The Power of Example

“Lead not by example of power, but the power of our example,” was President Biden’s rallying cry at the beginning of his tenure. Due to Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his election loss, the United States narrowly escaped a coup attempt following the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Since then, democracy in America can no longer be taken for granted. The economic and social crisis that befell the U.S. following the 2008 financial meltdown shook the foundations of its democracy, leading to unprecedented social and political polarization. In Russia, autocracy replaced communism, and in the US Donald Trump was crowned as the representative of dictators, such as Putin through Bolsonaro, Orban to Xi Jinping.

Learning from the bitter experience of the failed Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Biden decided that the struggle for democracy would not be waged through military force akin to the methods of George W. Bush, but through profound economic and social change. America would return to its New Deal roots, and on a grand scale. This was undoubtedly a revolutionary approach. Such change could propel American society forward based on the technological revolution, investment in the public sector, especially in education, and thus surpass competitors, primarily China and Russia.

However, reality is much more complex, and Biden’s days of grace ended the moment Putin decided to seize control of Ukraine and capture Kyiv. Only a year passed between Biden’s entry into the White House and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Lacking high technology and economic achievements to boast about, Putin decided to use his military power to maintain Russia’s status as a global power.

Putin decided to challenge Biden and managed to surprise him, despite his strategic failure to capture Kyiv. Thus, the American government entered a confrontation between two superpowers, with Biden concerned that Kyiv would survive, but on the other that Russia would not be utterly and disgracefully defeated. This formula served to play into Putin’s hands, as he succeeded in proving that the United States fears of spreading the conflict throughout Europe. A year and a half passed between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s invasion of Israel, and more than one line connects these two events.

The Tehran-Moscow axis was formed during the war in Ukraine, without a clear opposing axis being formed against it. The Netanyahu government, and later the Bennett-Lapid government, adopted a “neutral” stance towards Ukraine. Netanyahu, out of sympathy to the anti-liberal camp led by Trump and Putin, and Bennett-Lapid out of narrow considerations of safeguarding Israeli interests, even if they come at the expense of US interests and those of democracies in Europe.

Thus, the gap between Israel and the American government widened, especially with the establishment of the ultra-right-wing government under Netanyahu. The rupture in relations between the US and Israel, Netanyahu’s attempted judicial coup, his government’s loss of international legitimacy, and the massive protest movement that erupted in Israel going as far as threats of refusal to serve in the IDF, if Israel goes all the way in its judicial coup  – all these created optimal conditions for the October 7 massacre.

During the three years since Biden entered the White House, the power of positive example has only weakened, and American democracy has failed to overcome the looming threat to the regime. Donald Trump continues to threaten democracy and strengthen in polls despite the legal proceedings against him. Alongside this, the American Congress has become an example of utter lack in governance, with a small group of extremists controlling its agenda.

Biden failed in spreading the American example worldwide, while Putin managed to organize an extreme faction within the Republican Party that succeeded in delaying approval of American aid to Ukraine for six whole months. This is the harsh reality in which the US (and thus the world) finds itself, and from which American foreign policy is derived. Biden is now primarily fighting for the survival of democracy in the US, and his considerations are subordinated to the goal of thwarting fascism at home.

From here, one can understand the White House’s position regarding the Gaza war. October 7 was a strategic blow that threatened to undermine Israel. When Netanyahu’s government was paralyzed and in disarray, Biden arrived in Israel within 12 days to clarify America’s full support. From America’s point of view, an Israeli defeat was not possible because it would have represented a victory for Putin and Iran, endangering not just the Middle East but Europe too. Biden’s support for Israel stemmed primarily from a vital interest of American democracy itself.

However, Israel is not viewed with the same sympathy as Ukraine; it carries the stain of 55 years of occupation and the most right-wing, fascist government in its history. Additionally, the political and security establishment, from both right and left, nurtured, and fed the Hamas monster. On that cursed day, Israel found itself weakened and defeated despite its absolute technological and military superiority.

After the world recovered from the horrors of October 7, it began to express its full condemnation of Israel. The scenes of destruction and the deaths of over 30,000 Gaza residents automatically transformed into accusations of genocide and deliberate starvation of the civilian population. Ironically, Netanyahu is now subjected to severe criticism for his past refusal to occupy Gaza and eliminate Hamas. The justification for his refusal appears in a passage from his book “Bibi – My Story,” written a year ago:

“In light of the recurring public demands from Bennett, with Lieberman’s support, to occupy the Gaza Strip, I convened the cabinet. I asked the Chief of Staff to present a ground occupation plan and the human cost it would entail. I then asked the Ministry of Defence to assess the resources needed to manage Gaza after the war. I believed that the human cost and resources did not justify such action.”

In other words, the occupation of Gaza and the immense toll it exacted in destruction and loss of life did not stem from an Israeli plan. It was a result of the arrogance and madness of Hamas. Only a fanatic organization like it could carry out such an unjustifiable massacre. However, all of this doesn’t interest the radical faction within the Democratic Party, for whom white Israel represents the villains, while Palestinians are seen as the good guys, even if they support Hamas.

Despite all efforts to “balance” support for Israel with support for Palestinians, warnings by Biden and his officials about the large number of casualties, the humanitarian crisis, Israel’s refusal to accept the two-state solution, refusal to accept Netanyahu in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s explicit call to oust Netanyahu and hold elections now, have turned into a coordinated campaign. This made the war illegitimate because the government is not legitimate. Even the hostages became a card in the hands of the United States to pressure and vilify Israel. It seems that the situation has spiralled out of control: Hamas has gained legitimacy, and the Muslim Brotherhood leaders are leading protests across Europe and infiltrating campuses in the US. It has come to the point where even Iran has joined the bloodbath and launched unprecedented missile attacks on Israel.

The power of example has weakened to the extent that following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden unwillingly went to Riyadh to visit Mohammed bin Salman, the man responsible for the Khashoggi murder, and to sign a strategic agreement with Qatar. Recently, Thomas Friedman proposed in a New York Times article that Israel needs to choose between Riyadh and Rafah. In other words, to choose between an agreement to allow Hamas to remain in Gaza in exchange for the gift of normalization with Saudi Arabia, or to abandon both. The democratic vision has shrunk to a “day after” vision that many in the Israeli left are enthusiastic about, despite being based on the autocratic Saudi kingdom, with its extreme ideology and religious regime, such, that Smotrich and Ben Gvir can only envy.

The vision of world peace and democracy cannot exist alongside Putin, Khamenei, Xi Jinping, and Mohammed bin Salman. It also cannot exist alongside Trump, Netanyahu, Orban, and the extreme European right. America must stand with every democratic force in the world, especially if such a force does arise in the Arab world. In Israel, we took to the streets for months in support of democracy, yet we have not found even one Palestinian partner. If, amid all this destruction, a new Israeli-Palestinian democratic movement is created that aspires to build a shared democratic and egalitarian future, we can also be part of the force of example, and forever abandon the example of force.

About Yacov Ben Efrat