Nov 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden's punching bag diplomacy

Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Elder statesman that he is, President Biden knows better than most that the ingredients for success in foreign diplomacy — nuance, compromise, patience — often are deeply incompatible with domestic political demands.

Why it matters: As top U.S. officials spent weeks working furiously behind the scenes to facilitate a hostage deal in the Israel-Hamas war, Biden took a political beating at home.

  • Publicly, the president has remained staunchly supportive of Israel as the Palestinian death toll in Gaza has soared — dismissing calls for a ceasefire and alienating core constituencies within his own party.
  • Privately, Biden ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the course of 13 phone calls to pause the fighting in order to secure the release of hostages and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Driving the news: The Israel-Hamas deal calls for the militant group to free at least 50 Israeli women and children in exchange for a four-day pause in fighting and the release of 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.

  • The agreement was mediated by Qatar, but the Biden administration played a significant role in the five weeks of sensitive negotiations that led to the breakthrough.
  • Netanyahu publicly thanked Biden on Tuesday for improving the deal, saying "it will include more hostages for a lower cost" as a result of the president's help.

Back home, critics of Biden's policies from across the political spectrum celebrated the expected release of hostages but indicated that their broader concerns haven't been resolved.

  • "The Israeli government's collective punishment and unfolding genocide of Palestinians in Gaza cannot just be put on 'pause'; it must be stopped. Fully," Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the most prominent activist groups calling for a ceasefire, said in a statement.
  • "This agreement cannot be an excuse to abandon Israel nor its mission of dismantling Hamas' rule and terrorism capabilities in Gaza," said Senate Armed Services ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who also criticized Qatar's role in the negotiations.

Between the lines: Biden's unequivocal support for Israel and blunt refusal to endorse a ceasefire infuriated Democratic activists, but likely gave him leverage to turn the screws on Netanyahu in private.

  • But not every move was so carefully calculated: Biden's questioning of the Palestinian death toll, for example, may have done lasting damage to his image among progressives, young voters and Arab and Muslim Americans.
  • The nature of politics means missteps like that ultimately may have more of an impact on Biden's approval rating than the behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts that led to this week's breakthrough.
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