U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to talk to the media before departure at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on March 22, 2024.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives to talk to the media before departure at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on March 22, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein, pool, AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — “Abstention” is a deceptively diplomatic word, implying some sort of bureaucratic omission. And yet this week’s decision by the United States to abstain from casting its veto in the United Nations Security Council turned a page in history. For the first time since the terrorist attack by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7 — and after nixing three previous draft resolutions to this effect — Washington has allowed the council to call for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

And so the U.S.-Israeli relationship, long among the world’s tightest bilateral bonds, keeps fraying beyond recognition. In December, I predicted that President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu would break first gradually, then suddenly. Well, suddenly just came a lot closer.

The Biden administration tried to talk the abstention down, saying that there had been no “shift in policy” and pointing out that the resolution also calls for the release of all hostages. But Bibi was still irate enough to cancel a trip by an Israeli delegation to Washington that was meant to patch things. And yet his own war tactics and missing peace strategy forced the U.S. and U.N. to reach this point (the other 14 members of the Security Council all voted in favor).

The Netanyahu government’s bombing of the Gaza Strip has, as Biden put it, been “indiscriminate” at times. Its facilitation of humanitarian aid has been inadequate. And its plans to invade the city of Rafah seem reckless. More than a million Gazan civilians, having fled their homes, are huddling there, alongside the remaining Hamas fighters that Israel wants (and ought) to eliminate. But a full-bore assault on Rafah would cause another humanitarian catastrophe, which is why Vice President Kamala Harris was the latest Cabinet member to warn off Netanyahu. She’s “ruling out nothing” if Bibi still goes ahead, she added. With the death toll in Gaza above 32,000 and rising, and famine imminent, the U.S. seems finally to have drawn a red line.

If there was a psychological tipping point stateside, it came this month, when America’s highest-ranking elected official of Jewish faith, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, found controversial but moving words for this historical moment. Israel “cannot survive if it becomes a pariah,” he said, adding that Netanyahu increasingly conflates his personal interests with Israel’s. So Israel should hold new elections, Schumer suggested. The senator left no doubt that he hopes a new Israeli government will exclude far-right extremists such as those in Netanyahu’s coalition, and will instead join the U.S. in working toward Palestinian statehood as the means to achieving peace one day.

Netanyahu and his American allies on the Republican right howled at what they called interference in the democratic politics of an ally. That’s rich coming from Bibi, who’s spent much of the past three decades trying to manipulate U.S. politics. He’s long cultivated links to the evangelical and nationalist American right. In 2015, he took up a Republican invitation to address a joint session of Congress in a snub to Barack Obama, the Democratic president at the time, who demonstratively failed to invite Bibi to the White House on the occasion. Now there’s talk again of Netanyahu coming to address Congress. Many Democrats this time say they’ll boycott the speech.

The reality is that U.S. and Israeli politics have been intertwined for a long time, and if one side wants to address the electorate of the other, the privilege must extend in the opposite direction as well. So let Bibi talk directly to Americans, and Schumer or Biden to Israelis.

Even such back-and-forth, though, can’t distract from the fundamental asymmetry in the relationship. It’s Israel that needs the U.S., not the other way around. The Jewish state relies on American diplomatic protection at the U.N., the International Court of Justice and other institutions, and it needs American money, shells and bombs. The U.S., for its part, can’t indefinitely supply those weapons if it then sees them dropped on Gazan combatants and civilians alike, in what may, according to non-governmental organizations, be violations of international humanitarian as well as U.S. law.

And so the two governments appear to have boxed themselves in. Netanyahu last week told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel will invade Rafah, and that “if necessary, we will do it alone,” even without U.S. support. Such a campaign would contravene repeated messages from the White House, and now also the Security Council’s call for a cease-fire. If that act went uncensured, it would make international law and the United Nations, which the U.S. once helped build and which has already lost credibility, irrelevant. The U.S. might as well walk away from its entire postwar legacy.

This is the tragedy of the moment. By the looks of it, Netanyahu will soon give the order to attack Rafah, killing more terrorists but also causing even worse suffering for the two million civilians in the Gaza Strip, and even more isolation of Israel in the world. The U.S. will then have to answer, by restricting arms shipments and letting the U.N. condemn Israel. When that time comes, the U.S. may not even abstain.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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