The president believes the best way to shape Israeli strategy is to start with reassurance, and then use the trust he’s built.
With his trip to Israel tomorrow, Joe Biden will become the second American president to travel abroad to an active war zone that is not controlled by his own military. The first was also Joe Biden. When he ventured to Kyiv last February, he arrived during a lull in the fighting. This time, he’s flying into an escalating conflict. He will be, however briefly, the equivalent of a human shield, a temporary deterrent against a potential fusillade of Hezbollah rockets, because striking an American president is a risk that Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon will surely want to avoid.
Biden’s visit isn’t simply a dramatic gesture of solidarity born of his deeply felt Zionism. It is a strategic mission, an expression of his highly psychological approach to foreign policy—and of the insights into the Israeli psyche he’s gleaned through his many visits to the country and from his long relationship with that nation’s political elite.
A recent precedent captures his thinking. In May 2021, Hamas began firing rockets on Israeli cities. Biden told aides that he wanted to scrap the traditional playbook for navigating such a conflagration. Rather than dispatching his secretary of state to the region or calling for a cease-fire, he said that he wanted to smother Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—known as Bibi—with friendship. Or, as one White House aide described it to me, Biden wanted to “hug Bibi tight.”
This was a strategy built on an understanding of Israeli anxiety. The nation, historically encircled by enemies, desperately craves the affirmation of American friendship at its moments of peril. It needs to feel loved and secure when it fears for its existence. Instead of hectoring Israel, Biden wanted to bank emotional capital. He wanted Netanyahu to understand his own belief in Israel’s right to self-defense; and he wanted to show the Israeli public his steadfastness. Then, over the course of the conflict, he planned on drawing down the trust he had deposited, by guiding Netanyahu to the most prudent course of action.
During the 11 days of the 2021 conflict, Biden kept calling Netanyahu. As with the current war, Netanyahu’s strategic objectives weren’t entirely clear. Some in the Israeli military told their American counterparts that a ground invasion of Gaza was a live option. The risks of that weren’t hard to see. But instead of lecturing Netanyahu, Biden conducted the calls in the spirit of a Socratic dialogue. He would ask questions that forced Netanyahu to articulate his goals: How will this end? And how will you know when you’ve restored deterrence?
Biden had learned from the failures of the Obama administration. By adapting a more confrontational stance with Netanyahu, that administration may have pleased allies and domestic groups critical of Netanyahu, but it stoked Israeli insecurities. Instead of curtailing settlements or rushing to the peace table, the Israelis rebelled against the pressure. In fact, Biden personally suffered from this approach. When he visited the Jewish state in 2010, the Netanyahu government humiliated him by announcing the expansion of new housing in East Jerusalem. Rather than aborting his trip, which many back in Washington advised, Biden met up with Netanyahu and embraced him, saying, “This is a mess. How do we make it better?”
Biden believes his approach has already proved successful. In 2014, Israel’s war with Hamas extended across 50 days. In 2021, when Biden deployed his Hug Bibi strategy, the conflict lasted 11. Biden persuaded Netanyahu to wrap up the attack on Gaza in a call where he told him, “Hey, man, we’re out of runway here.”
This visit to Tel Aviv needs to be understood as the high-risk version of the same approach. By banking emotional capital with the Israeli public, he has acquired a position of leverage, from which he will privately prod the coalition government to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. His Socratic questioning can help sharpen Israeli thinking at a moment when emotions cloud judgment. This is a matter of American interest, as Biden tries to preserve the possibility of a regional peace deal, and to prevent the economic disaster of a wider war. And now his own political future depends on a warm embrace.