Biden’s Holier-than-Thou Mission to the Holy Land

War tourism for political leaders has become literally a booming industry. But is US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East just a “bombsite-seeing tour” or does he intend to use his 80 year-old political muscle to contribute to solving a 75 year-old problem?

View to Jerusalem old city. Israel © SJ Travel Photo and Video / shutterstock.com

October 18, 2023 03:16 EDT

On Monday Al Jazeera reported that  “President Joe Biden is considering a trip to Israel in the coming days.” On Tuesday the White House confirmed the imminent visit to the Holy Land “at a critical moment for Israel, for the region and for the world.” His arrival was preceded by the explosion of a hospital in Gaza City. The world is left wondering what he believes he can accomplish.

After promising “unwavering support” for Israel, Biden ordered two aircraft battle groups into the war zone, in a symbolic show of support of Israel’s increasingly brutal retaliation against what he termed “pure, unadulterated evil.” With the increasing devastation of the past few days the risk of an expanded war is very real. 

The world is witnessing yet another case of a war that US leadership could, through its influence, have prevented. Instead, according to a now well-established pattern, the aim is to leave the conditions of conflict in place and attempt to contain it when tensions boil over. It’s a recipe for the forever wars that have now become a habit.

Washington may now be counting on Biden’s natural authority, subtle diplomatic savvy, refined rhetorical skills and mature reasoning to rein in the dangerously exaggerated emotions of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They may, at least officially, entertain the hope that Bibi will gratefully align with the wise policy of the “leader of the free world.” The world knows that’s an idle hope.

The symbolism of this trip is undeniable. Biden is committed to defending democrats against the world’s dangerous autocrats. Biden would like to cast Netanyahu as a sterling example of a democratic leader. But for most objective observers, the increasingly obvious fact that Israel has evolved into an apartheid state throws significant shadow on the oft-repeated claim that Israel is “the lone democracy of the Middle East.”

On Monday, Al Jazeera pointed out that Biden’s proposed trip has emerged “amid growing fears that a looming Israeli move into Gaza could spark a wider war with devastating humanitarian consequences” and that “Biden’s presence could be seen as a provocative move by Iran.” 

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Provocative move:

One of the principal tools in the current US diplomatic toolbox that complements and has begun to surpass economic sanctions as the means of calling all the nations of the world to an order defined and managed by the United States.

Contextual note

The indispensable nation, always intent upon enforcing its touted “rules-based international order,” has clearly mastered the subtle art of managing its carefully crafted “provocative moves” which should never be confused with provocations.

A provocative move is one specifically designed to fall short of being characterized as a provocation. Take the example of NATO’s expansion that preceded last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. A series of US administrations since 2008 insisted on Ukraine’s membership in NATO. But the process was complex and the idea of Ukrainian members appeared as a complex political challenge, not an act of provocation. US insistence, against the wishes of prominent NATO countries such as France and Germany, could be cited as simply an attempt to test the waters. That defines it as a “provocative move” without appearing to be a provocation.

Provocative moves are advantageous in another way. The US government knows it can count on the media to call any unwanted aggressive reaction “unprovoked.” To this day, the media continue to tell us that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked,” despite the fact that NATO chief Jan Stoltenberg recently admitted that Putin promised not to invade Ukraine if NATO agreed not to include Ukraine. Acknowledging Putin’s stated conditions, Stoltenberg proudly declared, “Of course we didn’t sign that.” It’s the “of course” in his statement that describes what we mean by a “provocative move.” 

Now that provocation, redefined as a “move,” has become a central tool of modern diplomacy, we need to ask ourselves how provocative anything Biden does during his current visit to Israel might be. Given that his intention was to talk to both Israelis and other regional leaders, one can imagine any of three different goals he may be pursuing.

The first might consist simply of confirming in vivo US commitment to follow Israel’s lead, wherever it takes us. This show of force through the presence of a great leader may reflect the hope that Iran or any other parties tempted“ to take advantage” of Israel’s vulnerability will be dissuaded by the prospect of a military clash with the US. This way of thinking corresponds the traditional scare tactics the US has often used as the world’s dominant power. It is less clear than ever before in recent history that this might work.

The second might be Biden’s intention to pressure Netanyahu in the hope that, concerned with Israel’s image in the world, he will see the advantage of showing restraint. That seems unlikely for two reasons. Netanyahu is an unrestrained extremist interested only in protecting himself at home. More significantly, Biden has never shown the persuasive skills or rational inclinations required of an “honest broker” seeking to reach a nuanced solution to a problem that has been developing for more than seven decades.

The third hypothesis is the most likely. This is a face-saving tactic by which the US seeks to focus on well publicized humanitarian “good intentions.” This gesture will calm some critics and permit the maintenance of a very unstable status quo, without constraining Israel’s quest to eradicate Hamas. Whether this strategy can work after the bombing of Al Alhi hospital remains to be seen.

In his interview with CBS on Sunday Biden declared, “I’m confident that there’s gonna be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water.” Those are nice things to have and Biden should be congratulated for trying to persuade Netanyahu to allow that access. But when a politician says “I’m confident” it usually means “I have a vague hope that things might play out that way.” That is not the kind of language expected from the confident “leader of the free world.”

Historical note

Just as with the Ukraine war, the notion of provocation turns less around specific political acts than what those acts say about the relationships between groups of people. The question of the enlargement of NATO was less about each nation’s sovereign right to decide with whom they may choose to align than it was about the quality of life of two identifiable population groups: ethnic Russians inside Ukraine and Russians in Russia. Putin has always been specific about the insecurity NATO’s presence in Ukraine represented for all Russians. 

The entire drama of Palestine since at least 1948 has been about the perception of quality of life by two population groups. That simple historical fact has been obscured by the question of national sovereignty and statehood. The Jewish perception, perfectly understandable, grew from the horrendous experience of the Holocaust in Europe. The Palestinian perception was born with the Nakba, “the Catastrophe” of having one’s homeland suddenly taken over by another people.

Nations and international institutions can draft and impose laws defining national sovereignty that everyone will be expected to honor. Those laws cannot cancel perception. To the extent that laws actually modify perception, it is as likely that they will aggravate as assuage the negative effects.

Most serious commentators on the current situation expect much more pain and suffering in the coming weeks and months. But the most lucid among them also see one possible opportunity. History has conspired, through the agency of a series of political personalities, to push aside the vaunted two-state solution of the now dormant “peace process.” The current crisis has taken the form of a war. It risks spilling over possibly to the point of provoking a new world war. But it may have the merit of making the world realize that there is only one possible outcome: the creation of a Palestinian state.

None of the actors currently in place is capable of leading such an effort or even following the lead of some global authority. But there soon may be no choice. Either because there is no one left to choose, or because a new world order that accepts to do things a little differently than in the past may finally begin to emerge.

*[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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