Why did the US allow the Gaza ceasefire resolution to go ahead?

26 March 2024

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” 

So said Winston Churchill, referring to the US’s penchant to drag its feet on major international issues. Then he was referring to Washington’s late entry into the Second World War, but the same words may best sum up its slowly (very slowly) shifting stance on the Gaza situation when, finally, on the 25th of March, America did not veto yet another UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. While many have criticised the US representative to the UN for only ‘abstaining,’ it should be sufficiently clear: an American abstention is essentially a ‘yes’ vote. The resolution would not have passed had America, or any of the other four permanent members, voted ‘no.’ That is how it has been for the past several months.

But why have things gone differently now?

Politics of course.

On Friday 22 March Politico ran a long piece on the changing relationship between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the article, written by seasoned journalist Michael Hirsh and running under the title ‘From ‘I Love You’ to ‘Asshole’: How Joe Gave Up on Bibi,’ we delve into a schism between two men who have been friends for some four decades, who have often disagreed. Now, however, their worldviews, and more importantly their political incentives, are are odds one another; Biden wants to win re-election in November, and Netanyahu wants to prolong the campaign in order to avoid being forced to step down once ‘normalcy’ is resumed in Israeli (and Israeli politics). And in such a situation, Biden has chosen to finally align himself with world, and increasingly Democratic Party, opinion.

Every Democratic US president since Bill Clinton in the 1990s has had to contend with the difficult personality of Netanyahu. Sometimes the tiffs have seeped from proper diplomatic channels and into the public domain: consider the Israeli PM’s address to the US Congress against the wishes of President Obama, or the hot mic moment when the latter was caught speaking candidly to his French counterpart about Netanyahu’s dishonesty.

Netanyahu as a liability

Israel’s brutally heavy-handed campaign in Gaza has caught the collective attention of the world. For America and Biden, it takes place in an election year. The last thing the incumbent needs is a crisis in the Middle East under his watch. South Africa’s successful case in the International Court of Justice, by credibly giving the label of genocide to Israeli actions in Gaza, has made it difficult to carry on with business as usual.

Yet Israel (and its right to ‘defend’ itself) is still a vote-winning issue in the US and no president is likely to even contemplate abandoning the alliance. While in ordinary times no American president would dare turn their metaphorical back, even on symbolic issues such as UN votes, it is also clear that in this instance Netanyahu has become a liability. He is unpopular at home, for reasons to do with the war, corruption charges, the emergence of some evidence that he has helped prop up Hamas in order to personally remain relevant, his settlement policy (which reportedly took attention from Gaza and allowed Hamas to breach the barricade-like border between the two territories) and he is barely hanging on to a far-right coalition, having only cobbled together 23% of the vote in the 2022 elections. As a sign of how lowly Netanyahu now ranks in Biden’s opinion, in early March the US administration hosted the former’s main rival, the former defence minister and member of war cabinet (without portfolio) Benny Gantz, when he meet with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Allowing the UNSC resolution to go ahead is a slap on the wrist in the hopes that Netanyahu’s government will turn around and be more pliable.

Will this result in a permanent break in US-Israeli relations? Not at all. Israel is already becoming isolated on the international stage. Nor does America wish for a severing of its close ties to Israel — only its current leader. The US abstention is an important but inconsequential development for the Washington-Tel Aviv relationship. It is a symptom of how far right, and far removed, Netanyahu and his Likud party and allies are from everyone else. Both Biden and Netanyahu may well be waiting for the other to be removed so that they may work with a more agreeable side. The first key date to watch for is November: when either Biden or former president Donald Trump will emerge victorious. Trump, who famously recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, is unlikely to press on Netanyahu as Biden seems to be starting to do, while another Israeli PM would seek to distance themselves from the genocide-accused person and legacy of Netanyahu.