Only Biden Can Stop the War

25 February 2024

Only Biden Can Stop the War

By Gwynne Dyer

More than four months into the sixth Arab-Israeli War, with about 1,500 Israeli dead and 30,000 Palestinian dead, all the major local actors are stuck. Only the United States can stop the killing – if it chooses to do so.

The one thing almost everybody agrees on is that Hamas must lose. It is a radical Islamist group that seeks the destruction not only of Israel but also of all the existing Arab regimes. In the entire Arab world only tiny, distant Qatar supports it.

The existing Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan, which both border on Israel, fear and loathe Hamas but know that the Islamists have much support among their own populations. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. None of them will take the responsibility for negotiating a ceasefire with Israel.

Hamas won’t do so either, because the slaughter of Palestinians helps its cause. That was why it killed all those Israelis in a particularly cruel way in the raid last October. It’s a standard ‘terrorist’ strategy: Hamas knew that a massive Israeli over-reaction killing tens of thousands of Palestinians would win it more supporters all across the Arab world.

The political benefits of the ongoing carnage wrought by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the Gaza Strip continue to flow to the Islamist cause, so Hamas’s leaders have no desire for a long ceasefire. A short one to catch their breath, maybe – they have lost many thousands of casualties – but they are on a roll. Why stop now?

Israel is deeply divided. Many Israelis want to stop the war and free the hundred remaining Israeli hostages, but just as many want the war to continue until Hamas is ‘destroyed’(a near-impossibility). And fifteen to twenty per cent of Israelis on the nationalist and religious extreme right just want to expel all the Palestinians.

That minority have a hugely disproportionate effect on Israeli policy because they are an essential element in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. Their openly declared goal is to create an ethnically cleansed all-Jewish Israel.

Purging the five million Palestinians who live under Israeli military control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and maybe even the two million Palestinians who are actual Israeli citizens, would require a much bigger and bloodier war. They foolishly believe that events in Gaza are creating an opportunity to fight and win such a war.

They are out of their minds. The glory days of easy, assured Israeli military victories are past. The last time Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon it ended in a draw, and the present war in the Gaza Strip is also likely to end in a draw.

However, the leading crazies in Netanyahu’s coalition, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, remain in power because without them the coalition would collapse. Netanhahu would then be back in court and probably facing jail time for corruption, so he does what they want.

That leaves only the United States free to seek a ceasefire, and President Joe Biden urgently needs one. His current policy is shredding America’s already damaged status as a force for order in the world. He is also alienating the youth vote at home that he will have to depend on in the November election.

He does have the necessary tools to make Israel stop. Sanctioning Israel has always seemed unthinkable in Washington because it would mean the US government bringing down the Israeli government, but the time may be coming when saving Israel from itself is the least bad alternative.

Biden’s executive order a month ago imposing financial sanctions on four extremist Israeli settlers creates a precedent for sanctions up to and including the defunding of the entire illegal settlement enterprise. (Trump’s administration declared the settlements legal, but Biden has just reinstated the long-standing US judgement that they are illegal.)

Bezalel Smotrich dismissed it as meaningless: “It is not possible for an Israeli citizen with Israeli money in an Israeli bank to be deprived of rights and assets due to an American order.” Within a day, however, one of the settlers had all his personal and business accounts frozen by Israel’s Bank Leumi, and a state-owned bank promptly followed suit.

Soon the other settlers were entangled in the sanctions as well: it was a small demonstration of what US sanctions could do. The settler economy is inextricably connected with the general Israeli economy, and extensive sanctions could paralyse practically everything.

If the United States cut off military aid to Israel or applied serious economic sanctions, Netanyahu’s government would collapse almost instantly. Sanctioning Israel goes against all Biden’s political and personal instincts, but the events and people around him are now pushing him towards that action.