Biden’s Moves on Gaza at U.N. Test U.S. Credibility
China and Russia capitalize on Washington’s resistance.
On May 12, as Israel and Hamas exchanged rocket fire and airstrikes, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, participated in a U.N. session aimed at rallying international condemnation of China for its mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims, meant to underscore U.S. commitment to human rights and multilateralism.
But the event—which was hosted by the United States, Britain, and Germany—was largely overshadowed by the crisis in Gaza and East Jerusalem, where the United States was single-handedly blocking an effort by Norway, Tunisia, and even China to pass a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) statement criticizing Israel. It has also raised doubts among some diplomats about the depth of the United States’ commitment to international cooperation and the United Nations.
“They pledged to come back and support the U.N. system and multilateralism,” said one council diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We don’t see that happening now in the Security Council.”
The Middle East crisis—which has resulted in the deaths of more than 200 civilians, mostly Palestinian, and shredded the fabric of Israeli society—has flipped the U.S. script. The imbroglio has put Washington on the defensive over its commitment to human rights and provided China with an opportunity to showcase its multilateral credentials, aligning itself with traditional U.S. allies and the United Nations, which are seeking a role for the Security Council in publicly promoting a cease-fire.
Facing growing international and domestic political pressure, U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday for the first time expressed support for a cease-fire in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a full week into the crisis. But on the same day, the United States blocked yet another attempt by its Security Council counterparts to adopt a statement urging the warring parties to observe a cease-fire.
“This is frankly, in my view, quite damaging to the U.S. position,” said a second council diplomat who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think it will color Chinese and Russian exchanges and engagement with Linda Thomas-Greenfield going forward. It won’t change the fundamental council dynamics, but I can hear in my head the Russians repeating this back to her for the next couple of years.”
For months, the Biden administration has sought to place human rights at the center of its diplomacy at the United Nations, where it plans to rejoin the Human Rights Council, reversing a Trump administration policy, and championed efforts in the U.N. Security Council to address human rights abuses in Ethiopia and Myanmar. “Multilateralism is back, and diplomacy is back, and America is back, and we’re ready to get back to work,” Thomas-Greenfield told reporters on her first day on the job.
Since taking up her new post, the veteran U.S. diplomat has promoted the adoption of statements in the 15-member council to voice concerns about human rights violations around the globe, facing reticence or outright resistance from China and Russia. But with the crisis in Gaza quickly spiraling, the Biden administration finds itself almost as politically isolated as previous administrations.
“U.S. credibility depends on an even-handed application of human rights rules and international law for everyone, allies and enemies alike,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. “Israel needs to be held to the same international standard as everyone else. The Biden administration undermines its credibility by not insisting on it.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Gilad Erdan, framed the council members’ choice as “between surrendering to Hamas’ terror or backing Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself” in his address to the Security Council on Sunday.
“Members of the UNSC have a choice today—to support a more peaceful future by demanding the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and insisting on an authority in Gaza, that invests in the well-being of the people of Gaza, rather than in the destruction of the State of Israel,” he said on Twitter.
Charbonneau credited Thomas-Greenfield with elevating the importance of human rights in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and China, where the United States helped assemble a coalition of more than 50 states to denounce China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. He also noted she made some important remarks in the council’s Middle East session, urging both parties to respect international humanitarian law and respect and protect medical workers and journalists. The session also explicitly called on Israel to cease demolition of Palestinian homes and settlement construction.
But he said the United States’ refusal to back a U.N. call for a cease-fire in the midst of the region’s bloodiest week in years has undercut its position. “If the U.S. wants to present itself as serious about restoring human rights to the center of its foreign policy, it can’t stand back and constantly greenlight Israeli attacks.”
Washington has challenged that characterization, saying it has invested considerable political capital in trying to end the violence, including through high-level contacts involving Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“We are not standing in the way of diplomacy,” Blinken said at a news conference Monday with the Danish foreign minister. “On the contrary, we’re exercising it virtually nonstop. The question is: Will any given action, will any given statement actually, as a practical matter, advance the prospects for ending the violence or not?”
At the U.N. Security Council debate on Sunday, Thomas-Greenfield said the Biden administration “has been working tirelessly through diplomatic channels to try to bring an end to this conflict” and has been “intensively engaged” with Israeli, Egyptian, Qatari, and U.N. officials to try and defuse the crisis. But the U.S. mission subsequently blocked the latest push by Norway, Tunisia, and China to adopt a statement calling for a cease-fire.
“China’s government doesn’t care about Israel and Gaza and certainly not about condemning rockets from Hamas,” said a senior Biden administration official. “China’s government does look for every opportunity to deflect attention from its atrocities and acts of genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. At the end of the day, it’s the United States that is leading tirelessly through diplomacy with Israeli, Palestinian, and other regional leaders to bring an end to the violence.”
Since a wave of violence first erupted between Israeli security forces and Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, at least 200 Palestinians have been killed and 1,300 people wounded. Ten people in Israel have been killed from rocket attacks launched from Gaza. Behind-the-scenes efforts to broker a cease-fire have so far failed, and Israel said it will continue to carry out attacks targeting Hamas.
The U.S. position has provided an opening for China to attempt to showcase its own competing commitment to multilateralism at the United Nations. Traditionally a council back-seat driver on Middle East matters, Beijing, which holds the rotating presidency of the council this month, has carved out a leadership role, cosponsoring the initiative by Norway and Tunisia, the council’s lone Arab state, to adopt council statements raising alarm over the escalating violence and pressing for an immediate cease-fire.
On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Security Council during a virtual emergency meeting the U.N. body needs to “take actions right now” to stem the violence and called for “an immediate cease-fire.” He also took a swipe at the United States, noting that efforts to adopt a council statement calling for a cease-fire had been blocked. “Simply because of the obstruction of one country, the Security Council hasn’t been able to speak with one voice,” he said.
The meeting provided ample examples of hypocrisy from governments beyond just China. Russia denounced attempts by Israelis to “change the geographical, demographic, and historical character and status” of Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and called for compliance with international humanitarian law and the protection of journalists and medical workers.
But it also offered a respite from scrutiny for China, which spent much of the last week promoting action on the Middle East and avoiding questions on its role in Xinjiang. “Clearly, it’s a win for China to be able to exploit the situation,” said a third council diplomat, noting China took the unusual step of briefing reporters on the issue after the Sunday debate.
But the diplomat said the development was unlikely to do much to burnish China’s standing or diminish international criticism of its human rights record.
“In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it gets them off the hook on Xinjiang or puts the U.S. in a particularly uncomfortable position,” the diplomat said. Washington’s unwavering support for Israel at the U.N. is already “baked in” to governments’ assessment of the United States’ commitment to multilateralism.
The focus on U.S. intransigence has kept the focus on Israel’s allegedly disproportionate use of force and eclipsed the role of Hamas, which has fired more than 3,000 rockets at Israeli towns, including at neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The crisis could also complicate efforts for the new administration to repair diplomatic ties with Palestinian leaders, which all but collapsed under former U.S. President Donald Trump. The administration last week dispatched a State Department envoy, Hady Amr, seen as an important U.S. interlocutor with Palestinian counterparts, to the region to defuse tensions.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki issued a scarcely veiled swipe at Biden, who defended Israeli’s military offensives against Hamas, suggesting Biden may be complicit in the death of Palestinians. “Remember that each time Israel hears a foreign leader speak of its right to defend itself, it is further emboldened to continue murdering entire families in their sleep.”
Biden has faced similar criticism from the left flank of his own Democratic party in Washington, where progressive lawmakers are rebuking him over efforts to block U.N. resolutions calling for a cease-fire. “I don’t care how any spokesperson tries to spin this,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “The U.S. vetoed the U.N. call for cease-fire. If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?”
The U.S. president does not appear to be caving to international pressure or criticism from progressive Democrats as top administration officials double down on their support of Israel.
“We believe strongly that Israel has a right to defend itself,” Blinken told Danish news outlet TV2 during a visit to Denmark on Monday. “This false equivalence between a terrorist group—Hamas—that is indiscriminately launching rockets at civilians and Israel, which is responding to those attacks, I think we have to be very, very wary of,” he said while adding Israel “has an extra burden” to avert civilian casualties.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer