Biden can pick up the phone and end the bombing of Gaza today

<span>‘We know Biden has the power to stop Netanyahu from killing Palestinians en masse in Gaza because … he has done it before.’</span><span>Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters</span>
‘We know Biden has the power to stop Netanyahu from killing Palestinians en masse in Gaza because … he has done it before.’Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Picture the scene. An Israeli prime minister launches airstrikes on an Arab population. Civilians are killed in their thousands. An American president, stunned and shocked by the scenes of carnage on his TV screen, makes a call to his Israeli counterpart. And … within minutes … the bombing is over.

Sound crazy? Or maybe simplistic? Perhaps naive, even?

Related: My son asks me what will be left when we return to Gaza. The answer? Only rubble and memories | Ghada Ageel

Yet, the year was 1982. What was supposed to have been a limited incursion into southern Lebanon by the Israeli military over the summer, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, then defense minister (remember him?), morphed into a months-long siege of Beirut and an all-out assault on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Between June and August, the Israelis cut off food, water and power to the Lebanese capital in a brutal attempt to destroy the PLO, whose fighters were holed up inside a tunnel network below Beirut. (Sound familiar?)

On 12 August, in what would later be dubbed “Black Thursday”, Israeli jets bombed Beirut for 11 consecutive hours, killing more than 100 people. That same day, a horrified Ronald Reagan placed a phone call to Menachem Begin, then Israeli prime minister, to “express his outrage” and condemn the “needless destruction and bloodshed”.

“Menachem, this is a holocaust,” Reagan told Begin.

Yes, an American leader used the H-word in conversation with an Israeli leader. Begin responded with sarcasm, telling the US president that “I think I know what a holocaust is.” Reagan, however, didn’t budge, insisting on the “imperative” for a ceasefire in Beirut.

Twenty minutes. That’s all the time it took for Begin to call back and tell the president he had ordered Sharon to stop the bombing. It was over. “I didn’t know I had that kind of power,” a surprised Reagan told an aide, upon putting down the phone.

Flash forward 42 years and the Israeli assault on Gaza has now gone on for twice as long as the siege of Beirut. In 1982, Reagan was said to have been moved by the image of a single wounded Lebanese child. As of last week, more than 12,300 Palestinian children had been killed in Gaza, and tens of thousands maimed and injured, in just four months.

Then, it was the nightly news. Now, we all have Instagram. “The international community continues to fail the Palestinian people,” the Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh told the international court of justice (ICJ) at the Hague last month, “despite the horror of the genocide against the Palestinian people being livestreamed from Gaza to our mobile phones, computers and television screens. The first genocide in history where its victims are broadcasting their own destruction in real time in the desperate, so far vain, hope that the world might do something.”

Forget the world. Joe Biden, like Reagan before him, could end the current carnage with a single phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu. He too has “that kind of power”.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Those in the media who say that “America is discovering the limits of its leverage on Israel.” Those in Congress who argue that US presidents “don’t have as much leverage over Israel as they thought”. Those in the White House who claim “they are unable to exert significant influence on America’s closest ally in the Middle East to change its course”.

This is all disingenuous nonsense. It is, to quote the media critic Adam Johnson, a “feigned powerlessness” that has been buttressed, he notes, by a series of “self-serving leaks” from the Biden White House that insist the president “may or not be kind of annoyed over” Israel’s actions.

The truth is that the commander-in-chief of the richest country in the history of the world is far from powerless and, like every commander-in-chief before him, possesses plenty of leverage.

How do we know? First, because members of the US defense establishment say so. Take Bruce Riedel, who spent three decades in the CIA and at the national security council, advising four different presidents. “The US has immense leverage,” Riedel pointed out in a recent interview. “Everyday we provide Israel with the missiles, with the drones, with the ammunition, that it needs to sustain a major military campaign like the campaign in Gaza.”

And yet, Riedel admitted, “American presidents have been notably shy about using that leverage for domestic political reasons.”

Second, we know Biden has major leverage because members of the Israeli defense establishment – as plenty of observers have pointed out – say so, too. In late October 2023, Israeli lawmakers challenged Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, over the decision to allow (a little) humanitarian aid into Gaza, before the release of any hostages. How did Gallant respond? “The Americans insisted and we are not in a place where we can refuse them. We rely on them for planes and military equipment. What are we supposed to do? Tell them no?”

The following month, retired Israeli Maj Gen Yitzhak Brick went even further than Gallant. “All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the US,” Brick said in an interview in November. “The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting. You have no capability … Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.”

Got that? The Israelis cannot “refuse” the Americans. In fact, the president of the US could “turn off the tap” – ammunition, bombs, intel – and thereby end what the ICJ has deemed to be a plausible genocide in Gaza.

Third, we know Biden has the power to stop Netanyahu from killing Palestinians en masse in Gaza because … he has done it before. In May 2021, Israel bombed the strip for 11 straight days, killing more than 100 Palestinians, including 66 children. Over that same period, Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in Gaza fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel, killing 14 civilians. Then as now, Netanyahu rejected calls for a ceasefire – from Hamas, as well as from France, Egypt and Jordan.

But guess who he couldn’t reject? Yes, the president of the United States. “We need to accomplish more,” pleaded Netanyahu when Biden called him on 19 May, according to the journalist Franklin Foer. The president’s response? “Hey, man, we are out of runway here. It’s over.”

Two days later, a ceasefire was announced. And, less than a month later, the Israeli prime minister had been ejected from office.

So why then, but not now? Perhaps because Biden, like millions of Americans and others around the world, was understandably horrified by the terror endured by Israelis on 7 October. But where is his horror over the ongoing terror in Gaza? Over the two Palestinian mothers being killed there every hour or the 10 Palestinian kids having one or both of their legs amputated every day or the one in four Palestinians literally starving in Gaza right now?

Could it be that Biden places less value on Arab lives than … Reagan? “The president does not seem to acknowledge the humanity of all parties affected by this conflict,” a former Biden administration official told Mother Jones in December. “He has described Israeli suffering in great detail, while Palestinian suffering is left vague, if mentioned at all.”

The president’s admirers like to refer to him as the “comforter-in-chief”. His aides call him a “devout Catholic”. He himself has talked, movingly and at length, about grief, loss and pain. So how does that same Biden sleep at night, as US-made bombs continue to fall on innocents in Gaza? How does he justify his inaction and complicity? Here is a man who has experienced devastating personal tragedies, losing his 29-year-old wife and one-year-old daughter in a car crash and then, decades later, losing a son to brain cancer. Yet he now possesses the power, unique among the 8 billion people who live on this planet, to pick up the phone, dial a number beginning +972, and halt the daily killing of hundreds of wives and children.

It really is that simple.

So Mr President, there’s no point “venting” your frustration in private and telling only your aides that the war “has to stop”.

Tell that to Netanyahu. Make the call. End this genocide.

  • Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and author, and a former host on MSNBC. He is a Guardian US columnist