The US has made it clear that rules are for other people

America and its allies, it would appear, have total impunity from following the international 'rules-based order'

Street art showing US President Joe Biden as Captain America, the super hero, in southern Tel Aviv on Wednesday. Getty Images
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There have been far too many casualties in the Israel-Gaza war thus far, among them the truth, as The National’s Nick March noted earlier this month. Another is the “international rules-based order”, which the US National Security Strategy, published last year, stated “must remain the foundation for global peace and prosperity”.

The need to uphold this supposed “rules-based order” almost defines the Biden administration’s foreign policy, and the words I quote appear just a paragraph above Joe Biden’s signature in the strategy. But it is the US President who is most responsible for the concept’s demise.

For after standing by Israel after it commits war crime after war crime – it’s time to call it straight and without qualification by now – while a White House spokeswoman actually said calls for a ceasefire were “repugnant and disgraceful”, the US government has made it abundantly clear that rules are for other people. America and its allies have total impunity.

The Israeli bombing of the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza is just the latest. Condemned as “a clear-cut war crime”, by Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International and a former official in Mr Biden’s administration, he posted on X that it “shows wanton disregard for the legal obligation to minimise civilian harm in targeting military objectives. It is the latest of many such attacks by the Israeli miliatry”.

I agree with Mr Biden when he said the October 7 attack was “an act of sheer evil”. I understand why he would say: “And let there be no doubt: the United States has Israel’s back.” But a true friend is not an uncritical friend. A true friend might have expressed public concern when a member of the Knesset who belongs to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party called for a second Nakba, “a Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of '48”.

Someone in the White House might have stated that they disagreed when Israeli President Isaac Herzog said that “it is an entire nation out there that is responsible” for Hamas’s atrocities, or when an Israeli news site lists the more than 8,000 Palestinians who have died as “terrorists we eliminated” – which includes more than 3,500 children. Perhaps, it might have been worth speaking up after former Israeli minister Danny Ayalon said the plan was for the entire population to be moved out of Gaza and into the Sinai desert. “This is thought out,” he told a TV interviewer.

The US is viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the one country that could have demanded that, while Israel had every right to self-defence, it must comply with international law

Yes, we have heard some words of restraint from US officials. But they have come too late, and are undermined by other statements, such as Mr Biden’s answer at a news conference a week ago: “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed. I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross differs. “Gaza. The human suffering is shocking. Thousands killed… Hospitals are near collapse… Destroyed infrastructure and homes will take years to rebuild. Even wars have limits,” it posted. The UN Human Rights Office differs. “Nowhere is safe in Gaza. Forcible transfer is a war crime. Collective punishment is a war crime,” it stated last Friday.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres differs. “We must join forces to end this nightmare for the people of Gaza, Israel and all those around the world,” he said on Monday. “The Laws of War establish clear rules to protect human life and respect humanitarian concerns. Those laws cannot be contorted for the sake of expedience.”

Pope Francis differs. He called for a ceasefire on Sunday, saying: “Stop, brothers and sisters. War is always a defeat.” At the UN General Assembly, 121 countries agreed with the pope and voted for a ceasefire a few days ago; only 12 states joined the US and Israel in opposing it. Rarely has either country appeared so isolated.

It is also tragic that the Israeli authorities’ gross disregard for Palestinian lives has been followed by a frightening rise in anti-Semitism around the world. A pogrom in a European country, as took place at the airport in Dagestan, Russia, on Monday, is a horror we could not have imagined we would see in the 21st century.

We know that the US has tremendous leverage over Mr Netanyahu’s government, should it wish to exert it. After Israel cut off all communications to Gaza last week, The Washington Post reported that the White House insisted they be switched back on. “We made it clear they had to be turned back on,” an official told the paper. “The communications are back on. They need to stay back on.”

But many will agree with Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington. “Biden’s ‘pressure’ on Israel isn’t to prevent mass killings and war crimes,” he wrote. “Rather, its ‘pressure’ appears aimed at keeping Israel’s bombings and war crimes at a ‘tolerable’ level to keep the backlash against Israel manageable. Biden is doing ‘war crimes management’ for Netanyahu.”

That may seem very harsh. But Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran PLO politician and former minister, appears to concur. “The US administration: hollow, hypocritical words, complicit criminal actions. Please, stop insulting our intelligence. We see you; the world sees you,” she posted on Monday.

The point is very simple. As King Abdullah II of Jordan stated at the Cairo Summit for Peace more than a week ago, as far as Israel is concerned the message much of the world is hearing is that: “Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional.”

The US is viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the one country that could have demanded that, while Israel had every right to self-defence, it must comply with international law. And from the very start, with the bombings that killed innocent people in Gaza after October 7, Israel did not – and we heard no condemnation from the US. As a consequence, Mr Biden’s moral authority, and that of allies such as the UK’s Rishi Sunak, have been irretrievably damaged in the eyes of billions.

After this, both men should be too embarrassed to talk about the international rules-based order. The rules clearly do not apply to the US and its allies. Some doubted whether this “order” ever really existed. There is no doubt now. What an irony that it should be Mr Biden who finished it off for good.

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Published: November 01, 2023, 2:30 PM
Updated: November 04, 2023, 2:03 PM