The discussion of the Biden administration’s abstention on the United Nations Security Council resolution demanding a Gaza ceasefire almost universally missed the bigger picture. Israel’s supporters widely condemned America for what they saw as a break from its record of supporting the Jewish state. Israel’s opponents rejoiced that America seemed to be distancing itself from its long-term ally and, in their view, helping to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Few probed into why America made the move it did.

To be clear on the basic facts. The resolution called for both an immediate ceasefire for two weeks and for the immediate release of the Israeli hostages. However, it did not make the ceasefire conditional on the release of the hostages. From an Israeli perspective this meant it was being told it must accept a ceasefire without any guarantee on its hostages being freed. It left Hamas, as a terrorist group not a member of the UN, under no obligation to make any concessions.

Until that point America had vetoed three consecutive Security Council resolutions on Gaza since the war started on 7 October. For that reason the decision to abstain was widely seen as a watershed. Many attributed it to a growing rift between President Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

There are in fact several things going on at once. First, it is true that there is enmity between Biden and Netanyahu but even that is not as straightforward as it appears. The Biden administration and its allies are deliberately trying to undermine Netanyahu’s position in a bid to increase America’s influence over Israel. For example, Biden has studiously avoided inviting Netanyahu to the White House but recently invited Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival, to visit Washington DC. The Biden administration also endorsed a recent speech by Senator Chuck Schumer calling on Netanyahu to resign to make way for new elections.

Of course if the Israeli public wants to replace Netanyahu in elections that is its choice. He is certainly deeply unpopular in Israel at present. But the Biden administration’s attempt to manipulate domestic Israeli politics constitutes gross interference in its internal affairs.

Second, there is a sizeable anti-Israel constituency on what counts as the left of the Democrats. Often its woke activists are comfortable describing Israel’s Islamist enemies as heroic resistance fighters. Biden’s actions can, up to a point, be explained as an attempt to placate that constituency. Indeed Biden’s positions on matters related to Israel tends to flit backwards and forwards as he tries to please different elements in his party.

Finally, the least well understood part of the picture is the Biden administration’s attempt to shift its stance in relation to geopolitics of the region. In that respect Biden is following on from the Obama administration (2009-17) in which he served as vice president.

The thrust of the policy involves appeasing what could be called the axis of Islamism in the region. That is states and political movements imbued in the totalitarian politics of Islamism. These include most notably Iran but also Qatar, Hamas (in Gaza and beyond), Hezbollah (in Lebanon), the Houthis (in Yemen) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (in Gaza and beyond). Iran also has several other proxies in Bahrain, Iraq and Syria.

This American realignment towards this axis might at first appear perverse but there is a rationale behind it. From an American perspective if relations improve with the Iranian axis it would mean there would be less need for it to intervene directly itself. The main anti-American force in the region would have been placated.

Officially America and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1980 so they try to maintain connections by other means. That was the backdrop to the Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), promoted by the Obama administration. The deal was broken off by the Trump administration but Biden has tried to reinstitute it.

Broadening the canvas still wider the appeasement of Iran is an attempt to facilitate the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia announced in 2011. Obama, and later Biden, have aimed to reorient America’s global strategy to make East Asia, and in particular containing China, a top priority. This makes sense from an American perspective since China is clearly its main rival for global influence.

A key challenge America has faced in making this pivot is that it keeps getting sucked back into conflicts in the Middle East. These have included interventions in the past decade in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. America has also found itself reluctantly drawn into, at least to some degree, conflicts between Israel and Hamas. 

It is this broader geopolitical context which is largely missing from the discussion of the Biden administration’s stance on Israel. Yet it is essential to explaining why America seems to be distancing itself from the Jewish state. Indeed it makes it clear that America support for Israel has been relatively equivocal since the start of the conflict on 7 October. That is despite providing Israel with weapons and vetoing UN resolutions.

From the beginning the Biden administration has avoided discussing Iranian involvement despite it being completely evident. As Gadi Taub, a veteran Israeli journalist, noted: “from the get-go, the US denied Iran’s fingerprints on the Hamas attack. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there was no ‘direct’ evidence of Iranian involvement”. That was despite the fact there was ample evidence including public statements by Hamas leaders thanking Iran for its support.

The Biden administration has also recently approved sanctions waivers worth $10bn (£8bn) to the Iranian regime. America could have chosen to cut off the funding to a country it officially designates as a state sponsor of terrorism but it did not do so. This is not to necessarily support the American sanctions regime but the disjuncture between its harsh words and conciliatory attitude is striking.

Indeed it is particularly surprising given that a drone attack by an Iranian-backed group recently killed three American soldiers and injured 30 others in Jordan. Under normal circumstances the Americans might be expected to retaliate against anyone responsible for killing its troops but once against the connection was ignored.

In parallel with that the Biden administration’s failure to pressure on Qatar to cut substantial funding to Hamas and expel the terror group’s leaders should be noted. It is a tiny oil-rich state with a partnership with NATO to help guarantee its security so presumably amenable to American persuasion. However, there is no evidence of Washington trying to get it to change course.

Most extraordinary was the Biden administration’s announcement that the pier it is building to provide aid to Gaza will be financed and managed by Qatar. That means that one of Hamas’s main backers will be operating a pier perfectly placed to smuggle in weapons to the terrorist group. It is hard to imagine a move better designed to undermine Israel’s war to defeat Hamas.

The Biden administration’s tilt away from Israel is not therefore the result of the American president’s personal animosity towards Netanyahu. Nor is it motivated by a concern for Palestinian civilians. It is largely the result of a broader foreign policy shift favouring Iran’s axis of Islamism over Israel’s right to self-determination.

It also sits well with the growing woke strand in American politics which already has close ties with Islamists – often in the guise of anti-Israel activists - at home. It should be no surprise that those who appease Islamism at home should also welcome warm relations with it abroad.

PHOTO: Title: Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing office at the White House / Official White House photo by David Lienemann.