The president made these remarks ahead of unveiling a new $106 billion funding proposal, chiefly in defense spending to back Ukraine and Israel. Biden argued that the world was at yet another “inflection point in history,” with the decisions made by global leaders now likely “to determine the future for decades to come.”
Politicians and diplomats elsewhere also recognize the fraught state of world affairs, but they aren’t all drawing the same conclusions as the White House. Some see an American greenlight in Israel’s pounding of Gaza, and call into question an apparent double standard that Biden’s rhetoric can’t mask.
There was universal revulsion and outrage in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 strike on southern Israel, which saw the brutal slaughter of some 1,400 Israelis and marked the bloodiest single day in the Jewish state’s history. But sixteen days of Israel’s campaign of reprisal in Gaza has already killed 4,651 Palestinians, according to local authorities, including close to 2,000 children. Whole neighborhoods in the crowded territory have been flattened, more than a million people are homeless and a humanitarian crisis veers from bad to worse with fuel stores close to running out. Israeli demands for the mass evacuation of parts of Gaza have raised the specter of ethnic cleansing.
Yet on Wednesday, a day before Biden’s speech, the United States deployed its veto at the United Nations Security Council to shoot down a mildly worded draft resolution put forward by Brazil calling for a humanitarian pause. It was the sole “no” vote on the table, with even allies including France voting in favor. The United States has long shielded Israel from censure at the United Nations, but the recent precedent of its scolding of Russia in the same forum makes the current moment more conspicuous.
U.S. and Western officials have decried the Russian invasion as a breach of international law, a shattering 0f the principles of the U.N. charter and a challenge to the global rules-based order writ large. Many governments in the Middle East and elsewhere in the so-called “Global South” have also condemned Russia’s aggression, but been more cautious to see Ukraine’s plight in the same moral frame as their Western counterparts. They point to the legacy of the United States’ 2003 “preemptive” invasion of Iraq, the West’s comparative indifference to hideous conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere and the hypocrisy of abetting the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories while cheering for the freedom of peoples elsewhere.
On Friday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “a war crime.” He said Israel was carrying out “collective punishment of a besieged and helpless people,” which ought to be seen as “a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”
That may not trouble an Israeli leadership bent on retribution, argued Marc Lynch, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, but it’s a problem for the United States. “It is difficult to reconcile the United States’ promotion of international norms and the laws of war in defense of Ukraine from Russia’s brutal invasion with its cavalier disregard for the same norms in Gaza,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.
While it seems the Biden administration is working behind the scenes to attempt to restrain Israel’s war cabinet, Gaza’s more-than 2 million people are living in a nightmare of airstrikes and explosions and are running out of food, water and places for safe sanctuary. In his speech, Biden stressed the gap between Hamas and the ordinary Palestinians in their midst. “We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity,” he said, pointing to the U.S. efforts to bring in humanitarian assistance — deliveries which aid groups say are staggeringly short of what’s required.
But that rhetoric rings hollow when set against the record of U.S. actions. “If the U.S. and other Western governments want to convince the rest of the world they are serious about human rights and the laws of war, principles they rightly apply to Russian atrocities in Ukraine and to Hamas atrocities in Israel, they also have to apply to Israel’s brutal disregard for civilian life in Gaza,” Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement after the U.S. veto.
A senior diplomat from a country in the Group of 20 major economies told me that “it’s this kind of behavior that had the Global South so cautious about what the West was doing” when they were cajoling foreign governments to follow their lead on Ukraine. The current U.S. role in blocking action on Gaza, the official added, speaking this weekend on condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to brief journalists, shows “how much of a double standard the U.S. or West’s strategy relies on.”
In Europe, there’s a growing recognition of this tension, too. “What we said about Ukraine has to apply to Gaza. Otherwise we lose all our credibility,” a senior G-7 diplomat told the Financial Times. “The Brazilians, the South Africans, the Indonesians: why should they ever believe what we say about human rights?”
It is also a reminder of the failure of the international community — but chiefly, the United States — to revive the dormant peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. “Today, Western governments are paying for their inability to find, or even to seek, a solution to the Palestinian question,” noted an editorial in French daily Le Monde. “In the current tense climate, their support for Israel — which is perceived as exclusive by the rest of the world — risks jeopardizing their efforts to convince Southern countries that international security is at stake in Ukraine.”
The diplomat speaking to the FT gloomily summed up the latest Gaza war’s impact: “All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost … Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”