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Biden’s ‘bear hug diplomacy’ in Israel risks stoking anger in Arab world

The Arab world is erupting in anger over the war between Hamas and Israel, and President Biden’s visit to Tel Aviv this week appears to have only amplified resentment over America’s role in the region. 

Tensions burst wide open this week after an explosion at a Gaza hospital killed hundreds of people, overshadowing Biden’s trip to Tel Aviv. Arab nations were quick to criticize Israel for carrying out a strike on the hospital, though U.S. and Israeli officials have shared evidence indicating the explosion was likely caused by a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.

But the statements have done little to quell anger across the Middle East. 

Steve Simon, a former adviser to the White House on Middle East affairs, echoed the phrase that “truth is the first casualty of war.”

“Regardless of who perpetrated it, it’s tremendously angering for Arabs and useful for Hamas,” said Simon. “The truth in a way doesn’t matter, it’s just how a particular event can be used for narrative and mobilizing purposes.”

Biden’s visit was meant to underline America’s “ironclad” support for Israel as it responds to an unprecedented attack that left some 1,400 people dead and that Israel’s government has compared to America’s 9/11 and even the holocaust. 

But it also came as Israel pummels the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians, and threatens to launch a ground invasion into the coastal enclave. 

Biden has also drawn criticism for what some called a tone-deaf statement when he said the “other team” was responsible for the hospital blast.

Phyllis Bennis, who focuses on the Middle East and the U.S. military at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, criticized Biden for “playing it out as teams” in a time of war.

“In Israel, the kind of ‘bear hug’ diplomacy that he’s engaged in,” Bennis said, “is certainly angering an awful lot of people.”

Bennis said the ongoing Israel war is a stark reminder of the aftermath of 9/11, when the U.S. launched its global war on terrorism.

“When the U.S. was the target of a horrific attack with most of the victims being civilians, there was a massive level of support,” she said. “That was completely destroyed when [former President George W. Bush] announced just days later that his answer to this horrific crime would be to take the world to war. And then simply the world was not so happy about that.”

Biden warned Israel not to repeat the “mistakes” U.S. forces made in the Middle East after the deadly plane attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans in 2001. He has also warned Israel that any attempt to occupy Gaza could backfire.

The Palestinian cause has long been a rallying point for the Arab world, as the 1948 displacement of the Palestinian people to make way for the Jewish state has yet to be resolved. 

The longer the Israel-Hamas war goes on, the more likely it could strengthen support for Palestine and weaken the U.S.-Israel standing, said Harun Küçük, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It looks like there’s not going to be a cease-fire, there’s going to be [a] very prolonged land operation in Gaza,“ he said, “and that’s not going to help anything. It’s just going to make people angrier.”

Küçük said the Biden administration should “take every step towards looking more like a mediator and less like a party” to the war or risk losing “credibility in the international community.”

But Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, said it was important for the U.S. to stand by its ally after the horrific Hamas assaults.

“The leadership of Arab nations are looking at that close relationship,” Lord said, to see if “they themselves could enjoy that type of support from America and that feeling of reassurance if and when they ever face a crisis of this magnitude.”

Lord said the “odds were incredibly stacked against” Biden after he stepped into Israel because of the hospital bombing, but the president’s “superpower” is empathy, and he delivered that to the Israeli people.

“I believe the U.S. will be well positioned when the dust settles to work to restore normal ties between Israel and its neighbors,” he added.

For now, Israel’s neighbors are communicating calls for an immediate end to the war and are outright accusing the country of war crimes.

The Arab Group, a regional league of 22 members representing the Middle East and North Africa, held an emergency session Thursday, where the organization called for a cease-fire and condemned the “Israeli occupation against defenseless civilians.”

Underscoring the weight of the tensions, Jordan and Egypt, which canceled a major summit with Biden this week after the hospital explosion, have also been critical of Israel’s operations and are fearful that Palestinians will suffer another catastrophe of displacement.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in remarks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week that it was critical to stop the violence, which he said is erupting now as “a tidal wave that is a direct consequence of the crisis and its accumulated symptoms.”

“We need to understand that this is the result of accumulated fury and hatred over four decades, where the Palestinians had no hope to find a solution,” the Egyptian leader said.

The U.S. has many crucial partners in the Middle East, both for economic and security reasons, including allies like Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Protesters across the Arab world this week demanded a cease-fire and an end to Israel’s bombing of civilians in Gaza, including demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. 

While analysts say the protests are somewhat tempered now, the public outcry is significant because it could pressure Arab leaders to enforce a harder line on where they stand with the U.S. and Israel.

But Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, cautioned that the Arab community is not a “monolithic block of opinions” and that public opinion on the issue is varied.

“You have two messages that are clashing all the time,” he said of rhetoric from Hamas and Israel. “And at face value, they look as if they’re similar because they’re both trying to show themselves as defenders of civilians.”

A looming ground offensive from Israel into Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, could mean years of war and strained relations between U.S. and Arab nations.

Abdul-Hussain said Biden was “absolutely doing the right thing” by supporting Israel in defeating Hamas. He said it was clear the goal, after Hamas, is to get back to the negotiation table. 

“We all know that the solution at the end of the day would be a negotiated solution,” he said. “People will have to talk to one another. And the Gulf countries understand that.”

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