US President Joe Biden hugs Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu upon arrival at Tel Aviv airport, October 18, 2023
White lies are often uttered to protect someone or deflect the upsetting truths. The US President Joseph Biden’s white lie obfuscated the horrific truth about the Israeli missile attack on the Baptist church in Gaza, which took the lives of over 500 people, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.
Biden probably felt safe because platinum grade war crimes seldom get probed — Vietnam (My Lai massacre), Afghanistan (Kunduz hospital airstrike) and Iraq (Fallujah). Nonetheless, there will be a trial at the high court of his own conscience.
If and when such a moment comes, all he needs to do is to read a stunning blog written by Jonathan Cook, an award-winning British journalist and the author of Israel and the Clash of Civilisations who was based in Nazareth (Israel) for twenty years — “This is another Iraqi WMD moment. We are being gaslit”.
Cook wrote: “It’s not just ‘unlikely’ that a Palestinian rocket hit the Gaza hospital. It’s impossible. The media know this, they just don’t dare say it.”
Biden knows it, too. Read carefully his remark upon arrival in Israel: “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you. But there’s a lot of people out there, not sure.”
A White House statement by NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson that followed a few hours also prevaricated: “While we continue to collect information, our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza.”
The big question, therefore, is: Why did Biden indulge in a risky white lie? Multiple factors come into play here. The news of the Gaza blast was already available in DC, as Biden and his entourage sat on the runway waiting to leave for Tel Aviv.
Indeed, the visit was a gamble. Yet, cancellation of the trip was a “non-option”, as compulsions of domestic politics and foreign policy had coalesced inseparably by then. One only had to follow the withering criticism of Biden by Fox News and the growing demands by the Republicans to wreak vengeance on Iran for empowering the Palestinian resistance.
Equally, Biden was conscious of the debris of the regional tour undertaken by Secretary of State Antony Blinken just the previous week. Blinken was subjected to snubs and tongue-lashing in a way none of his predecessors ever probably experienced in West Asian capitals. The US’ influence in the region is at rock bottom.
Biden knew he had to act — and to be seen as acting. He also sensed that the optics meant a great deal to Israel (a key ally), to Benjamin Netanyahu (an intimate personal friend of yesteryears whose political career is in jeopardy), and, of course, to Biden himself (as his re-election bid is at stake.)
As he hugged Netanyahu, Biden killed three birds in a single shot: first, he silenced the Republican Party criticism of him for having appeased Iran and neglected Israel’s security. Second, Biden underscored that although the going gets tough in the proxy war in Ukraine, the US firmly holds Israel’s back.
Most important, he planted rings of engagement around Netanyahu although the latter is at the end of the road in his political career, as he is Washington’s best bet to ensure that future Israeli behaviour remains amenable to US persuasion.
This last point holds the key. The US is not looking for a regional conflict in West Asia. Biden understands Israel’s zest for retribution against Hamas but is averse to widening the conflict. The US takes seriously Tehran’s warning about direct intervention if Israeli attacks continue. But then, Tehran is also not looking for a conflict.
The Guardian newspaper wrote that “US officials are believed to have tried to convince their Israeli counterparts in meetings during the presidential visit that a scorched-earth response in Gaza would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe, a loss of global support for Israel and perhaps a wider war, without eradicating Hamas.”
“But Biden also supports the Palestinians… The most obvious reason for this visit is for Biden to show solidarity after the slaughter on 7 October. Showing empathy is one of Biden’s default strengths. But he has also travelled to urge a strategically informed response by Israel, avoiding overreaction. Escalation is against the US’s interests. Washington also wants to keep open the possibility that Hamas’s hostages, some of whom are Americans, can be returned alive.
Time will tell how far Biden succeeded in his mission. He had no choice but to resort to a white lie for a larger good. The clincher comes as the hostage crisis prolongs. Biden seems to be hopeful that Washington’s efforts through mediation by Qatar will show results. If that happens, it will have a profound impact on American opinion, M.K. Bhadrakumar stresses.
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