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Biden’s Gaza pause brings joy — and anguish

President Joe Biden was looking his most protective and avuncular as he announced that Avigail Idan, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel who had turned four while in Hamas’ captivity, was among those now liberated. “Thank God she’s home,” he said. “I wish I was there to hold her.”

Avigail’s individual fate, like that of the scores of other hostages released during the humanitarian “pause” of recent days, is reason to cry tears of joy and of anguish at once. On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists executed her father while he was holding her in his arms, then killed her mother as Avigail and her siblings looked on. Avigail, who also goes by Abigail, survived by running to a neighbor, but the gunmen came and took her to Gaza. She is now free and safe. But she’ll never be the same girl again. And most of the other hostages taken on Oct. 7 remain in captivity.

Something similar can be said for the 2 million Gazan civilians, especially the children. During the truce brokered by the Biden administration and then extended from four to six days, they had a respite from Israeli bombing as well as access to some food, water, fuel and medicine arriving by aid convoys. But the trauma of the Gazan innocents, too, will linger forever.

Relief and sorrow, hope and anxiety, are also eerily commingled in Washington, D.C. The Biden administration and the Qataris and Egyptians who intermediated between Israel and Hamas deserve credit for the pause they negotiated, for it alleviated human misery. Now that this hiatus expired, though, they need to contemplate the situation from here on. And it remains dire. The reality is that much of U.S. policy, and even Washington’s “grand strategy” as it was supposed to take shape, now lies in shambles.

Take, for instance, the U.S. stance on hostages. Starting with the administration of Richard Nixon, Washington’s policy has been not to make concessions to terrorists or others who kidnap Americans. The reasoning is that, hard as it is for hostages and their families, yielding to terrorists only provides others the incentive to capture even more U.S. citizens. The policy was reviewed during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and confirmed more explicitly each time.

But Biden has, without announcing it, opened this file again. Even before Oct. 7, he secured the release of five Americans held captive by Iran, which is, among other things, a sponsor of Hamas and other anti-American and anti-Zionist militias. In return, he promised to thaw some of Tehran’s frozen funds abroad. Skeptics objected that it’s precisely such deals that encourage terrorist groups or rogue regimes from Russia to North Korea to replenish their “bank accounts” of U.S. hostages.

The latest truce-for-hostages deal takes the Biden administration’s ambiguity to a whole new level. The White House shares that dilemma with its ally, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israelis know all about perverse incentives: In 2006, Hamas captured an Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit and five years later traded him for 1,027 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. This week’s “exchange rate” — in which Hamas freed roughly one hostage for every three Palestinians released from Israeli jails — is less skewed. But it still signals, to Hamas and others, that capturing Israelis or Americans pays dividends.

A new pattern in Gaza of war, pause and renewed war also scrambles U.S. policy in the region generally. Before Oct. 7, the White House had been working toward a deal with Saudi Arabia in which Riyadh would recognize Tel Aviv in return for American security guarantees, and this new triangular quasi-alliance would keep Tehran in check. That has become hard to imagine, as hatred between Israelis and Arabs returns to boiling point.

Precisely this outcome — spirals of abomination that make any “normalization” of Israel unthinkable — was probably Hamas’ intent on Oct. 7. In that way, a new and interminable cycle of overwhelming Israeli retaliation interrupted by humanitarian pauses and hostage-prisoner exchanges, over and over again, helps Hamas. The terrorists assume, plausibly, that public opinion in Arab nations and the world, even the U.S., will gradually turn against Israel.

Even as they pay renewed lip service to a two-state solution for Jews and Palestinians in the region, some diplomats in Washington privately despair. An Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza strip would breed more hate. A reintroduction of the corrupt Palestinian Authority would leave the strip in chaos and allow Hamas or its spawn to regroup. A credible peacekeeping force led by Saudis or other Arabs seems implausible.

Indeed, peace as such, as opposed to intermittent truce, currently seems unthinkable. One veteran diplomat tells me that when he pictures the likely destiny of Gaza he sees Carthage after the Third Punic War: a depopulated mound of rubble which its conquerors sowed with salt.

For the time being, such visions also put paid to America’s overall foreign-policy strategy as it has evolved since the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president. Back then, the idea was to correct America’s imperial overstretch with selective retrenchment, and a “pivot” from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific, where the greater menace loomed in Communist China. But then Russia invaded Ukraine. And now Gaza goes the way of Carthage. Like it or not, the U.S. has been sucked back into its role of reluctant global cop, not so much to restore order as to prevent even worse chaos.

Biden did the best he could in pushing for this first humanitarian pause. “The proof that this is working, and worth pursuing further, is in every smile and every grateful tear we see on the faces of those families who are finally getting back together again,” he said. “The proof is little Avigail.” He neglected to add that for every grateful tear there’ll be other cries of sorrow.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

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