What Biden Didn't Say

As I listened last night to President Biden's speech, I was grateful for his grasping the low-hanging fruit. He condemned antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hate more generally. He acknowledged that even as they fight enemies--i.e., Hamas and Russia--who deliberately target civilians, nations that aspire to democratic values--i.e., Israel and Ukraine--must abide by the laws of war. Those are important points, to be sure, and they should not go without saying. Even so, I was struck by what Biden did not say, either in his public address last night or, by all appearances, in his meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier in the week. I'll limit myself to three observations.

(1) Biden's speech was apparently a prelude to asking Congress for $100 billion to aid Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, as well as for US border security. If we had a functioning Congress, we might discuss whether bundling these requests together makes any of them or the package as a whole more likely to secure passage than if they were sent separately. But surely the President is aware that the House of Representatives is currently paralyzed thanks to Republicans' inability to agree on a Speaker and unwillingness (thus far) to choose a centrist with Democratic support. The closest Biden came to acknowledging such obstacles was when he said "we have to get past" "our divisions at home. We can’t let petty, partisan, angry politics get in the way of our responsibilities as a great nation." Well we certainly shouldn't. That doesn't mean we can't. Apparently we can.

(2) The explosion at the Al Alhi Arab Hospital in Gaza has increased tensions throughout the Middle East. When in Israel, Biden said that the "other team" was responsible for the explosion, an exceedingly indelicate way of endorsing the Israeli explanation that it was caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket. During last night's speech, Biden again said that the explosion was not the result of an Israeli missile. Apparently US intelligence reached that conclusion based on its own analysis, which is consistent with the publicly available evidence--especially the lack of an impact crater that an Israeli airstrike would have caused.

Although nothing Biden said on the matter would have had much of an impact on people determined to believe the enormous volume of misinformation circulating on Twitter/X and elsewhere, it might have been useful for him to take 30 seconds to explain the basis for the US intelligence conclusion--or at least point viewers to a website where the US intelligence community lays out that information. The US did that sort of thing in the runup to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and occasionally since, without substantially jeopardizing sources and methods. Biden's argument for supplying Israel and Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid is that they need it to fight psychopathic enemies who deliberately murder civilians; making clear that the intended recipients of the aid do not also deliberately murder civilians seems important to that case.

(3) That brings me to the heart of the matter. Let's stipulate that Israel did not cause the hospital explosion. However, Israel has already caused the deaths of thousands of Palestinians living in Gaza, most of them civilians.

Let's stipulate that all of the civilian casualties are lawful as the foreseeable and foreseen but regrettable collateral effect of airstrikes that targeted Hamas infrastructure and fighters, that these casualties could not have been further minimized because of the Hamas tactic of deliberately basing its operations among civilians, and that the civilian casualties are proportionate. To be clear, I have grave doubts about some of those propositions, at least with respect to the airstrikes Israel has conducted at sites in southern Gaza after warning Gazans to evacuate the north and head south.

Again, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Israel is acting within the law of war and will continue to do so in its ground offensive in Gaza. To restate a point that I made earlier this week, an action can be legal and also counter-productive and/or immoral. If the ground offensive will end up undermining (or even not advancing) Israel's security, then that will make the inevitable civilian casualties--and for that matter, the loss of life of combatants--pointless and thus immoral.

As Professor Buchanan elaborated earlier this week, there are a great many unanswered questions or patently inadequate answers to pretty obvious questions about the ground offensive. I'll address only the most clearly inadequate answer to the most important question: What is the ground offensive's goal? Answer: Netanyahu has said the goal is to "demolish Hamas."

Is that achievable? The short answer is no. Israel can very substantially degrade Hamas's infrastructure and (at great cost to Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians) kill a great many Hamas fighters. But it cannot wipe out Hamas's political leadership (most of whom are not in Gaza but in Qatar and Turkey). More fundamentally, Israel can no more demolish Hamas than the U.S. could win the "war against terror."

Hamas, like terrorism, is an idea, or rather a set of ideas: terrorism itself; Islamic fundamentalism; and extreme antisemitism (including conspiracy theories like that Jews try to turn women against Islam through Rotary Clubs). Make no mistake. Those are despicable ideas. But the question one must then ask is whether killing current Hamas fighters but also collaterally killing and wounding thousands of Palestinian civilians will weaken or strengthen the appeal of such ideas. Or as Donald Rumsfeld asked about "the global war on terror" in an internal memo in October 2003: "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?"

Rumsfeld worried that the U.S. lacked metrics to answer that question, but Israel has very good reason to worry that its war against Hamas, even if it goes well, will inspire the next generation of terrorists for a reconstituted Hamas, some "rebranded" but similar organization, existing allied organizations like Hezbollah, and/or hitherto peaceful Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel proper to take up arms. In the medium term, a successful but bloody victory over Hamas in Gaza coupled with stricter security measures at the Gaza border can greatly reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the October 7 massacres. It cannot create genuine security and very likely will undermine such security. Meanwhile, the greatly heightened risk of popular unrest throughout the Middle East will place in jeopardy the tentative gestures towards normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, the recent "Abraham accords," and perhaps even longstanding peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.

All of these very substantial risks make the comparison some Israeli leaders draw between Hamas and Nazis during World War II inapt. Yes, Nazism also was an idea, but defeating Hitler's war machine defeated all of the people who believed Nazi ideas and had the power to act on them. Unfortunately, Hamas has nothing like a monopoly on the deplorable ideas it espouses.

That brings me back to what Biden said or didn't say. In Israel and again last night, he reiterated American support for a two-state solution, which was a noble idea in the 1990s but has been rendered increasingly impractical by a combination of Palestinian rejectionism, Palestinian Authority corruption, and especially Israeli settlement building, especially under Netanyahu. It might still be the closest thing to a path forward, so it's better that Biden said something rather than nothing about it.

However, what Biden ought to have also said but apparently did not say to Netanyahu was something like this: Don't launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza. It's pretty clearly what Hamas wants to goad you into doing and it will be a disaster. I understand that you need to retaliate in some forceful way. You've already hit them hard with airstrikes. If you need to do something on the ground, get in and get out. I recognize that a limited short-term ground offensive won't rescue the hostages, but neither will an all-out ground offensive, which can and very probably will end extremely badly. I don't deny that you have a legal right to fight back against Hamas. I'm urging you to be smarter about how you go about doing so.

Perhaps Biden did say something like that in private. Perhaps the message was received. But that seems like wishful thinking at best.