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Joe Biden, meeting, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv
US President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. Photo credit: © Miriam Alster/EFE via ZUMA Press

President Biden’s message to Israel stressed that while Israel has the full support of the US, if it handles Gaza badly it could destabilize the Middle East.

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President Joe Biden’s eight-hour visit to Jerusalem may go down in history as both a heroic expression of authentic personal conviction and an act of genuine statesmanship, a rare occurrence these days. It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump dropping into a war zone, however briefly. 

Skeptics might dismiss Biden’s trip as a publicity stunt, but the truth is that Biden’s actions during the current crisis may have saved both Israel and the residents of Gaza. 

After mobilizing more than 300,000 reservists, Israel had been expected to launch a massive invasion of Gaza, effectively reducing the densely populated enclave into a mountain of rubble in revenge for Hamas’s vicious slaughter of Israeli women and children. Although Israeli forces are still massed on Gaza’s border, the expected onslaught has not taken place, and other Arab states have remained unusually quiet. That is due in large part to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s whirlwind diplomacy deftly explaining the US position to Arab leaders.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s quiet deployment of two US Navy aircraft carrier battle groups and the decision to put 2,000 US Marines on alert have also helped calm the situation. 

Biden’s visit was the final necessary piece in a brilliantly choreographed demonstration of diplomacy intended to keep a justifiably enraged Israel from falling into a potentially lethal trap.

Hamas’s Intention From the Start

Earlier in the week, US intelligence had briefed a group in Congress on the likelihood that Hamas’s intention from the start had been to incite Israel to launch a massive attack on Gaza. Hamas had two possible objectives. The first and most obvious one was to draw Israeli reservists into bloody urban combat that could result in thousands being killed or wounded, all the while inflaming the Arab world against both Israel and the United States. 

While Israel might eventually win on the ground in Gaza, the rest of the Middle East would very likely explode. The most likely immediate response would be an oil embargo, setting the rest of the world on the path to a new recession. American and European interests throughout the region would be under constant attack. 

Hamas’s second possible objective, however, might be even more dangerous. If Hamas’s surprise attack turned out to be only the first blow in a one-two-punch strategy, Israel could very easily face an even greater threat across its northern borders while the bulk of its forces were caught in the quagmire of Gaza. 

Hezbollah, which exercises iron-fisted control over southern Lebanon, is a much more serious threat than Hamas. The movement claims to have 100,000 trained fighters and has received extensive financing, training, and the latest military hardware from Iran. When Israel attempted an incursion into Lebanon in 2006, it ended up fighting against unexpectedly well-trained Hezbollah units. After a few weeks, Israel pulled out. 

Revenge against Hamas’s atrocities might seem sweet, but it would be certain to take thousands of more casualties than Hamas’s original surprise attack. Biden’s advice to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was that he not act in anger. 

Paradigm Shift in US’s Relationship With Israel

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted that although nearly all Israelis rejoiced in Biden’s reassuring statements, the visit also signaled a paradigm shift in the US’s relationship with Israel. While the deployment of two US Navy aircraft carrier battle groups signaled the US was ready to back Israel militarily, it was also a sign that the US is now uncertain of Israel’s overall capacity to defend itself. 

Biden’s visit — along with the earlier deployment of Secretaries Blinken and Austin — was seen more as a warning that the US wants Israel to proceed cautiously than an expression of unconditional support. In short, as Haaretz interpreted it, the US has decided that it’s finally time to reassert some control over Middle East developments.

Biden’s relationship with Netanyahu is complicated. The two have known and respected each other for decades, yet Biden clearly did not approve of Netanyahu’s constitutional coup in which the Israeli leader tried to undercut the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court and manipulate its judiciary after repeated charges of corruption put him in legal jeopardy. Whether or not the corruption charges have any validity, the attack against Israel’s legal system has led to charges that Netanyahu, who has been in office for 20 years, now wants to turn Israel into a personal dictatorship. 

Since Netanyahu’s last election, Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory have multiplied and any talk of a two-state solution that might finally give Palestinians at least some rights over their own destiny has all but vanished.

The debate has sharply divided Israel and severely weakened the country’s ability to defend itself in the process. A few months ago, several thousand reservists refused to show up for training, claiming that Netanyahu’s version of Israel is not one that they felt comfortable defending. Haaretz reported that, for the first time, as many people have been leaving Israel as arriving when it is obvious that the country is in danger. Flights have been filled to Athens and Cyprus. Many of the Israelis leaving openly refer to themselves as refugees who don’t want to risk the lives of their children in a new war. Facebook groups have been created to find housing for the new arrivals. More than a few give Netanyahu’s decision to attack the judiciary as a reason that they no longer feel the same about Israel as they once did.

Even more damaging than Netanyahu’s move against Israel’s judicial system, was the fact that his desperate attempts to hold on to a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, led him to form a coalition with extremist politicians who often appear more interested in suppressing Arabs than protecting the country’s future. 

Since Netanyahu’s last election, Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory have multiplied, and any talk of a two-state solution that might finally give Palestinians at least some rights over their own destiny has all but vanished. Netanyahu is clearly not into it. 

If the Hamas surprise attack has accomplished anything, it will probably be to eventually end Netanyahu’s two decades in office. Netanyahu’s biggest campaign claim until now has been his capacity to keep Israel safe. The Hamas surprise attack put an end to that. It’s not just that the attack came as a shock, catching Mossad and Israel’s internal intelligence arm, Shin Bet, completely off guard, it’s that once the attack began, it took Israel’s defense force, the IDF, anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to reach the settlements that were under assault. 

For all intents and purposes, the vaunted defense force that everyone counted on was not there when it was needed. Nearly every major official involved in Israel’s defense has apologized for being caught off guard during the Hamas attack. The two exceptions are the men most responsible: Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant.

Israel’s internal turmoil was none of Biden’s concern during his brief visit. Rather, Biden seemed determined to see that Netanyahu does the right thing from here on out — namely, ease up on the citizens of Gaza, and make a genuine effort to avoid killing civilians. And demonstrate he is aware that ignoring the fate of the hostages and some 600 other Americans trapped in Gaza is not an option. 

Biden assured Netanyahu that Israel is not alone — but that is true in more ways than one. If Netanyahu’s missteps start a conflagration across the Middle East, the chaos that is created is likely to entangle the US as well. It took Biden less than eight hours to deliver that message. Whether it actually got through to Netanyahu should soon become apparent.

Author

  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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