Has Israel’s moment of reckoning finally arrived?

President Joe Biden sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, days after an Israeli airstrike killed seven humanitarian aid workers from Chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen. Biden remarked that he was “outraged and heartbroken,” a feeling shared by the hundreds of nonprofit groups and human rights organizations.

Humanitarian organizations around the world are now quietly hoping that Biden’s outrage might lead to a real moment of reckoning about the terrible humanitarian cost of Israel’s war. More than 30,000 Palestinians have died since the beginning of the war, 70 percent of them women and children. Gaza is now the deadliest conflict of the 21st Century, with a truly international death toll.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) military strikes have claimed the lives of foreign journalists, photographers, medical staff, religious figures, academics, humanitarian aid workers, Israeli troops and even the Israeli hostages they intended to save. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts nearly 100 reporters and media workers among the dead.

The World Central Kitchen debacle should give the State Department pause to ask whether continued support for Israel’s war advances American interests in the region. Barring that, it should listen to the concerns of the American people, who disapprove of Israel’s wartime conduct by an eye-popping 19-point margin. It isn’t hard to see why.

The war in Gaza is already a scene of uncoordinated carnage even by the standards of warfare. The World Central Kitchen airstrikes happened even though organizers from the group coordinated with the IDF for safe passage. Not only that, but the vans hit by IDF airstrikes were traveling in what’s called a “de-conflicted” zone — an area specifically designed to prevent this kind of fatal mistake.

Even Israeli media outlets now talk openly about how civilian casualties are mounting due to poor discipline among IDF field commanders. The Biden presidency was supposed to mark America’s return to centering human rights issues in our international relations, a welcome change from Trump’s nihilistic foreign policy. If Biden still wants to claim that mantle, he must speak up now about the growing catastrophe in Gaza.

Events may soon force Biden’s hand, because the war is already spilling outside Israel’s borders. On Monday an Israeli airstrike inside Syria leveled an Iranian consular building, killing seven high-level officials including Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammed Reza Zahedi. Zahedi had been involved in plotting attacks against Israel, and no one should weep for his death. But Israel’s rash decision outraged Syria and led Iran to promise retaliatory strikes on Israeli embassies. That would almost certainly lead Israel into a broader and even more dangerous war.

The exigencies of war have also led to a shocking democratic backslide under Netanyahu’s increasingly repressive government. A mass protest in Jerusalem has drawn tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets to protest not only the war but their increasingly dysfunctional political system. That scene turned violent on Tuesday when police clashed with the families of hostages captured by Hamas.

Even before the war, Biden publicly worried about the health of Israel’s democracy, which has since been put through the wringer as Netanyahu fights to maintain power despite his mounting unpopularity with voters. In his desperation, Netanyahu is charting a dark course for Israeli democracy and civil society. Biden has both a moral and a strategic imperative to make clear that Israel must protect and respect its democratic institutions or risk imperiling its relationship with the United States.

It’s a message Netanyahu needs to hear, because the prime minister is now borrowing tactics from the dictatorships that account for so many of Israel’s neighbors. On Monday, Netanyahu announced that he would shut down news agency Al Jazeera’s operations in Israel. Shutting down media is a tactic more at home in Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian Syria than it is in any nation claiming to hold democratic values.

The war in Gaza is threatening the very foundations of Israeli democracy. The best way for Joe Biden to support Israel is to help stop its terrifying slide into an illiberal, authoritarian state. That means not just advocating for an end to the conflict but stepping forward and enlisting other democracies in that critical effort.

Continuing the war in Gaza risks not only Israel’s stability but stability across the entire Middle East. If the next botched Israeli airstrike ends up sparking a regional war, nobody will win — least of all the exhausted Israeli people. True advocates of Israeli peace and prosperity must also be unflinching advocates for Israeli democracy. It’s time for Joe Biden to make that point clear.

Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies.  

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