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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Opinion | Biden’s Deep Miscalculation on Israel and Gaza - The New York Times

Biden’s Deep Miscalculation on Israel and Gaza

Nicholas Kristof asks: Where has our moral president gone?

Below is a lightly edited transcript of this episode. To listen to this episode, click the play button below.

Biden’s Deep Miscalculation on Israel and Gaza

Nicholas Kristof asks: Where has our moral president gone?

Sarah Wildman: Hello, I’m Sarah Wildman, staff writer and politics editor for New York Times Opinion. Today I’m in conversation with columnist Nicholas Kristof on Biden’s role in the war in Gaza. Nick has been writing about the conflict since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Most recently, he wrote a major column on what he sees as Biden’s complicity in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Essentially, Nick makes the case that the Israel-Hamas war is now Biden’s war. This conflict, he writes, will be a significant part of Biden’s legacy.

Nick, thank you so much for joining me today. I know it’s a little early on your side of the country.

Nicholas Kristof: Oh, my pleasure.

Sarah: Nick, how do you think Biden wanted to position himself during this administration?

Nick: He’s a veteran on foreign affairs. He cares deeply about foreign affairs. He’s got a great foreign policy team, and well, they bungled Afghanistan at the outset. But then I think they did a very impressive job rallying Europe around Ukraine.

And I think that he thought that Ukraine was going to be his war — that was going to be his chance to stand up for international norms. And I’m afraid that the war he will be remembered for may not be so much Ukraine as the Gaza war.

This notion that, you know, since World War II, we have tried to preserve some international norms that have restrained governments, that have tried to promote certain values — we don’t live up to the standards that we proclaim, but they have made some difference. And now, you know, I’m afraid that a lot of the world looks at this and they just laugh at us. They roll their eyes.

Sarah: I want to talk a little bit about Biden’s legacy prior to all of this, when it comes to humanitarian crises. Back in 1986, as a younger senator, he spoke out passionately against apartheid.

[Archival audio of Biden] Our loyalty is not to South Africa. It’s to South Africans. And the South Africans are majority Black, and they are being excoriated. It is not to some stupid puppet government over there. It is not to the Afrikaners’ regime. We have no loyalty to them. We have no loyalty to South Africa. To South Africans.

Sarah: You’ve been covering human rights and conflicts for decades. How have you seen Biden position himself in the past?

Nick: He’s been a good, moral voice on a lot of these issues, including for those in which Muslims were victims.

In Bosnia, he was an important advocate for addressing the genocide there. I worked with him in the Darfuri genocide in the early 2000s. Senator Biden then felt that President Bush wasn’t doing enough. And he was urging me to write, you know, tough columns calling on the White House to not just talk but to actually do more to address the suffering in Darfur.

So I think of the passion and urgency that Biden has used in the past to offer a moral voice, and I wonder, “Where has that Joe Biden gone?”

Sarah: You write that Biden came to Israel with enormous empathy for Israelis, following the horrific attacks of Oct. 7. But you also say that you think the empathy has been unequally applied to the conflict. Can you explain what you mean?

Nick: So I think that there is something of an empathy gap, and when I see President Biden talk about the Israeli suffering after Oct. 7, you can just see how authentic that is. He means it. I mean, he’s, he’s hurting. He feels that suffering. And when he speaks about Gazan suffering, you don’t sense that same deep pain, that same sense of walking in other people’s shoes. And I think that this empathy gap does make it easier to support policies that, you know, he recognizes causes a great deal of suffering, a great deal of individual loss, led more than a thousand kids in Gaza to now be amputees. But it historically has been easier for us to impose costs on people abroad — whether they were Vietnamese or Afghans or Iraqis — when we identify a little bit less with them.

And I wonder if that isn’t the case right here.

Sarah: From a humanitarian standpoint, how would you describe Biden’s approach when it comes to Israel and to Gaza?

Nick: I think President Biden is legitimately deeply distressed by the suffering in Gaza and starvation. And he has regularly called on Israel to dial back the bombing and to allow more aid into Gaza.

I think he recognizes this is not the way he would want to conduct that war, but he imposes no consequences when his guidance is ignored and when the bombings continue and when the starvation continues. And so if you continue to provide the material, if you continue to provide the support, if you continue to provide the diplomatic protection, then it’s a little hard to then complain when 12,000 kids are killed, when kids do starve to death.

President Biden has talked a lot about how Israel should let in more food into Gaza, and he got to the point of organizing airdrops to drop food in. But back in December, he actually had a chance to do something, and the U.N. Security Council was organizing a structure that would provide a U.N. mechanism to inspect food going into Gaza to get around the Israeli system that has been a real block for food getting in. And the White House blocked that effort. They essentially watered it down to nothing. So the Israeli inspections are still the structure that is in place and that still are impeding food getting in.

Sarah: You say you think that there has been a miscalculation on the part of the administration, and Biden particularly, at how this war would play out. How was it miscalculated?

Nick: So I think that the Biden administration didn’t appreciate how harsh Israeli bombings would be. I don’t think they appreciated how much Israel would try to block humanitarian aid into Gaza, and this caused starvation. And I don’t think they appreciated how much their own advice would be ignored regularly.

I think that President Biden had a little more confidence that he would be able to nudge Benjamin Netanyahu in the direction of more restraint, and that did not happen.

Sarah: It’s interesting you say that you think he thought he would be able to nudge him. Can you walk me through the difference between his support for Israel and his support for Netanyahu?

Nick: I mean, Biden, forever, he’s been a very strong supporter of Israel.

I think that’s partly his generation growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and remembering Israel as a deeply fragile state, surrounded by enemies who periodically tried to destroy it. And many Democrats have been at odds with Netanyahu, who they see as fundamentally working with Republicans to try to undermine President Obama, for example, when Biden was vice president.

And Americans have always found, have always found Netanyahu to be a really difficult person. Knowing all this, somehow Biden seemed to think that he could put his arm around Netanyahu and manage him.

And instead, looking back, it seems pretty clear that it was Netanyahu who managed Biden.

Sarah: What has Biden’s strategy been with Netanyahu, in particular?

Nick: Biden recognizes what a mess he’s gotten himself into in both geopolitical terms and in humanitarian terms. His strategy has been a kind of Hail Mary pass that would involve a three-way deal with Saudi Arabia, with Israel and the U.S., in which Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel, which is something Israel would very much like. The U.S. would provide benefits to Saudi Arabia, and then Israel would agree to a two-state solution. And then there would be some kind of a cease-fire in which this would all be hammered out. And then the war wouldn’t actually resume, and then there would be work on getting some kind of Palestinian state created and end the fighting and have some kind of an international effort to rebuild Gaza.

It sounds great. It would be an incredible achievement if you were to pull it off. It seems not terribly likely to me right now, and there isn’t really a Plan B.

Sarah: One of the things you noted about the miscalculation in the piece is that you say they miscalculated the impact of Oct. 7 on Israeli society. And one thing we haven’t mentioned is that there are still hostages being held, and that has been, obviously, a driving force for much of Israeli society. How does that play into Biden’s understanding of the moment and his concern?

Nick: So that has been a real constraint, I think. And look, Israeli society was just shattered by Oct. 7, deeply, deeply traumatized. That moved Israeli public opinion and made people very suspicious that a Palestinian state would ever be feasible.

It led to a strong desire to try to completely eradicate Hamas and accept civilian losses if that was part of that path.

Sarah: So where do we go from here? Does the administration have diplomatic room to maneuver?

Nick: I think that right now Biden is on a cul-de-sac. I don’t think that the path he’s on right now is going to take him to a better place. And in fact, there are a lot of risks that things could get worse. We could have a wider war involving Iran, involving Hezbollah. We could also have famine break out in Gaza. And it’s also just hard to see how this ends, because even if Israel dials back the bombing, then what authority is there going to be in Gaza that can actually provide health care, can distribute food, can establish order?

So I’m afraid we’re not on a very good path, and I think that the answer has to be to try to create consequences when Israel doesn’t listen to Biden, and the obvious consequence is to withhold offensive arms.

I think that would get the attention of the Israel Defense Forces very quickly. It was notable that when Biden finally raised the possibility of using his leverage and had a tough conversation with Netanyahu and warned about those consequences, then almost immediately Israel did allow more aid in, and I just wish that he had had that conversation months and months earlier.

Sarah: Do you think it’s politically practical for him domestically to condition aid? Where would that position him on the domestic front, given the election?

Nick: I mean, it’s difficult for Biden because the Democratic Party has many people who are outraged by what Israel is doing in Gaza, but it also has many people who were deep, strong supporters of Israel and would be appalled by a suspension of offensive arms.

But public opinion has moved very quickly, and at this point, a majority — not just the Democrats — but a majority of Americans, as a whole, disapprove of Israeli actions in Gaza. And so I think that would be the smarter move.

Sarah: What do you think Biden must do right now, most urgently?

Nick: So I think he needs to suspend the transfer of offensive arms to Israel, pending food actually being delivered to Gaza to end this starvation, and some indication of dialing back the more reckless side of the bombing in Gaza and then push immediately for some kind of a cease-fire and hostage release and, likewise, then try to use that for some kind of an arrangement for a Palestinian state.

Sarah: Before I let you go, we’ve talked about possible practical political moves the administration might make, but really your piece is about morality and legacy. And I wonder if you can bring us back to that for a moment. What is the takeaway you have about this moment for Biden now on that issue?

Nick: I think of the compassion that Joe Biden has shown at various points for people who are suffering around the world and his sense of moral obligation to address that suffering. And then I try to juxtapose that with what is happening in Israel and Gaza, and I admire the compassion that he showed for victims of Oct. 7 and the moral clarity he showed after Oct. 7, when it was necessary to call this out as barbaric and intolerable. But if you only care about human rights for one side in a conflict, then you don’t actually care about human rights. And if you regard the deaths of children on one side of a conflict as a tragedy, as unacceptable, but deaths of children on the other side of the conflict as regrettable, then there is something profoundly wrong not just with your geopolitics but with your moral compass.

And I fear that is the direction we have strayed in, at the end of the day. We forget there’s the basic principle that all lives have equal value, and that has to be our sense of where we go forward, and it’s very hard to integrate that principle in military conflict and geopolitics, but we can do a lot better at integrating it than we have done.

Sarah: Nick, thank you so much. This is a tough conversation, but I really appreciate your time.

Nick: Thank you, Sarah.

A reproduction in blue on a cream background of a photo of the back of Joe Biden’s head.
Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

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This episode of “The Opinions” was produced by Vishakha Darbha. It was edited by Kaari Pitkin and Annie-Rose Strasser. Engineering by Efim Shapiro, with mixing by Pat McCusker. Original music by Carole Sabouraud. Fact-checking by Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta."

Opinion | Biden’s Deep Miscalculation on Israel and Gaza - The New York Times

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