Experts: Biden’s failure to enforce his “red line” could result in “worst of all possible outcomes”

President Joe Biden lamented earlier this week the “devastating” and “heartbreaking” images of the carnage in the southern Gaza city of Rafah after an Israeli airstrike engulfed a makeshift camp of displaced Palestinians in flames and killed 45 people, calling on Israel to better protect civilians.

But even after applying pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s war cabinet, Biden’s administration indicated Tuesday that the attack had not crossed the “red line” he established that would lead the United States to take action and impose consequences — an assertion that’s confounded foreign policy experts. 

“If this doesn’t count as a red line, what does? What does it actually take to cross the red line?” Dr. Sarah Parkinson, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, told Salon, adding later: “Is the standard so extreme so as to be completely meaningless for any protection of civilian life or invocation of international humanitarian law?”

The president drew a line in the sand for Israel in an interview with CNN earlier this month, threatening to withhold shipments of some U.S.-manufactured munitions, including controversial 2,000-pound bombs, if Israel proceeded with its invasion of Rafah and attacked population centers.

In response to Sunday’s bombing, White House spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday said that Israel had not begun a “major ground operation” in Rafah. State Department spokesman Matt Miller also said that the Israel had not carried out the sort of offensive that it waged in Gaza City and Khan Younis, where the ground incursions killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in a day and destroyed buildings. 

“We still don’t believe that a major ground operation in Rafah is warranted. We still don’t want to see the Israelis, as we say, smash into Rafah with large units over large pieces of territory,” Kirby said, according to The Washington Post. The Sunday tragedy, he continued, “speaks very clearly to the challenge of military airstrikes in densely populated areas of Gaza, including Rafah, because of the risk of civilian casualties, which of course happened terribly in this case, a horrible loss of life.”

Taking note of the 37-pound bombs Israel said it had used in the attack, intended to kill Hamas officials it said were present in the city, Kirby added that if “it is in fact what they used, it is indicative of an effort to be precise and targeted” given the bombs’ relatively smaller size.

But Kirby’s response to the horror at the refugee camp is “mincing words” and “splitting hairs,” argued Parkinson.

Neighborhoods like Tal al-Sultan, the site of the tent encampment burned Sunday, and Al-Mawasi, another southern Gaza area designated for displaced Palestinians in which an airstrike Tuesday killed 21 people (Israel has denied responsibility for the bombing), are “functionally” the population centers that Biden’s red line was intended to safeguard, she explained. More than one million Palestinians, in response to Israeli orders, have evacuated Rafah to areas that have “almost no infrastructure, no sanitation, no water, no commercial centers” and have since been attacked “without forewarning.”

“By any objective measure I can think of, the red line that was laid out by this administration has been crossed,” Parkinson said. “So now if the Biden administration does not follow through with what it promised it would do if this red line was crossed, it’s a loss of credibility. It makes it look like Biden is incredibly weak in a partnership with what is considered to be one of the U.S.’s closest allies.”

For several weeks this spring, the Biden administration held meetings with Israeli officials in an effort to persuade the country to pursue targeted raids and strikes in Rafah instead of conducting a full-scale ground invasion, the Post reported. U.S. officials voiced concerns over the how a major operation in the city would affect the around 1.3 million Palestinians who were sheltering there after eight months of violence and multiple displacements. 

As part of those talks, U.S. officials warned that Israel could not further displace hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Rafah without providing basic infrastructure, food and water. But since the beginning of the Israeli military’s push into the city, about 1 million Palestinians have evacuated Rafah without those provisions, the Post notes, and both Israel and Egypt have limited aid into Gaza.

Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza in October after Hamas militants conducted an attack, killing nearly 1,200 Israelis and seizing around 250 hostages. Israel’s counteroffensive has since killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and the United Nations, and its occupation of the territory has caused Gaza’s health system to collapse and created a humanitarian crisis characterized by a worsening famine and increased risk of disease.

Though Biden and his aides sought to avoid the mass death and destruction that the war has seen — images of charred bodies and parents burning alive as their children screamed added to the gruesome picture over the weekend — his staunch support of Israel and the growing Palestinian death toll has deepened his political challenges, the Post noted. 

“Biden has been in a bind from the very beginning because he was going to pay a political price, regardless of what policy he adopted,” Dr. Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Salon. “If he put real pressure on Israel, which he hasn’t done, he was going to pay a price from [the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee], various parts of the Israel lobby and wealthy donors who he wants to contribute to his campaign.

“But if he takes the other path, which is basically what he’s done, he’s alienated young people and he’s alienated the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and he’s made himself look every bit as heartless as Donald Trump,” Walt said. 

In the days before the airstrike, Biden administration officials felt they had influenced Israel’s operational plans in Rafah enough to prevent a massive loss of civilian lives, three U.S. officials told Axios Monday.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan had several hours of discussions with senior Israeli officials about the Rafah operation while in Israel last week. One senior U.S. official told Axios that Sullivan felt that Israel’s updated plans for the Rafah invasion had adequately addressed many of the administration’s concerns, allowing them to see the possibility of the operation occurring without crossing Biden’s “red lines.” That determination led the U.S. to pull back some of the opposition it had to the expansion of the Rafah invasion, which included Sunday’s strike. 

Biden believed that expressing unconditional support for Israel would lend to increasing his influence over the country, encouraging Israeli leadership to listen to him, Walt speculated. “But eight months have gone by, and there’s no evidence that Netanyahu and his cabinet are listening to Biden or [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] at all,” he argued. “Instead, they’ve both humiliated Biden and Blinken repeatedly, but they’ve also pursued a course of action that is isolating Israel and not getting rid of Hamas.”

If Biden were to “pay a political price regardless” of his policy toward Israel, then “he should have done what was in America’s interest and what was in the interest of international law and international order,” Walt explained. The Biden administration “hasn’t even tried to explain how its policy is good for America, how it’s making America more secure, or more prosperous, or defending a set of values that we claim to uphold,” he said. “But they don’t even bother to make that case because you can’t.”

Sunday’s airstrike marked the deadliest event in the southern Gaza city since Israel began its attacks there, taking place just days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to immediately cease all military operations in Rafah. Officials with the Gaza health ministry reported that women and children were among those killed in the blaze.

Netanyahu on Monday said the airstrike was a “tragic mistake” and was not intended to cause civilian casualties. The Israel Defense Forces announced an investigation into the bombing and said the strike had been carried out based on intelligence that senior Hamas officials planning attacks in the West Bank were present. 

On Tuesday, Kirby highlighted Netanyahu’s comments and said the Biden administration would wait for the IDF to release the results of its investigation, according to The Post. 

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But as they wait and Israel’s offensive in Rafah continues, more people and entities state-side and internationally grow increasingly outraged with Israel — and by association, with the Biden administration’s policy regarding Israel and Gaza.

The Saudi Arabian government on Tuesday denounced in “the strongest terms the continuous genocidal massacres” committed by the IDF, affirmed the military’s “violations of all international and humanitarian resolutions, laws, and norms” and emphasized how it places the “credibility of the institutions of international legitimacy at stake,” in a statement posted to X, formerly Twitter.

Its condemnations follow Spain, Ireland and Norway each officially recognizing a state of Palestine in a concerted effort to pressure Israel to curtail its assault in Gaza as well as protests in Israel against Netanyahu over his handling of the war. 

In the U.S., young people, a demographic key to Biden’s 2020 electoral victory, have pressured the president for months to change course lest he threaten his prospects for re-election in November. 

Prominent progressive lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. called the airstrike “an indefensible atrocity,” adding on social media that “it is long past time for the President to live up to his word and suspend military aid.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., joined Ocasio-Cortez in her opposition, writing on X: “Horrific and gut wrenching images coming out of Rafah last night. How much longer will the U.S. stand by while the Israeli military slaughters and mutilates Palestinian babies?”

The additional foreign policy impact of Biden’s support of Israel, then, is that the U.S. is “rapidly losing credibility,” Parkinson said, arguing that “a lot of the world is actually looking down the line to November and thinking about the foreign policy implications of a Biden loss in November as well.”

“The administration is trying to have it both ways,” Parkinson added, highlighting as a sign Kirby’s exchange with a reporter who questioned how many “charred corpses” Biden would have to see before he considers a change in policy. “It doesn’t want to have any risk of being portrayed as not standing with Israel, but it is also trying to demonstrate, theoretically, some care for international humanitarian law protection of civilian life as well as for the long standing ramifications of this level of violence occurring in the region.”

But Biden’s approach, Walt warned, could result in the “worst of all possible outcomes here” when his administration eventually feels “they have to really crack down” on Israel.

“If they do that, then they will pay a political price here at home but only after thousands of people have died and after America’s image in much of the world has been shredded,” Walt said. 

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