Bibi’s Problem Is Now Biden’s Problem

With Bibi Netanyahu acting in ways that manage to annoy everyone in his immediate and remote entourage, his most enthusiastic supporter, US President Joe Biden, echoes Mick Jagger: He can’t get no satisfaction. Israel’s prime minister’s political future requires extending the war, and Biden’s depends on finding some kind of resolution before November. In the meantime, the entire world is suspended in a state of geopolitical uncertainty.
Gaza Strip

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes near the border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 12 2023. © Anas-Mohammed / shutterstock.com

May 29, 2024 06:07 EDT

In a highly instructive article teasing out the multiple threads of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current political quandary, former diplomat and Fair Observer board member Gary Grappo describes the growing pressure that directly threatens Bibi’s hold on power. Not only are members of his own team on the cusp of revolt, but even the faltering senior citizen now occupying the White House, known for his patient indulgence in the face of Israel’s most egregious excesses, now appears to be chafing at the bit over Bibi’s failure to reign in his ministers’ enthusiasm for genocidal acts carried out in the name of self-defense.

US President Joe Biden has never ceased aligning the adjectives that proclaim his nation’s unwavering, unbreakable, unreserved, iron-clad support for Israel. Earlier this month, however, he wavered ever so slightly — and only briefly —  when he chose to interrupt his regular delivery of the 2,000-pound bombs Israel needs in its quest to establish Greater Israel as a unified ethno-supremacist Jewish state.

In the meantime, the International Criminal Court prosecutor has requested an arrest warrant for Netanyahu as a war criminal. The International Court of Justice followed suit days later when it ordered Israel to halt its military operations on the town of Rafah which the IDF had previously designated as the last safe zone from Israeli bombing.

Grappo reveals the prevailing change of tone in Washington today. “Biden is fed up with Bibi’s resistance to addressing the Gaza humanitarian crisis satisfactorily (though matters have improved since early April), with his insistence on an all-out assault on Rafah, where refugees are still holed up, and with his refusal to articulate an effective plan for governance and security in Gaza after the war.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


To an extent that pleases someone in a position in power, who imposes standards of levels of acceptability even on concepts such as genocide.

Contextual note

The parenthetical remark “though matters have improved since early April” helps us to understand what the adverb “satisfactorily” means in this context. The usual version of political ethics in Washington appeals to a binary distinction between what is lawful or unlawful, good or evil. The qualifier “satisfactory” suggest the possibility of a gradation of nuance added to the usual Manichean moral framework. There may be a “more satisfactory” way of committing genocide.

This method of introducing a third term to soften the sharp edge of binary logic is not new. When I was in school in California in the 1960s, our teachers applied a ternary system to assess our behavior and work habits. The three terms were: E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory) and U (Unsatisfactory). Students capable of a minimum of self-control, some luck in having a captivating teacher worth listening to and a modicum of carefully managed flattery could earn an “E.” It wasn’t essential to strive for it, but it felt good when you got it. Most of us were reasonably happy with an S since either an E or an S put you on the right side of the law, shielding you from opprobrium. U alone branded you as a misfit.

Israel’s behavior before April was so bad that most reasonable people other than fanatical Zionists would have given it a U. As a nation, it had clearly become a misfit. The world’s international courts, NGOs specialized in human rights and quite a lot of neutral observers concurred. The UN’s International Court of Justice solemnly declared genocide a “plausible” description of Israel’s conduct of the war, another way of saying it was “unsatisfactory.”

Grappo’s term “satisfactorily” correctly helps us to understand the moral system shared by a tiny group of people in an enclave called “the Beltway,” known for its flexible ethics The starting point for Beltway reasoning is, of course, the distinction between good and evil. Things that favor peace, stability and US economic interests are good. Things that tend towards conflict, instability or that challenge the US idea of “freedom” are evil. When Russia unlawfully invaded Ukraine it immediately proved itself guilty of irrevocably unsatisfactory behavior. No need to explore why Putin may have had such an outlandish idea.

Manichean systems make life and moral judgment easy. Especially if you tend to think of everyone as a potential enemy. France, for example, earned a U in 2003 when it refused to join the Bush administration’s ethically motivated invasion of Iraq. A traditional, nearly “iron-clad” ally instantly became an adversary through its display of “unsatisfactory” behavior. That’s when French fries, in the White House cantine, were canceled and rebranded “freedom fries.”

For some reason, Washington’s relationship with Israel belongs to another ethical dimension. If friends like France can instantly become adversaries, there is also at least one friend that can never become an adversary, however outrageous its behavior. “Outrageous,” by the way, is the adjective Joe Biden chose to qualify the International Criminal Court’s decision to call Bibi’s behavior unsatisfactory!

Historical note

The current conflicts that dominate the headlines, despite the horrors they have produced, have the merit of raising the public’s awareness of an interesting historical trend. In our current conception of democracy, we have traditionally assumed that, because elected officials are deemed to be “representative,” the policies enacted by our governments correlate with the popular will. Most people aligned with the idea that the government was doing its best to respond to the wants and needs of its people. That belief has radically eroded in recent years.

Today’s pro-Palestinian protest movements on college campuses in the US are one obvious indication of that disconnect. But that is an isolated issue that reveals a lot but remains exceptional. At a deeper level, thanks to a 2014 Princeton study of how democratic politics works in the US, we can understand that US democracy has, in its depth, become a de facto oligarchy. The study demonstrated that the policies legislated, enacted and enforced by elected officials in their grand majority reflect the wishes of a wealthy, corporate elite, often in direct opposition to what used to be called “the will of the people.”

Back in 2014, the publication of the study had little impact. Mainstream media paid no attention to it. In times of peace, people tend to prefer to ignore the kind of bad news that requires reflection and the effort of remedying “unsatisfactory” behavior. In times of conflict, however, especially when serious moral questions are raised, the public’s awareness of what’s going on in the depths grows and can even become acute.

Everything that is happening in the world points in the direction of rethinking old relationships. It also implies calling into question the supposed majoritarian orientation of democratic societies. Fragmentation has become the new norm. This year’s presidential election in the US may end up electing Biden the Democrat or Trump the Republican, but the presence and attraction of third parties will have a major effect on the result. And neither Biden nor Trump truly represents a unified party that can pretend to represent a majority of the American people. Both major parties are irrevocably fractured. Traditionally, either a strong leader or a strong ideology — and ideally both — could unify a party. Nothing and no one appears to be capable of taking on that task.

Grappo tells us that “the majority of Israelis … want to see their leadership work more cooperatively with Washington and Israel’s moderate neighbors to confront the true existential threat to the Jewish state, Iran.” This vague formulation may contain some truth, but, even in this traumatized nation that wants in its vast majority to achieve security by eliminating Hamas, this is a particularly difficult time to get any clear idea of what an identifiable majority of Israelis want. Yes, security is the absolute priority. But I doubt that any pollster could find a consensus on the practical means of achieving that.

The EU parliamentary elections, only days away, are likely to demonstrate a similar trend in Europe’s democracies. While governments struggle to find satisfactory responses to questions of war and failing economies, their electors increasingly judge their governments’ conduct unsatisfactory.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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