gaza on October 7th killed more than 1,100 people, and led to the capture of some 250 hostages, Mr Biden has pursued a four-pronged strategy: embrace Israel’s right to defend itself and destroy Hamas, stop the war from spreading, limit the harm to Palestinian civilians and restart peace talks to create a Palestinian state. Mr Biden has rushed weapons to Israel’s armed forces. He has averted a regional conflagration—just—as Iran-backed militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have intensified attacks against Israeli and American targets, and disrupted international shipping in the Red Sea.

Yet Mr Biden has struggled to protect ordinary Palestinians from Israel’s wrath. He feels Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition has not paid much heed to his exhortation to do its utmost to protect civilians. More than 30,000 Palestinians have died (including combatants), according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. Much of Gaza’s fenced-in population of 2.2m has been forced southwards, like toothpaste squeezed in a tube. The UN warns of spreading illness and hunger, especially in parts of northern Gaza, ostensibly under the control of Israel, that aid agencies struggle to reach.

Hamas has been weakened, but not defeated, as it fights through a warren of tunnels. Israel says it is determined to destroy Hamas’s surviving battalions in and around the city of Rafah, on the southern border. Egypt is worried fleeing Palestinians will burst into the Sinai. America has repeatedly warned Israel not to attack without a plan to protect civilians.

American officials say their air-drops are part of an effort to “flood the zone” with aid. They are a highly inefficient means of providing aid—and tend to cost three to four times more than bringing food by road. The sporadic flights, providing 30,000-plus meals each, are more theatre than a serious effort at humanitarian relief. A putative sea-lift is still over the horizon. Israel seems deaf to America’s pleas to open new passages for supplies by land. The chaos is worsened by Israel’s killing of Palestinian policemen (who are often seeking to prevent the looting of aid) because they are symbols of Hamas’s rule.

The ensuing anarchy became tragically apparent on February 29th, when an aid convoy intended to support life brought death instead. About 100 Palestinians died as they swarmed the lorries—most of them either shot by panicked Israeli soldiers, crushed in the crowd or run over by panicked drivers, depending on who is telling the story.

Still, America has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions calling for immediate ceasefires in Gaza—three times. It has defended Israel before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which has been asked to rule on the legal consequences of Israel’s conduct in territories it occupied during a war in 1967. It has also described a genocide case against Israel as “meritless”.

Mr Biden’s support for Israel carries a cost for him at home, where he faces growing opprobrium. About 100,000 Democrats—mainly progressives and Arab-American voters, cast “uncommitted” ballots in the Democratic primary in Michigan, an important swing state, in a rebuke to Mr Biden ahead of a tight presidential election in November.

Bernie Sanders, a left-wing senator who twice ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, denounced Israel for violating America’s Foreign Assistance Act, which forbids aid to any country that “prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance”. He called for America to halt military supplies to Israel if it does not immediately increase access to aid. “The air-drop reveals the stark absurdity of American policy,” says Matt Duss of the Centre for International Policy, a think-tank in Washington, who previously worked for Mr Sanders. “We’re air-dropping food to a population whose starvation we’re supporting with our arms, with our weapons.” Republicans, meanwhile, accuse Mr Biden of tying Israel’s hands.

As war grinds on in Gaza, the Biden administration has pressed Mr Netanyahu in the West Bank. America has imposed financial and travel sanctions on four Jewish settlers accused of violence against Palestinians there. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, has also declared settlements to be inconsistent with international law, reversing the policy of his Trump-era predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who said West Bank territories “are rightful parts of the Jewish homeland, and Israelis have a right to live there”.

Silencing the guns

Mr Biden’s main way out of the crisis is to work for a ceasefire and swap of detainees, ideally before Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that starts around March 10th. “The US is trying to hold things together for one more week. They have put all their eggs in the hostage-deal basket,” says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. “If they pull it off they will lead a surge in humanitarian aid, and hope the worst of the fighting is over.”

America says Israel has broadly agreed to the terms of a deal—said to include a six-week ceasefire and the exchange of some 40 hostages in exchange for probably hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. “The onus right now is on Hamas,” said a White House spokesman.

America hopes a pause will then lead to discussions of who will run Gaza the “day after” the war and a broader regional peace deal. This would include progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state; reform of the Palestinian Authority, which runs autonomous parcels of the West Bank; the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia; and various American security guarantees to make the deal possible.

Mr Netanyahu, though, adamantly opposes a Palestinian state. His proposal for the “day after” amounts to a permanent occupation of the Gaza Strip, with routine administration delegated to yet-to-be-identified Palestinian “professionals with managerial experience”.

For all his annoyance with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden has declined to use America’s leverage more directly,  in the manner of Ronald Reagan, who blocked the delivery of weapons to Israel in the 1980s or of the elder George Bush, who halted loan guarantees to Israel in the 1990s. The freelance diplomacy by Mr Gantz is a warning that Mr Biden may yet put his thumb on the scales of Israel’s unsteady politics. Mr Gantz, a former military chief of staff who heads the National Unity party and outstrips the unpopular Mr Netayahu in opinion polls, is no dove. After meeting Ms Harris, he emphasised “the imperative of completing the mission of removing the threat Hamas poses to Israel”. But he is regarded by the Biden administration as more tractable, and more trustworthy. Those who have met him say he is keen on a hostage deal.

Though opinion is shifting, especially among young Democrats, Americans are still largely sympathetic to Israel. Mr Biden is a self-declared Zionist. Thus far in the crisis he has lived by the dedication he wrote years ago on a picture he gave Mr Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love ya.”