Home Opinion Comment US Gaza war cost-benefit analysis could reach tipping point

US Gaza war cost-benefit analysis could reach tipping point

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By Dr. James M. Dorsey

The stakes in the Gaza war for the United States and President Joe Biden could not be higher.

For the United States, it’s the ability to garner support for its positions on multiple issues, among which the Ukraine war looms large.

Mr. Biden’s bear hug approach towards Israel has sparked widespread allegations of hypocrisy and double standards.

Neither the United States, nor Europe for that matter, has a credible response to calls to apply to the Gaza war the same standards of international humanitarian law and the law of war they uphold for Ukraine.

“We are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Global South. Whatever credibility and moral ground we had is gone. Phrases like a rules-based world order are meaningless. At this point, we can stand on our heads, it does not matter. Why should the Global South take our insistence on universal human rights and international law serious if we are the first to cast them by the wayside?” a Western diplomat asked.

In a more hopeful note, The Economist suggested that America “still has a lot to offer, especially if it works with its allies to enhance security and keep trade open. Its values, however imperfectly they are realised, still attract people from all across the planet in a way that Chinese communism does not.”

Last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote in favour of a resolution calling for a “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” in Gaza tells the story. The language was designed to accommodate the US’ refusal to call for a ceasefire, insisting instead on phrases such as “humanitarian pause” or “humanitarian corridors.”

Speaking on CBS’ Face the Nation, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insisted, “A humanitarian pause would be a good thing to get hostages out, but you can bet that Hamas will try to use that time to their advantage as well. These are the things that Israel was trying to grapple with.”

At the same time Mr. Sullivan added that Hamas’ alleged use of civilians as human shields “does not lessen (Israel’s) responsibility to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians and to protect the lives of innocent civilians as they conduct this military operation. That’s true of striking from the air. It is true of going in on the ground.”

The US official went on to say that “under international humanitarian law hospitals should not be targeted. They are not military targets.”

In a separate interview on ABC’s This Week, Mr. Sullivan acknowledged that thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians has been killed in Israeli air strikes but stopped short of saying that their deaths violated international law.

“There have been deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians in this conflict, and that is an absolute tragedy. Those people did not deserve to die. Those people deserved to live lives of peace and sanctity and dignity,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Earlier, Mr. Biden called into doubt Palestinian casualty figures provided by Gaza’s Hamas-controlled healthy ministry.

Palestinian analysts charge that the United States may be complicit in Israeli violations of international law by aiding and abetting Israel’s indiscriminate bombing.

More than 250 prominent British lawyers advised their government in an open letter to “take urgent steps” to ensure the United Kingdom complies with its obligations under the Geneva conventions not to encourage, aid or assist violations of international humanitarian law by other states.

As Mr. Sullivan spoke, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said it had received warnings from Israeli authorities to “immediately evacuate” al-Quds hospital in Gaza. Journalists reporting from Gaza said the hospital hosts hundreds of injured patients and some 12,000 displaced persons.

Israeli air strikes hit areas near Al-Quds as well as Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital. Video posted by the Red Crescent Society on X showed people in Al-Quds covering their mouths inside the smoke-filled building.

Israel asserts that Hamas uses hospitals as command centers and to camouflage its underground tunnel network.

The UN resolution was adopted despite US objections that it failed to condemn Hamas by name for its wanton killing of more than 1,400 mostly civilian Israelis during its October 7 attack.

The US also wanted the resolution to label 239 people, mostly civilians, kidnapped during the Hamas assault as hostages rather than captives. The US further refused the resolution because it did not recognise Israel’s right to self-defence.

This week, Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas Gaza leader, proposed an “immediate” exchange of hostages for the estimated 6,600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Hamas claims 50 hostages have been killed in Israeli air strikes.

To be fair, those in favour of the UN resolution and those who voted against it all have mud on their faces by prioritising the scoring of political points above the saving of innocent lives.

For the United States and much of Europe, the problem, with heart-breaking scenes of the Gaza carnage dominating images of the war, is that the mud sticks because of perceptions of hypocrisy and double standards.

The perceptions are reinforced by a lack of equitable empathy for Palestinians compared to what Mr. Biden and other Western leaders have to say about Israeli casualties.

To be sure, the Global South, including the Arab and Muslim world, has no good options in the Gaza war. The United States is the only power with true leverage in Jerusalem.

Even so, Mr. Biden does not have total freedom. Irrespective of whether he wants to compel Israel to abide by international law, he is hemmed in by domestic political constraints.

Republican Mike Johnson’s introduction of a bill in Congress supporting Israel that was adopted with an overwhelming majority as his first act as speaker of the US House of Representatives demonstrates domestic restraints on Mr. Biden in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.

The bill highlighted a gap between Congress and public opinion that is far more divided with thousands on the streets of cities in the United States and across the globe marching against the war.

In addition, Israeli hostages’ families have demanded that Israel make the release of the captives a priority above destroying Hamas.

The protests are reminiscent of mass demonstrations in 2003 against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Those protests didn’t stop the hostilities but shaped public opinion and the careers of political leaders.

In the cacophony of voices, Mr. Biden’s subtle hints at behind-the-scenes pressure on Israel to limit the war and abide by international law are lost.

It was not immediately clear whether Israel’s so far limited ground offensive was the result of US pressure or the first phase of a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip. What US pressure did not do was persuade Israel to halt its indiscriminate bombing of the territory.

Moreover, the sincerity and forcefulness of Mr. Biden’s approach is called into question by his demonstrated ability to apply pressure that Israel cannot ignore when he wants to.

Mr. Biden made that clear this week when his administration threatened to halt arms supplies if they are distributed to Israeli civilians at political events.

The threat was sparked by photos on social media of ultra-nationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir handing out guns at a political event to civilian community security squads in Bnei Brak and Elad, two towns dominated by Israel’s religious far right.

In response to the US threat, Israel promised Israel that weapons would be distributed only by the police and the military to auxiliary forces created since the October 7 Hamas attack and supervised by the police and the military.

The threat does nothing to change things on the ground in Gaza but suggests that the United States has leverage to influence Israel’s conduct of the war.

In a further demonstration of its influence, a US official said Israel had restored Gaza’s internet under US pressure. Israel shut off telecommunications and the internet in the Strip as it launched its ground offensive.

“Biden’s ‘pressure’ on Israel isn’t to prevent mass killings & war crimes. Rather, its ‘pressure’ appears aimed at keeping Israel’s bombings & war crimes at a “tolerable” level to keep the backlash against Israel manageable,” tweeted analyst Trita Parsi.

Irrespective of whether Mr. Parsi’s analysis proves accurate, the question remains whether and at what point the United States’ cost-benefit analysis reaches a tipping point.

The harrowing images from Gaza, mounting international public and political pressure, and so far, limited US pressure would suggest that the point cannot be far off.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Honorary Fellow at Singapore’s Middle East Institute-NUS, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

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