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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Israel and Ukraine, Biden navigates two of America’s most difficult allies

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joins President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Dec. 12, 2023. Biden has promised to support Israel and Ukraine for as long as it takes — both their wars appear to be at critical turning points. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By David E. Sanger

Over the past five days, President Joe Biden has been engaged in a very public demonstration of the struggles of managing two of America’s most difficult allies, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, both leading countries that the president has vowed to defend, as long as it takes.

The conflicts they are engaged in could not be more different, born out of grievances that reach back decades. But by coincidence, both confrontations seem to be at critical turning points, that moment when it becomes obvious how starkly national interests are diverging — to say nothing of the political interests of three leaders clearly worried about their own hold on power.

Adding to the complexity of the problem, it is unclear in Washington exactly what an acceptable endgame might look in Ukraine or in the Gaza Strip. Officially, Ukraine still talks about total victory, pushing Russia out of every inch of territory it seized since the February 2022 invasion. Israel still speaks of the goal of the “total destruction” of Hamas, the only way to assure that it could never again mount an attack like the Oct. 7 assault that killed nearly 1,200 Israelis and sparked seven months of brutal retaliation.

But in Washington, those rallying calls sound increasingly unrealistic. Russia appears to be regaining momentum. The call for the total defeat of Hamas sounds like a rationale for perpetual war — and, in fact, Israeli officials have publicly declared the war in Gaza will likely continue to the end of the year, if not longer.

So Biden has taken to crisis management, trying to prevent the worst, even if he cannot answer the question of how, exactly, these wars end.

“Neither Ukraine nor Israel is a treaty ally,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a longtime Mideast negotiator. He was referring to the status of the other 31 members of NATO, which are obliged to come to one another’s defense, and the formal U.S. pacts with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and others. “And yet we are fully invested in how to get these wars to the next phase, a phase where we lessen the violence, even if we can’t articulate a realistic vision of how it stops.”

In both cases, Biden has now staked some big bets.

On Thursday, with the most minimal of public explanation, the White House revealed that Biden had carved what it termed a narrow exemption to his 27-month-long insistence that American weapons can never be shot into Russian territory. It is a rule he established at the outset of the war in Ukraine to “avoid World War III.”

It was one thing, Biden told his aides, to give the Ukrainians the weaponry they need to protect their own homeland. But letting them launch American artillery rounds and rockets and missiles over the border, where they could take the lives of not only soldiers but also civilians, and wipe out Russian infrastructure, could escalate into a direct American confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary.

That mandate made sense when time was on Ukraine’s side, one of Biden’s top advisers said over the weekend. But now, momentum has reversed. Zelenskyy, who clashed repeatedly with Biden and his staff over their reluctance to give him long-range artillery, then tanks, then F-16s, began a public pressure campaign to get Biden to soften his restrictions on firing American weapons across the border into Russia.

In an interview with The New York Times two weeks ago, Zelenskyy addressed Biden.

“Shoot down what’s in the sky over Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “And give us the weapons to use against Russian forces on the borders.” He was taking public what he had been saying more insistently to visiting U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the most recent senior official to visit Kyiv.

Blinken came back convinced, and in a Friday night Oval Office meeting with Biden, he and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, convinced Biden that he needed to lift the restrictions at least in the border areas around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Otherwise, they warned, Russia could well start taking back significant parts of territory that it was chased out of in the fall of 2022.

Ukraine announced on Monday that it had used Western-provided weapons to destroy an air-defense system on Russian territory, though it did not name the weapon or give details. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, then issued a warning that if Western-provided weapons struck Russia, Moscow would extract “fatal consequences.”

The day after Biden allowed limited strikes on Russian territory, he made a much more public move to force the hand of Netanyahu, with whom his relationship has turned just short of poisonous. Biden gave a public speech in which he endorsed what he called an Israeli plan to win the release of hostages and end the fighting in Gaza. “It’s time for this war to end, for the day after to begin,’’ he said.

It was unusual, to say the least, for an American president to be spelling out the details of an Israeli plan: Diplomats are trained to avoid speaking for other countries. But in this case, that was the point. Biden spoke after months of frustration, in which Netanyahu refused to go along with American admonitions to let in more lifesaving aid, to create a plan for evacuating hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians from Rafah before military operations took place, and to avoid using 2,000-pound bombs that injure or kill civilians.

So the president was determined to make Netanyahu admit to ownership of a three-phased peace plan, one that could stretch out for years.

In fact, the plan was approved by the war Cabinet — though not by the small right-wing parties that support Netanyahu and that he needs to keep his fragile coalition government in power. It appears those opponents of the deal never even saw the offer to Hamas.

Netanyahu did not exactly deny that he had signed off on the plan, but he did not admit it, either. “He’s dancing,’’ said Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked for seven Israeli prime ministers over 26 years, including Netanyahu. “He hasn’t disclaimed it. But he hasn’t embraced it, either.”

“Going public with this proposal — on the Sabbath, when he knew that the more right-wing religious parties might not hear it or could not respond — became a necessity because time is slipping away,’’ Lipner said.

It is slipping in particular for Biden. Six weeks ago, the president and his aides thought a prisoner swap and a cease-fire, even if temporary, was just days away. That moment came and went. Now, atop the human tragedy of the war is the political reality: Biden knows that his campaign appearances, and the Democratic convention, may well be marked by protesters from the progressive wing of his party who believe the United States should have cut off all of Israel’s offensive arms as the civilian deaths mounted.

But, as a strong supporter of Israel over the past 50 years — Biden still talks of dealing with Golda Meir at the end of her time in power as Israel’s prime minister — the president knows he cannot appear to be threatening or abandoning the current government.

So the two men have taken to public pronouncements that make clear their differences of strategy. It is hardly the kind of quiet, take-a-friend-aside cajoling that Biden prides himself on, whether he is strong-arming NATO leaders to spend more on defense or persuading the Japanese to reconcile their century-old differences with South Korea. But it is what the U.S. and Israel have come to, out of distrust: Public pronouncements to corner the other.

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