Benjamín Netanyahu, bibi
© ReutersPrimer ministro israelí, Benjamín Netanyahu.
The crisis in Gaza that has been ongoing since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel has resulted in a sea change in political opinion on the question of Israeli security prerogatives and Palestinian statehood. While international opinion has decisively shifted to the Palestinian cause, Israel has until recently been ably backstopped by the US, which has wielded its veto at the UN Security Council to shield Israel from any binding consequences. But shifting global priorities, coupled with turbulent domestic political realities, have caused the US stance on Israel to shift, creating the possibility of Israel, for the first time, standing alone in the crosshairs of global condemnation.

On Mar. 25, the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council tabled a draft resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan, the immediate release of hostages and humanitarian access. The resolution was the latest in a succession of similar calls from the Security Council seeking an end to the violence that has wracked Gaza and the region since Oct. 7.

Prior to the Mar. 25 draft resolution being tabled, all previous efforts to bring an end to violence in Gaza had failed, with the draft texts either vetoed by the US or, on one occasion, Russia and China. But the latest call for a ceasefire passed muster, receiving 14 "yes" votes, zero "no" votes, and one abstention — from the US.

The Security Council resolution has no enforcement clause, making it little more than a formal notice of disapproval by the UN of Israeli actions. The administration of President Joe Biden made it clear that it continued to blame Hamas over Israel when it comes to the root cause of the current crisis, and that the US supported the overall Israeli objective of destroying Hamas both militarily and politically. Circumstances at home and abroad, however, raise questions about the sustainability of this policy position.

Changing Times

The Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu is the most conservative in its history, the byproduct of a desperate politician (Netanyahu) seeking to bury his personal legal problems under the weight of governing what has, for several election cycles, become an increasingly ungovernable state. To accomplish this, Netanyahu made common cause with Israel's extreme right-wing political element, crafting a coalition that not only rejected the notion of a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian question but also embraced the idea of a greater Israel that would do away with the idea of a Palestinian state in general.

Israel was able to capitalize on the general apathy of the global collective to the plight of the Palestinian people, allowing the dream of a viable Palestinian state to be supplanted by a road map toward regional economic connectivity and prosperity defined by the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world. This generated schemes such as the India-Middle East Economic Corridor (Imec), an ambitious sea-rail collaboration designed to link India with Europe via the Gulf Arab states, Jordan and Israel.

The Hamas attack of Oct. 7 and Israel's heavy-handed response changed all that. Imec is dead in the water, alongside any notion of normalized relations with Arab countries until the question of Palestinian statehood is resolved. The resilience of Hamas militarily and politically has compelled Israel to undertake military action that has resulted in the deaths in Gaza of over 30,000 civilians (some 19,000 of whom are children). This has prompted allegations of genocide presented to the International Court of Justice. Cities across the world are full of protesters condemning Israel and praising the cause of a free and independent Palestine. More and more US cities are hosting such actions.

The tidal wave of public sentiment has moved the needle of government policy in many nations. The US State Department has put the White House on notice that the US is in danger of losing the support of the Global South at a time when US policy objectives are centered on slowing the pace of multipolarity and preserving the rules-based international order that serves as the centerpiece of US foreign and national security policy. The US abstention at the Security Council reflected a new reality, where the US must weigh its own foreign policy objectives against the established principle of unquestioned support for Israel.

Local Politics

The US and Israel could attempt to ride out the storm of international protest, waiting for a world that had long been indifferent to the plight of the Palestinian people to lose interest again and shift its attention to a new crisis — in a world fully capable of generating one at a moment's notice.

But as Tip O'Neill, a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, once quipped, "all politics is local," and the Gaza crisis is no exception. The UN abstention was an attempt at damage control which, under normal circumstances, might have allayed the concerns of people more interested in words over action. But 2024 is a US presidential election year, with incumbent Joe Biden set to face former President Donald Trump in a race that is expected to be every bit as heated — or more — than the tumultuous 2020 election.

The 2020 election, like the 2016 one before it, was won on the margins, in so-called "battleground states" where the difference between winning and losing came down to a few thousand votes derived from distinct demographics. One such demographic is the Muslim-American community, which is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The UN abstention was an effort to dampen the negative feelings of this community. But void of any meaningful follow-on action by the Biden administration to enforce the will of the Security Council, this won't be enough to secure this demographic come election time. As a result, the US political theater is witnessing previously unimaginable scenes, such as the ardently pro-Israeli Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for the removal of Netanyahu or Biden threatening to withhold military aid, something previously unimaginable in US politics, should Israel not yield to the demand for a ceasefire.

It's unclear how much longer Netanyahu can hold on to power in Israel in the face of a torrent of bad news for Israel about declining international support for — and dire economic consequences derived from — its ongoing military operation in Gaza. Netanyahu, who failed in his bid to cloak himself with judicial immunity, faces not just political defeat but also personal ruin should he be removed from office.

Netanyahu's political viability is linked to his ability to sustain the current conflict in the hope that he can pull a miraculous victory over Hamas out of the hat. Netanyahu, however, is running into a brick wall of US political opposition where the presidential political imperative is starting to trump loyalty to Israel. No Israeli prime minister has survived without US political support. And no US presidential candidate has prevailed in an election where the cause of Israel was forsaken. The question now is who will blink first, Netanyahu or Biden — the answer to which remains very much up in the air.