Biden’s debate flop raises more questions about his often perplexing Gaza policy

US statements and actions haven't always lined up, and high-profile efforts have fallen flat; flagging pro-Israel president is likely to face renewed pressure from staff

US President Joe Biden adjusts his sunglasses as he arrives on Air Force One at Boston-Logan International Airport, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in East Boston, Mass. (AP/Alex Brandon)

During his State of the Union address in March, US President Joe Biden announced an ambitious American initiative to get more aid into the Gaza Strip – a $230 million floating pier off the coast of the war-torn territory.

With more than 32 million Americans watching, Biden explained that the Joint Logistics Over The Shore pier “would enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day.”

It didn’t.

Barely a week into the operation, four US Army boats broke free from their moorings and floated off. One washed up on an Ashdod beach.

To make matters worse, the ship sent to extract the stuck vessel also found itself beached as bemused beachgoers looked on.

Three days later, the Pentagon announced that the causeway had broken off in heavy seas, and the whole pier would have to be floated to Ashdod for repairs.

Israelis stand near a US Army vessel that washed up on an Ashdod beach, May 25, 2024. (Liron Moldovan/Flash90)

It took until June 7 to reopen the pier, but 10 days later, it was again floated to Ashdod because of sea conditions. The JLOTS pier was returned to Gaza, but was again removed on June 29.

The whole project could be shut down this month, well ahead of schedule.

Even when it has been functional – which has been the exception, not the rule – much of the aid delivered from the pier is piling up on the shore anyway, after Palestinians stopped picking it up over accusations the IDF used the pier area to extract four hostages and the commandos who rescued them.

Palestinians rush trucks as they transport international humanitarian aid from the US-built Trident Pier near Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip on May 18, 2024 (AFP)

The project – announced during the president’s premier address and involving 1,000 US troops – was a public failure for the US. It did not address the problem for which it was designed, was possibly counterproductive, and was entirely inappropriate for local, predictable conditions.

Was that an isolated fiasco, the product of bum luck and an admirable willingness to take risks to urgently get more aid to civilians? Or does the episode serve as an apt metaphor for the Biden administration’s policies throughout the Israeli war on Hamas – overly ambitious, ineffective and out of touch with the realities on the ground?

US interests

Since the Hamas invasion and slaughter in southern Israel on October 7, US goals have not entirely aligned with those of Israel.

“There’s an interest in the security of Israel,” said Daniel Byman, senior fellow at CSIS and professor at Georgetown University. “But the US has defined that differently than the Israeli government.”

Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah, in a handout photo published June 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Americans have focused more on Israel’s international standing and what Gaza looks like years down the road, arguing that continued military action doesn’t necessarily make Israel more secure in the long term.

“In the absence of a plan for the day after, there won’t be a day after,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May, warning that continued Israeli refusal to advance a viable plan for the post-war management of Gaza will lead to a never-ending war in the enclave.

He has also argued repeatedly that “genuine security” for Israel depends on a pathway toward a Palestinian state.

Daniel Byman (Courtesy Georgetown University)

The Biden White House has pressing regional concerns, which would all be served by a rapid conclusion of the war in Gaza. It wants to protect shipping in the Red Sea, which has been badly disrupted by Houthi attacks from Yemen. Washington is eager to find a way to end the escalating Israel-Hezbollah cross-border conflict, one that has the potential to spiral into a regional conflict with Iran that the US is determined to prevent.

Ending the fight in Gaza would also allow the Biden administration to make a concerted push to realize its grand vision for the Middle East — a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a US-Saudi defense pact.

And, of course, there is the issue of Biden’s own political survival. Even before his disastrous debate performance last week, the president was trailing challenger Donald Trump consistently in swing states. Biden needs every vote he can muster, and he has been trying to dull the anger of progressives and Arab-Americans over his support for Israel.

Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate during the University of Michigan’s Spring 2024 Commencement Ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday, May 4, 2024. ( Jacob Hamilton/Ann Arbor News via AP)

Some, like Byman, see Biden’s handling of those competing interests as reasonable.

“Iran is trying to keep its role and that of its allies real but limited,” he said. “I think part of that is due to the US, the threats of US retaliation.”

Byman continued: “The perception of most US security figures is that Israel has tipped the balance — from hitting Hamas hard, to making marginal gains without much to show for it — in ways that are hurting Israel in their international opinion, and in particular, making it hard to have any longer-term solution.”

Red lines, for Israel

Even if there have been some US policy successes around the war – not to mention apt warnings about humanitarian aid and actively preparing for a post-Hamas Gaza – there are pressing questions about the effectiveness and even the coherence of US policy since October 7.

US President Joe Biden, center, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Vice President Kamala Harris, left, speaking October 10, 2023, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, about the war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas after its shock onslaught on Saturday. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Three days after the attack, Biden famously warned Iran and its proxies that if they were considering “taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t.  Don’t.”

They did.

Hezbollah has been firing at Israel since October 8, and more than 60,000 Israelis have been internally displaced as a result. Iran launched a massive drone and missile attack on Israel in April. The Houthis in Yemen and Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq have also launched strikes at Israel.

A fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as forces loyal to the Houthi rebels in Yemen participate in a military parade on the occasion of the 34th National Day to commemorate Yemeni unity, in Sanaa, on May 22, 2024. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP)

None seem too concerned about any potential retaliation from the US.

The Biden administration has attacked the Houthis directly at the head of an international naval coalition. But Operation Prosperity Guardian has been ineffective. Houthi attacks have become more destructive and lethal as the months go by, and ships continue to avoid the Red Sea, driving up costs and disrupting global supply chains.

Biden has also thrown significant diplomatic and intelligence muscle behind efforts to reach a ceasefire-for-hostages deal between Israel and Hamas.

While trying to shepherd through an agreement, he simultaneously issued a more forceful “Don’t” to Israel – trying to prevent it from carrying out a major ground operation in Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold and presumed hiding place of Hamas’s senior leaders and many hostages.

Troops of the Nahal Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah, in a handout image published May 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Biden told MSNBC in March that the planned offensive would be a “red line.” In May, he said publicly that his administration would not support Israel or provide it with offensive weapons if it launched the operation.

One of the reasons for the American opposition was its belief that it would take up to four months to evacuate the over 1 million civilians from Rafah. Israeli officials found that claim preposterous, arguing it would take only a quarter of the time.

The US claim was even further off than that. Within two weeks, Israel managed to get almost a million civilians to evacuate.

But Biden’s public attempts to head off the invasion exacted a price, even though Israel eventually moved ahead with the operation.

Zahiro Mor, nephew of Israeli hostage Avraham Munder arrives for a police investigation in Tel Aviv, May 1, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

American threats against Israel undermined the one lever Israel had left to push Hamas toward a hostage deal — an aggressive operation in Rafah.

In messages to Arab leaders, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar argued that time is on his side. He can hold out, and international pressure on Israel will continue to grow.

An anti-Israel protester carries a portrait of Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, at a rally at Hunter College in New York City, on June 23, 2024. (X screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“We have the Israelis right where we want them,” Sinwar told other Hamas leaders recently, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Until this week, Hamas has rejected any deal that does not guarantee a permanent end to the war and its own survival. It has now shown new flexibility but has not indicated it would give up on its demands.

“The message coming out of Washington was that Israel was killing too many Palestinians, ‘dehumanizing the Palestinians’, basically causing starvation,” said former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren. “That was the message, over and over, and that convinced [Hamas] that the United States was going to hold Israel back. That helped convince Sinwar that time was working on his side.”

With his pressure on Israel, Biden has made it harder to end the war, and thus far less likely to achieve the other US goals in the region – avoid regional conflict, protect shipping routes and midwife Israel-Saudi peace.

Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, not pictured, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)

Biden’s aims “should add up to supporting Israel to finish the war quickly and move to the ‘day after,’” argued Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, “which would minimize Gazans’ suffering, eliminate Hamas and send a message to the rest of Iran’s axis.”

“But instead you’ve got dead-end ceasefire talks, US pressure on Israeli operations, a pier that delivers almost no aid, and no progress on a post-Hamas future for Gaza,” said Ruhe.

“The United States has helped create precisely the situation that it wanted to avoid,” charged Oren.

It should be noted that the language coming out of Washington has shifted markedly in recent weeks, with officials directly blaming Hamas for the lack of progress in talks and making an effort to downplay disagreements with Netanyahu.

The United States has helped create precisely the situation that it wanted to avoid.

On Wednesday, Hamas sent an answer to Israel indicating it had backed off demands that were non-starters for Israel. Netanyahu decided the next day to send a team to resume indirect negotiations with Hamas.

A worrying shift

While American ends and means have fallen out of step, the situation was different in the early weeks of the war. The administration, led by Biden, was firmly behind Israel, but over time, its positions have shifted.

USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier refuels from the underway replenishment oiler USNS Laramie in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, October 11, 2023. (US Navy photo via AP)

“What we see fundamentally is that the trend is ever more consistently anti-Israel,” argued Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Biden initially warned Hamas that if it “diverts or steals” humanitarian aid, “it will stop the international community from being able to provide this aid.”

But Hamas did just that, and Biden issued a series of escalating public threats to Israel, telling Netanyahu that US policy on Gaza would be determined by whether or not Israel implemented “a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps” around humanitarian aid.

A UN school housing displaced Palestinians in the central Gaza Strip, on June 6, 2024. (Bashar Taleb/AFP)

A similar shift happened around casualty counts coming from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. In October, Biden said that he has “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”

By his State of the Union, Biden was treating Hamas figures as gospel. “More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed,” he said, reading from a script that had passed through careful scrutiny by senior aides.

Ahead of the Rafah operation, the Biden administration reduced and even withheld weapons shipments after pledging in October that “we are going to make sure you have what you need to protect your people, to defend your nation.”

It also shocked Israel by withholding its veto on a March United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip without directly conditioning it on a hostage release.

Whose policy?

A common explanation for the trend is Biden’s desire to retain left-wing support ahead of the November elections against the despised Donald Trump.

Former US president Donald Trump (L) debates President Joe Biden (R) ahead of the 2024 US presidential election, June 27, 2024. (Screenshot via YouTube)

But after last Thursday’s debate, in which Biden was at times incoherent, and visibly sluggish throughout,  a more worrying question must be asked: Who has been running US policy on Israel since October?

From the outset, many of Biden’s staffers have tried to pressure their boss to move away from his support for Israel.

In this image provided by the White House, President Joe Biden, along with members of his national security team, receive an update on an ongoing airborne attack on Israel from Iran, as they meet in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP)

Barely a month after the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust — and circulated weeks earlier – over 400 administration staffers signed an open letter calling on the president to demand a ceasefire.

Around the same time, some 1,000 officials in the US Agency for International Development signed a separate open letter urging Biden to call for an immediate ceasefire.

In January, 17 reelection campaign staffers signed a letter accusing Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Younger members of the administration know that Biden likes Israel but not Netanyahu, and have tried to take advantage to move the dial away from Israel.

File: US President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, on October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/Evan Vucci)

That pressure, combined with the stances of more senior aides who simply want to win in November, would be a lot for even the most energetic commander-in-chief to withstand.

But Biden clearly isn’t that person anymore. According to The New York Times, during the president’s debate prep at Camp David, Biden’s day never started before 11:00 a.m., and he took a nap every afternoon.

In the months before the debate, said the NYT, “several current and former officials and others who encountered him behind closed doors noticed that he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations.”

“Biden tells Democratic governors he needs more sleep and plans to stop scheduling events after 8 p.m.,” read the top CNN headline on Thursday.

Pletka was more direct: “Biden doesn’t run his own government and the anti-Israel people are in charge.”

That the president flubbed even his rehearsed answers after a week of intense preparation doesn’t indicate he currently has the capacity to consistently impose his desires on a restive staff around a fraught issue like Israel’s war in Gaza.

And with Biden’s political future in serious doubt, US policy could go in a number of directions. If Biden does decide to drop out of the race and remain in office, he could well revert to his core affinity for Israel to leave a legacy as one of the Jewish state’s great defenders — staffers be damned.

US President Joe Biden speaks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2024. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

On the other hand, if his aides handle him even more closely, and limit his work schedule, the elements in the White House which want to punish Netanyahu and shut down the war in Gaza as an end in itself will have a freer reign.

And if Biden drops out entirely, stepping down as president in the coming days or weeks, as more and more Democrats want, it is entirely unclear who the presidential nominee would be, and what direction they would take the party on Israel.

One thing is clear: For the coming months, Biden will be perceived in the region as weak, and his White House as far more concerned with domestic political challenges than Middle East conflicts. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and company could see this as a half-year opportunity that won’t be available if the pugnacious and unpredictable Trump returns to Pennsylvania Avenue.

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