Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“As long as the United States stands,” President Joe Biden told the people of Israel, “we will not let you ever be alone.” It was one of Biden’s countless expressions of support for Israel since the October 7 attack in which Hamas terrorists murdered at least 1,400 people inside Israel and took more than 200 hostage into the Gaza Strip.
Biden was in Tel Aviv, arriving there last month just days after the fighting started, to reassure Israelis that the most powerful country on Earth would have their back. To Israel’s war cabinet he reportedly said, you don’t have “to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist.”
The president’s unwavering support for Israel, increasingly tempered with calls for Israel to make a greater effort to spare Palestinian civilians in its counteroffensive, has taken a political toll at an inauspicious time. It has angered some progressive Democrats as well as Muslim and Arab Americans just one year before the 2024 presidential election.
Clearly, Biden is not acting out of cynical political self-interest (as certain other politicians might do). If he were, he would try to thread a needle, seeking to safeguard the coalition that brought him to power. No, Biden is acting out of a conviction that transcends electoral considerations.
Why does Biden support Israel so wholeheartedly? Two powerful internal forces drive him.
The first is a lifelong understanding of Jewish history and the indispensable role a Jewish state plays in countering millennia of antisemitism. The second is the worldview that impelled Biden to run for office and has remained the North Star of his presidency: a sense that the world is at a turning point – a potentially catastrophic one – in which dangerous powers are threatening to undo the international norms crafted over decades since World War II, norms that allowed the world to make progress in preserving peace and advancing democracy.
Biden made that point again last week, at the end of a press conference with the visiting president of Chile. “There comes a time,” he said, “maybe every six to eight generations, where the world changes in a very short time.” That is happening now, he said. “What happens in the next two, three years (is) going to determine what the world looks like for the next five or six decades.”
He was referring, as he has on other occasions, to multiple dramas at play at home and abroad, from the possibility of another Trump presidency, to the war in Ukraine, to the current war and potential for even more violence in the Middle East, to the simmering tension between China and its neighbors.
For Biden, these imperatives – strategic, historic, moral, emotional – come together in the war between Israel and Iran-backed Hamas, a terrorist group founded on the goal of destroying Israel.
Even as he stands four-square with Israel, Biden is insisting that the war must be followed by the pursuit of self-determination for Palestinians, a point he has also made repeatedly.
Biden learned Jewish history at his father’s foot. He has talked about growing up hearing his father at the dinner table remark on “how the world stood silently in the 1930s in the face of Hitler,” whose rise led to the murder of 6 million Jews and to a worldwide conflagration. Biden has traveled to the Dachau death camp many times, most recently taking his granddaughter with him and walking into the gas chamber where the Nazis poisoned countless Jews to death.
When Hamas launched its brutal attack, its members recording themselves torturing and killing their victims, Biden saw the link between Jewish history and this, the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.
In a searing speech on October 10, he declared, “There are moments in this life…when pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world.” The carnage, he said, “brought to the surface…millennia of antisemitism and genocide of the Jewish people.”
The former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, called the speech, “the most passionately pro-Israel in history.”
But Biden saw more than millennia. He saw the trends of the past few years. The rise of extremism fueled by autocratic, antidemocratic forces. It was the phenomenon that drove him to run for president in 2019, when he said that the sight of white supremacist neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., “veins bulging and bearing the fangs of racism,” were chanting “the same antisemitic bile heard across Europe in the 30s” persuaded him to jump in the race.
Biden’s presidency has been propelled by a mission to counter those forces at a moment he has called “an inflection point in history,” rebuilding alliances, assertively pushing against aggressive, expansionist autocrats, and demonstrating to America’s friends that the US will stand by their side.
Where many see a war between Israel and Hamas, Biden sees something much larger.
The wars launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine and by Hamas against Israel, he said, are obviously different, but they have much in common. Both Hamas and Russia are receiving support from Iran. Both Hamas and Russia “want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”
At this pivotal time in history, the president sees an indispensable role for the United States. “History,” he said, “has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction.”
He appears to see Putin’s Russia, the Ayatollah’s allies Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and others as destabilizing forces, rejecting neighbors, sparking wars. Defeating them would allow the US to help build what Biden describes as a Middle East that is more stable, with “less rage, less grievances, less war.”
To achieve that, it is likely – and desirable – that Biden tell Israelis that their responsibility extends beyond defeating a terrorist organization and doing it within the bounds of international law. For its own security, and for the fulfillment – or at least more progress toward the fulfillment – of Biden’s historic aspirations, he must urge Israel to engage with Palestinians who seek peace and coexistence and to work toward resolving the conflict.
That has been a frustrating quest in the past, empowering the rejectionists. But it remains indispensable. With a US president that has proved he understands Israel, that he viscerally grasps the need for a Jewish homeland, Israelis owe it to Biden to heed his advice.
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