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War in Israel Will Test the Biden Presidency

On Sunday morning, Joe Biden got on the phone with Benjamin Netanyahu. After the barbaric attack launched against Israel the day before, the Israeli prime minister was able to offer a granular account of what was already known about the unfolding catastrophe. According to two Biden-administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, he gave Biden a vivid set of details about the assault on the music festival in the south of his country. The death toll, he reported, was well over 200—part of the more than 800 Israelis already reported killed in the Hamas assault. Netanyahu’s anger and despair poured through the phone.

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other since the 1980s. Their shared history includes navigating rocket attacks, terrorist assaults, and ground wars. But the president’s aides reported that Biden instantly understood Hamas’s invasion to be different in scale and kind than anything in his political memory, and Netanyahu’s raw account of the carnage stoked Biden’s feelings of anger.

Back in May 2021, when Israel retaliated against a Hamas fusillade by pounding Gaza, Biden quickly began privately outlining his strategy for arriving at a cease-fire. That’s not the case this time. His aides say that he is well aware that the coming Israeli offensive could take months. Biden has expressed unconditional support for Israel in his public statements, and there is no reason to think he has conveyed anything different to Netayahu in private.

A string of knotty questions will surely arise: How will the administration respond to the inevitable civilian casualties in Gaza? Will Biden sanction an Israeli strike on Iran, if that’s where the intelligence ascribes responsibility? In the immediate aftermath, the administration has begun to ponder the implications of the war for American foreign policy, and the ways in which the crisis might present opportunities.

Biden arrived in office with the hope of removing the Middle East from the central place it has occupied in American foreign policy for much of the 21st century. Brett McGurk, the National Security Council official with responsibility for the region, liked to tout the slogan that guided his work: “No new projects.” His task consisted of keeping the Middle East off the president’s desk as Biden sought to end the war in Afghanistan, restore broken alliances, and focus the nation’s gaze on China.

But the administration understood that there could very well be a moment when a crisis intruded and pulled the president’s attention back into the region. This year, Biden made a Saudi-Israeli deal his signal diplomatic initiative. There were two primary reasons he staked his prestige on pursuing an agreement. The first was a worry that the Saudis might be slipping out of the American orbit, as evidenced by their reluctance to impose sanctions on Russia, while staking out friendlier relations with China.

The second was concern for Israeli democracy. Biden saw a deal as a chance to preserve the prospects of a two-state solution, which would be a Saudi condition for moving forward with an agreement. Some in the administration hoped for a bank shot here: Bibi seemed to want a deal badly enough that he would be willing to make the concessions to Palestinians that the Saudis demanded. To deliver on those promises, he would likely be forced to end his alliance with the far right, which had dragged Israel in an undemocratic direction.

Biden’s thinking defied political logic even in a time of relative quiet in the region. But within hours of the Hamas attack, that possible deal is roundly considered to be moribund. Israel will now be focused exclusively on wartime objectives. The Saudis might feel obliged to walk away once Palestinian casualties rise. At the very least, the war wrecks the administration’s timeline. Biden was hoping that he might be able to get a treaty in front of the U.S. Senate before the onset of the coming campaign season. (The Senate would have to approve a defense agreement with the Saudis, a core component of the developing deal.) Putting aside all of the other geopolitical reasons the deal might not happen now, the delay itself makes it impossible, given that the administration would never risk dooming a treaty by sending it to the Senate in the middle of an election year, when politicians of all stripes will be anxious to avoid guaranteeing the security of Saudi Arabia.

But the administration’s conversations with the Sunni states over the weekend have given officials a bit of hope that a deal of some sort might be viable on the other side of the war. When the White House and the State Department first heard from the likes of Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey, their diplomats mouthed traditional justifications for Palestinian violence. Their position shifted, however, over the course of the weekend, as they consumed the news of mass civilian casualties, the kidnapping of women and children, and corpses paraded through the streets of Gaza. Privately, some of the Arab states confessed their disgust with Hamas and its brutal tactics. Even if relegated to diplomatic phone calls, professions of revulsion—and even sympathy for the Israeli public—are unprecedented. Of course, these outbursts of emotion might prove ephemeral as the battlefield shifts to Gaza and away from gunned-down teenagers in the desert, but they raised hopes within the administration that the U.S. might be able to diplomatically isolate both Hamas and their Iran backers in the short term while preserving the possibility of integrating Israel within the fabric of the region in the long term.

Zionism is one of Biden’s primary commitments. It’s not a belief that he acquired in the course of his political career, but something he says that he learned from his father at the dinner table, in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His father would tell him, “If Israel didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.” Biden first met Nancy Pelosi in the early 1970s, when he visited San Francisco to raise money for the Jewish state—Pelosi lent him her Jeep so that he could go from synagogue to synagogue.

Biden’s Zionism has shaped how his administration will frame the moment politically. Despite Israel’s recent slide away from democracy —and despite the rising criticism of the Jewish state within his own party–Biden remains a true believer, who doesn’t haven’t any qualms linking its struggle for existence to a global struggle against barbarism.That’s part of the reasons that his aides have discussed rhetorically linking Israel’s war to the Ukrainian cause—and to the defense of Taiwan.

This framing, some aides believe, would help Biden break through the legislative deadlock on Capitol Hill. Military aid to Ukraine has foundered because of a small faction of Trumpist opposition, whose votes are being courted by the two men now vying to be speaker of the House. By linking Israel to Ukraine and Taiwan, the administration has a chance to put most congressional Republicans in a politically impossible position, where—the conventional wisdom goes—they will have no choice but to support an ally under attack. It might also be the administration’s best chance for reviving broad bipartisan support for Ukraine.

Any president would express robust support for Israel in the aftermath of the Hamas attack. But the question is how those feelings of solidarity survive through the slog of war. Biden’s aides say that his spiritual commitment to Zionism means that he’s going to be an exceedingly generous ally in those ugly moments, although it’s not hard to foresee how those moments, especially if they entail a confrontation with Iran, will test the solidarity with Israel he so dearly professes.

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