WASHINGTON – US President Joe Biden spent the weekend on the receiving end of fresh fury from human rights campaigners, following America’s veto on Friday of a United Nations Security Council draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
Human Rights Watch accused the Biden administration of being “complicit in war crimes”. Agnès Callamard, secretary seneral of Amnesty International, said the White House position was “morally indefensible” and “a dereliction of the US duty to prevent atrocity crimes”.
Médecins Sans Frontières asserted that the Biden White House “stands alone in casting its vote against humanity”. But even at the very moment that those reactions were blasting him, Biden was taking steps to send even more military assistance to Israel.
On Saturday, officials disclosed that Biden had circumvented Congress by approving the supply of $106m of ammunitions for the Israel Defence Forces, Secretary of State Antony Blinken having deemed that “an emergency exists that requires the immediate sale”.
Biden surely knows that the clock is ticking on his ability to support Netanyahu’s forces, absent fresh backing in Congress. While a handful of avenues exist for him to take unilateral action, opposition to his position is mounting.
The latest CNN poll published on Wednesday showed the President’s approval rating has slumped to a record low of 37 per cent. A separate survey indicated that 61 per cent of likely voters want the White House to support calls for a permanent ceasefire and de-escalation of the violence in Gaza.
Biden’s biggest problem is on Capitol Hill. Gridlock remains the order of the day, with Senate Republicans last week blocking fresh efforts to provide funding for both Israel and Ukraine.
Everything in Washington now relates in some way to America’s 2024 election. Republicans sense they are on to a winner by accusing Biden of being too concerned by events on other countries’ borders, and insufficiently interested in the record number of immigrants flooding across America’s southern border with Mexico.
Republicans indicated last week that they won’t support efforts by the White House to secure an additional $106bn in support for Tel Aviv and Kyiv, unless Biden agrees to “transformative” changes in US border policy.
The White House is engaging in a carrot-and-stick approach. Biden called his opponents’ position “stunning”, and said “Republicans in Congress are willing to give Putin the greatest gift he could hope for”. But he also indicated he’s willing to engage in discussions about border security, if that’s what it takes to pull the funding package across the finishing line.
On Gaza particularly, there are no good options for America’s President. If he continues supporting Israel’s military assault, he will hemorrhage further support among Arab-Americans. That puts battleground states like Michigan – with its large Arab-American population – at risk in next November’s election.
But if Biden pivots and backs a ceasefire, he risks losing the support of those Jewish Americans who want to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu free rein to continue taking military reprisals over the Hamas attacks of 7 October. That could put Biden’s position in swing states like New York and Florida in jeopardy.
Having previously asserted that “a ceasefire will only help Hamas”, reporters would also assail him with questions about the U-turn.
Biden faces the possibility of being hoist by his own petard over Gaza. US law requires him to halt weapons transfers when they are “more likely than not” to be used in violation of international law.
Yet the Washington Post reports that American officials are not carrying out any real-time assessments of whether Israel – as its critics maintain – is breaching the laws of war.
Members of Congress may also wonder why Biden has assessed that weapons can continue to be supplied to the Israelis, at a time when his own staff seems worried about the nature of the conflict in which the munitions will be used.
Before long, Congressional committees may choose to investigate the US government’s decisions, protracting Biden’s political agony over a Middle East conflict that could not have come at a worse time for him. In several private fund-raising events last week, Biden sidestepped the issue of Gaza, choosing instead to focus his fire on former president Donald Trump, his likely rival next November.
Biden called Trump “despicable”, and said he is “threatening to use the American military on the streets of America to go after his political opponents”. He urged voters to “stand up again and make our voices heard”, at a time when polls indicate many of those same voters are instead voicing their opposition to the President’s position in the Middle East.