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Biden didn’t hold Israel accountable. Now his chickens are coming home to roost

Biden didn’t hold Israel accountable. Now his chickens are coming home to roost

On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden said that he was “outraged and heartbroken” at the deaths of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza after Israel conducted airstrkes against the unarmed convoy.

Specifically, as Independent White House reporter Andrew Feinberg said, Biden leveled what might be his biggest criticism of Israel in his 52 years of national politics, when he said attacks like the one that killed aid workers “should not happen” and added that Israel “has not done enough” to avoid them.

The fact that the aid workers came from an organization headed up by celebrity Chef José Andrés made matters worse, politically speaking: Andrés runs many restaurants that Washington’s power players patronize (your reporter is partial to Jaleo). He’s a fixture on Washington’s party circuit and he became a hero to many Washington liberals when he pulled his restaurant out of Donald Trump’s now-shuttered hotel.

But even Andrés’s elevated profile has not made Biden shift his policy on Israel.

“He wants to see an investigation that’s swift, an investigation that's comprehensive, that brings accountability, and he wants to make sure that it is made public,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday. When a reporter asked what such an investigation might entail, Jean-Pierre would not elaborate.

This renders Biden’s critiques all but meaningless — especially as he pushes for the House to pass a foreign aid package that would provide $14.1bn in aid to Israel and as multiple publications report that he is considering selling $18bn worth of fighter jets to the country. As my colleague Katie Hawkinson explained in Tuesday’s Inside Washington, the president set the red line himself when he warned in February, “If you harm an American, we will respond.”

Simply put, Biden has offered zero response or consequences for Israel. Meanwhile, in a video where he appeared to be smiling, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the killings “a tragic instance of our forces unintentionally harming innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” before adding, “It happens in war.”

Biden has all but created the circumstances that allowed for the World Central Kitchen workers’ deaths. In the buildup to the passage of the foreign aid bill, 19 senators in the Democratic caucus — including Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — said they hoped to add an amendment that would have required countries who received US military assistance to comply with international law. But shortly after they did, the White House released a memo describing the conditions countries must meet to receive military aid, including “credible and reliable written assurances” that countries complied with international law and humanitarian standards.

The senators said the memo served as enough for them to back down from the amendment. All but three of them approved the national security package without further action, even though the White House said there were “no new standards in this memo”, adding that it was not imposing new standards for military aid.

That meant that the Senate surrendered its oversight authority. It gave the White House sole discretion to determine whether Israel complied with international standards itself.

Former senator Patrick Leahy — the namesake of the Leahy Law statutes that prevent the US government from sending aid to foreign governments when there is credible information of “gross violations of human rights” — toldThe Independent last month that the United States was not following the law when it came to Israel.

Elsewhere, Biden hoped to de-politicize aid to Ukraine, given widespread opposition by Republicans — particularly in the US House of Representatives — by demanding that aid to Israel after the October 7 attack by Hamas include aid to Ukraine. That enabled the Senate to pass the bill and finally get Ukraine aid through after much complication. But that also means that many Democrats — even Democrats critical of the Israeli government — will ultimately feel compelled to pass a bill providing Israel with further, unconditional military aid. Or if enough Democrats decide to vote against the bill now, aid to Ukraine will end up doomed at the same time.

Lastly, the Biden administration actively cut off aid to Gazans. In April, the Biden administration and some allies abroad paused aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, which had been providing food and shelter to people in Gaza. The money was paused amid reports that a small number of its workers may have been involved in the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.

The bipartisan spending bill that kept the government open until the end of September also specifically halted direct funding to UNRWA until 2025.

This only makes the reality of the World Central Kitchen strikes even worse. Gaza will have fewer workers providing relief to hungry Palestinians than ever, as a famine gathers pace.

But even as Biden ratchets up criticism of the Israeli government, he does not seem to show any willingness to take meaningful action. The Israeli government, in turn, will feel no need to exercise more caution in Gaza. No wonder Netanyahu is smiling.