Washington, DC – As the war in Gaza nears the end of its second week, analysts say United States President Joe Biden is increasingly acting like a wartime leader, offering a “performative” show of strength and support for Israel.
Biden visited Israel on Wednesday to back its military campaign in Gaza despite growing calls for a ceasefire.
“I’m here to tell you that terrorists will not win. Freedom will win,” Biden said in remarks reminiscent of the speeches of former President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Experts say Biden is attempting to appeal to his domestic audience ahead of the 2024 elections and dodge Republican criticisms that would frame him as “weak”.
George Bisharat, a professor at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, said Biden’s approach to the Gaza war — including the visit to Israel — has an “element of political performance”.
“This is ‘Sleepy Joe’ proving that he’s awake, that he’s an expert on foreign policy,” Bisharat told Al Jazeera, invoking former President Donald Trump’s nickname for Biden.
“Of course, most of the time, American voters don’t really care very much about foreign policy; they don’t vote on foreign policy grounds. But wartime is an exception. This, in a way, is an opportunity to kind of flex muscles without the actual concrete costs to American soldiers in particular.”
The conflict in Gaza began on October 7, when Hamas issued a surprise attack against Israel from the besieged Palestinian territory, killing more than 1,300 people and taking dozens captive.
Israel responded with a declaration of war the following day. It has since led a continuous bombing campaign that has killed at least 3,785 Palestinians, including hundreds of children in Gaza.
Analysts say Biden’s vocal solidarity for Israel stems in part from his personal affinity for the US ally. The president is a self-described Zionist and a lifelong Israel supporter.
But Biden’s decision to back Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has raised questions about previous pledges he made to centre human rights in his foreign policy agenda.
‘Theatre’ of war
Washington has sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region in an effort to “deter” a wider conflict, should forces like Iran and the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah consider intervening.
The US president also said in an interview with CBS News last week that Hamas must be eliminated, pledging to provide Israel with the military aid it needs to carry out its war.
Experts say an Israeli ground invasion to uproot Hamas from Gaza would come at an enormous cost for all the parties involved, especially Palestinian civilians.
And while it may be technically possible to defeat Hamas’s military wing, it will likely be much more difficult to extinguish the group’s political movement.
“What does this entail? How would you actually destroy Hamas? Can you?” said Osamah Khalil, a history professor at Syracuse University.
Khalil explained that door-to-door fighting in Gaza’s dense urban areas would not be easy for Israel, were it to attack Hamas with a ground invasion.
As analogies, he pointed to the setbacks Israel faced in Lebanon during its 2006 ground offensive, as well as the slow progress Russia has made in Ukraine since its full-scale invasion in 2022.
“You can see what Russia is having to deal with in Ukraine, and they have a much bigger military,” he said.
William Astore, a historian and retired lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, also highlighted the challenges of destroying the Palestinian group.
“You can reduce Hamas. You can kill as many soldiers as you can find, I suppose,” Astore told Al Jazeera.
“The question always is, at what price? And no, you can’t you can’t kill off Hamas because Hamas is more of an ideology. It’s not only a military force.”
So where does that leave the US policy of open-ended support for Israel?
For Khalil, there needs to be an “off-ramp” to stop the fighting, but he said in the immediate future — with Biden’s endorsement — the bombardment of Gaza is set to continue.
Analysts like Khalil also stress that US foreign policy cannot be separated from its politics at home. Biden is already facing Republican accusations of being too lenient on Iran, Hamas’s ally.
So the White House has been pushing to reclaim the narrative and position Biden as a champion of Israel in its time of need.
Publicly released photos show Biden meeting with his top security aides to discuss the conflict, including in the Situation Room, an intelligence centre at the White House.
.@VP and I sat down with our teams to receive a situation update on the terrorist attack in Israel and to direct next steps.
We connected with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss coordination to support Israel, deter hostile actors, and protect innocent people. pic.twitter.com/u4xOHMeMqw
— President Biden (@POTUS) October 10, 2023
“If you’re going to frame your reelection around Ukraine as a foreign policy aspect and then ‘the war and terrorism and supporting and saving Israel’, then you’re going to want to show this active, vital president who’s making decisions and is in full-on commander-in-chief mode,” Khalil said.
Astore, the historian, echoed that take.
“It’s theatre. I would say the primary audience is domestic, here in the United States,” Astore said.
“We know obviously that President Biden faces reelection next year and that his opponent may be Donald Trump. So what Biden is attempting to do is to show that Israel has no better friend than Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.”
Regardless of Biden’s calculus, advocates say his refusal to call for a ceasefire is a sign of leadership failure. On Wednesday, Washington vetoed a United Nations Security Council proposal that would have called for a humanitarian pause to the war.
Phyllis Bennis, the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, characterised Biden’s recent visit to Israel as a lost opportunity.
“Any visit that did not include a public call for a ceasefire essentially amounts to an endorsement of the continuing Israeli attacks on Gaza,” she said.
Bennis added that the US president’s “bear-hug diplomacy” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes his vague references to international law fall flat.
“You don’t live by the rules of terrorists. You live by the rule of law. And when conflicts flare, you live by the law of wars,” Biden told Israelis in an address on Wednesday.
A day later, UN experts warned that by cutting off water to Gaza and targeting civilian infrastructure, Israel is violating international law.
“We are sounding the alarm: There is an ongoing campaign by Israel resulting in crimes against humanity in Gaza,” the experts said.
“Considering statements made by Israeli political leaders and their allies, accompanied by military action in Gaza and escalation of arrests and killing in the West Bank, there is also a risk of genocide against the Palestine people.”
But Biden has sought to distance the current war from the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, avoiding public remarks on the history of violence and displacement Palestinians have faced. Rights groups like Amnesty International have previously accused Israel of imposing apartheid on Palestinians.
And while in Israel, Biden pledged to push forward with efforts to establish ties between Israel and Arab states independently of the Palestinian file.
“I think US policy is to support at the moment whatever Israel is trying to accomplish, however realistic or unrealistic that may be,” Bennis told Al Jazeera.