President Biden’s experience certainly should have prepared him for this moment of crisis in Israel and Palestine. He launched his national political career with a run for the Senate in 1972 that turned on his pledge to fight the Nixon administration’s escalation of the Vietnam War. He opposed that war less on moral grounds than on pragmatic ones: that the war was futile and needlessly drained American resources and power.
Almost 50 years later, as his first major foreign policy act as president, he made a bold, difficult decision to end America’s longest war, in Afghanistan. He had inherited the plan from his predecessor, Donald Trump, and had qualms about the withdrawal agreement, which called for the U.S. to withdraw all troops in exchange for the Taliban pledging to keep the country from becoming a haven for terrorists. But Biden had been skeptical about the first of the post-9/11 Forever Wars for a very long time, as early as 2002, when he made his first visit to Kabul as a senator.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” Biden said in April 2021.
This track record as a leader over an extraordinary and volatile stretch of human history, coupled with his unstinting support for the Jewish state, would make Biden the ideal messenger, should he choose to be, for the counsel Israel needs in the aftermath of Hamas’s brutal and lawless assault: A full-scale ground invasion of Gaza would almost certainly be a colossal mistake, and a trap.
The cost of an invasion would be excruciatingly high. Untold thousands of Israeli soldiers will die, along with untold thousands of Palestinian civilians. And even if this price is paid, Israel still might not succeed in crushing Hamas, much less purchase a lasting peace. Extended fighting in Gaza is all but certain to further destabilize a volatile region. If this is indeed Israel’s 9/11, a man of Biden’s age and experience should conclude, with ample evidence based on America’s post-9/11 disasters, that the wisest and strongest move in this moment is restraint.
Unfortunately, Biden and his administration have so far chosen not to be that messenger. Even as he spoke on Friday of a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and said that “the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas and these appalling attacks,” Biden offered no criticism of what the United Nations called an “impossible” demand from the Israel Defense Forces: that 1.1 million Gazans leave their homes and move south within 24 hours, reiterating that “the United States stands with Israel.” On Friday, the State Department sent another signal that the Biden administration would not counsel restraint, instructing its staff to avoid using certain terms, including “de-escalation/cease-fire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm,” HuffPost reported.
The situation in Gaza grows more dire by the hour. Israel cut off the region’s electricity and running water earlier in the week. Hospitals are overflowing with wounded and sick people and running low on supplies. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, pleaded on Friday for the protection of civilians.
“Even wars have rules,” he said. “It is imperative that all parties — and those with influence over them — do everything possible to achieve these steps.”
Things will only get worse if a ground invasion begins, as is expected imminently. Israeli officials are telegraphing their intentions clearly. Speaking to troops gathered along the border, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, declared “I have released all the restraints,” the Times of Israel reported. As residents in northern Gaza scrambled to comply with the evacuation order , at least 70 people were killed in an airstrike that hit a convoy of vehicles headed south, officials in Gaza said. Hamas will almost surely try to use civilians as human shields, but human rights violations by a terrorist group are not a legitimate reason to ignore the laws governing war.
Even before the Hamas assault, Israel was in crisis. Its government is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who until last week’s attack was focused on neutering the independence of Israel’s judiciary in order to deliver on the wishes of his fractious coalition of right-wing parties and protect himself from criminal prosecution. Polling in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack showed 86 percent of Jewish Israelis laid blame for failing to prevent the attack at the Netanyahu government’s feet.
If we needed any reminder of what happens when a cocksure leader intent on dividing his country confronts a global crisis with recklessness, George W. Bush popped up in the headlines on Friday when Axios reported on remarks he had made regarding the conflict at a private event in California on Tuesday.
“Don’t be surprised if Israel takes whatever actions necessary to defend herself, and it’s gonna be ugly for a while,” Bush said. “You’re dealing with cold-blooded killers,” he continued, accurately describing the terrorist group that attacked Israel, but apparently unconcerned about the heavy humanitarian toll on civilians in Gaza or the long run consequences of fighting there.
Bush, of course, was a president with virtually no prior experience in foreign affairs. His only qualification beyond his famous last name was a stint as governor of a state that had a notoriously weak governorship. In the aftermath of 9/11, he led the United States into a series of catastrophes from which we have not yet recovered, and may have permanently damaged America. Biden did his country a great service by ending the war Bush had so carelessly started.
Today, we have an older, wiser president. Biden’s age and tendency to speak too freely are often seen as weaknesses. Poll after poll has revealed that this is his Achilles heel, the thing that gives voters the most pause about giving him, who will be 81 on election day, another four years in the hardest job in the world.
But in a moment like this age, experience and a willingness to speak uncomfortable truths are vital strengths, both practically and politically. Biden is a wise old man who has seen a lot of things. He can and does speak plainly, even when it would be narrowly more politic not to. He has a long history of stalwart public support of Israel coupled with sometimes tough criticism behind the scenes. It is time for him to speak those truths, loudly, plainly and publicly.
When Biden gave a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, he told one of his favorite stories, about what he has described as one of the most important encounters of his life: the meeting he had with Golda Meir, the then-prime minister of Israel, when he was a young senator in 1973. She described the danger gathering around Israel, foreshadowing the attacks by Egypt and Syria that would stun the nation just five weeks later.
“Don’t worry, Senator Biden, we have a secret weapon here in Israel,” said Meir, in Biden’s telling. “We have no place else to go.”
Desperation is hardly a weapon, but it would do Biden well to remind the Israeli government that the same is true of the people of Gaza. Some two million people are pinned on a tiny patch of land. They cannot flee into Israel. Egypt will not have them. Their third border is the sea. They are ruled by a terrorist organization that long ago won a slim electoral victory, but hasn’t submitted itself to elections since 2006. Nearly half of the population of Gaza is under the age of 18; the majority of Gazans were too young to vote in the last election there. These human beings also have no place else to go.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.