Are Biden’s “adjustments” to U.S. Gaza policy better late than never?
Left: A smiling President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, Feb. 9. Right: Palestinians bury the bodies of people killed by the Israeli military during a mass funeral in Rafah. | Photos: AP

As the old saying goes, “Better late than never.”

When it comes to the AFL-CIO joining in the call for a ceasefire in Gaza, it’s true enough. After months of destruction in Gaza, the murder of over 28,000 Palestinians, and the issuing of ceasefire demands by many constituent unions and locals—UE, CWA, Flight Attendants, the Postal Workers, UAW, SEIU, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, among them—this country’s largest organized labor body has joined the peace movement.

The AFL-CIO call for a ceasefire should be welcomed. Workers’ voices are making a difference in their own organizations and forcing the White House to change its earlier rhetoric of unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

But what about the White House? Can it also be said for the administration—“Better late than never?”

Well, if President Biden was actually taking steps to force his Israeli ally, Benjamin Netanyahu, to halt his genocidal war, perhaps we could spare a bit of applause for him. But he’s not, so we won’t.

Some among the liberal political establishment are haranguing the president’s pro-peace critics on the left for not cutting him any slack lately. They point to his directive last Friday declaring he would condition ongoing U.S. military aid for Israel and other “strategic partners”—i.e. Ukraine—on compliance with “international humanitarian law and human rights standards.”

His memorandum gives Sec. of State Antony Blinken 45 days to get written promises from weapons recipients that they aren’t killing civilians with American bombs, missiles, guns, and drones.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the memo “a sea-change in terms of how you approach U.S. military aid and its impact on civilians.”

Is it really, though?

Looking at the directive, there actually isn’t much new to be found in it. No new guidelines about committing atrocities. No new rules for suspending weapons shipments. The only thing new is the request that countries like Israel and Ukraine provide a promissory note when it comes to murdering civilians.

That’s it. That’s the “sea-change” that has prompted some to heap praise on the president.

The reality is that Biden’s move is aimed at scraping up the votes needed to pass his $95 billion supplemental war budget in the Senate. The pressure from many voters for a ceasefire has some lawmakers reluctant to sign on, but remarks from those like Warren suggest enough of the holdouts may think Biden’s maneuver gives them the political cover they need to give a thumbs-up to wasting billions of more dollars on the war machine.

(It’s worth recalling that the original package totaled over $105 billion, but the Democrats’ right-wing border control measures couldn’t get the Republican support Biden desired, so they were dropped.)

Of that $95 billion, around $60 billion is slated for Ukraine to carry on the war of attrition in the east. Most of the rest goes to Tel Aviv, but $8 billion set aside for the new anti-China Cold War, in the form of fresh armaments for Taiwan and nuclear combat submarines for Australia. Oh, and to keep up appearances, there’s a bit of money thrown in for food aid for Gaza, Ukraine, and other war zones.

While a few like Warren may be ready to shower the president with praise for asking Netanyahu to sign a note saying he’s not killing civilians, others are unconvinced—and rightly so. The Israeli Defense Forces have been doing little else but murdering civilians for the past four months. Will a promise letter not to do any more of that (45 days from now) really make a difference?

Skeptics say that the challenge with Biden’s directive is the same as with all previous efforts to supposedly withhold U.S. weapons from human rights abusers: Will the administration actually stick by those conditions and cut the flow of arms when they’re violated?

History says the answer is probably “no.”

Kenneth Roth, former Human Rights Watch chief and current Princeton University professor, said this weekend, “The issue was never knowledge” about U.S. allies engaging in war crimes using arms supplied by America.

Washington always knows what its friends are up to, in fact it often directs the atrocities they commit; the problem, as always, is about “enforcement,” Roth said.

Already, in the 48 hours since Biden issued his directive, Israel has shown just how seriously it takes the president’s supposed threat.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s statement on Thursday that the Biden administration “would not support” an Israeli attack on the overcrowded refugee city of Rafah didn’t give the Israeli government even a moment of pause.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., center, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and others hold a press conference last Friday to praise President Joe Biden’s ‘humanitarian’ weapons memorandum. | AP

The last remaining alleged “safe zone” for Palestinians has been under intense assault for days. Kindergartens are being bombed, ambulances blown up, and refugee camps erased from the Earth.

What we are witnessing is exactly what this newspaper foretold months ago—the real Israeli plan appears to be to push Palestinians completely out of Gaza, or annihilate them while trying. Documents leaked in October revealed precisely how the war would unfold:

  1. Tell Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza while the IDF goes after Hamas with bombing raids; instruct them to seek safety in the south.
  2. Then, send Israeli ground forces in from the north and carry out wave after wave of ground assaults to physically clear Palestinians, basically bulldozing them off the land.
  3. Seal Gaza completely and gather all its residents in Rafah on the Egyptian border.
  4. Expel Palestinians from the Strip completely, forcing them into the Sinai desert.

It’s all happened as expected. Steps 1, 2, and 3 have completed. Now, herded into Rafah, Gazans are being left to their fate by the U.S. There is no escape from Israeli tanks and bombs.

“We have our backs to the [border] fence and our faces toward the Mediterranian,” Emad, a 55-year-old father of six who fled with his family to Rafah, told Aljazeera this weekend. “Where should we go?”

The United States could stop this genocide today, if it really wanted to. But instead, the administration has made a performance of putting false pressure on Netanyahu with its 45-day window asking him to promise he’s not killing civilians. It’s all a pitiful sham.

Indeed, the Biden administration deserves no praise for its lame show of concern at this late stage, when 28,000 Palestinians—mostly women and children—have already been sent to their graves with U.S. assistance.

But it is worth noting that even this “humanitarian” move by the president is symbolic of something.

That something is the organized outrage of the ceasefire movement and the political threat that millions of angry and disappointed peace voters pose for Biden and the Democrats’ hopes in the 2024 elections.

Trump and the MAGA fascist legions are a threat to the continued existence of constitutional democracy in the United States—of that fact the left needs no reminding. But by carrying on with its financial and military support for mass murder in Gaza, the White House itself is torpedoing the broad people’s coalition needed to beat Trump.

The response of the peace movement to Biden’s glacial-like speed on restraining Israel must be to step up the pressure even more. No matter what liberal allies of the president might say, he’s essentially done nothing to stop the genocide so far; instead, he continues to aid and abet it.

Whatever ground U.S. imperialism has grudgingly ceded so far when it comes to stopping the actions of its Israeli ally has been due to the squeeze from souring public sentiment, international condemnation, and the grassroots power of ceasefire activists.

For the entire ceasefire coalition and the Palestinian solidarity movement generally, the approach toward claims that the Biden administration is backing away from its complicity in the Gaza genocide has to be: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

So far, we aren’t seeing it.

As with all op-ed articles published by People’s World, this article represents the views of its author.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.