Netanyahu at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv (ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

November 23, 2023   6 mins

While the Israel-Hamas truce will provide instant relief to both war-torn Gazans and the families of returned hostages, this is not a time for celebration. Netanyahu has made clear that the war will continue until he achieves “absolute victory”. This is deeply concerning, not only for the fate of Gazans, but also because the war is already spilling over into the rest of the region.

Over the past five weeks, the IDF has been engaged in daily clashes with Hezbollah along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and has launched several air raids on militias in Syria. Meanwhile, Ansar Allah, the Houthi movement that controls most of Yemen, has launched several long-range missiles at Israeli targets (all of which were intercepted). These groups have one thing in common: they are all backed by Iran — as is, of course, Hamas itself. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Israel is effectively engaged in a low-intensity proxy war with Iran; or that, as a crucial ally of Israel in the region, the United States is caught up in this proxy war too.

Since October 7, the US has seriously beefed up its military presence in the Middle East, deploying two carrier strike groups, a nuclear-powered submarine and more than 3,000 additional troops — bringing the total number of US troops in the region to around 60,000. Washington has also significantly ramped up its supply of weapons to Israel, and offered nearly unequivocal support for its brutal assault on Gaza, making it a co-belligerent in the eyes of Israel’s foes.

The result is that, over the past month, attacks on US troops in the region have escalated dramatically, with nearly 60 strikes on American bases in Syria and Iraq, where the US has 900 and 2,500 troops respectively. In response, America has conducted several air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria. These were ordered by Biden, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin explained, “to make clear that the United States will defend itself, its personnel, and its interests”.

Until now, each party in this conflict has been calibrating its actions in order to maximise their political impact — in the case of Iran and its proxies, showing support for Gaza and boosting their popularity across the Middle East — while managing the risk of escalation. No one is interested in a full-blown regional war: Israel can’t afford to open up new fronts, while Iran has no interest in completely upending the new post-October 7 regional status quo, of which it is the main beneficiary.

According to Reuters, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Hamas when they met in Tehran in early November that his country would continue to offer political and moral support but wouldn’t intervene directly in the war. This cautious approach was echoed in a recent speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in which he commended Hamas for its ability to confront Israel on its own, and praised his group for diverting Israel’s attention by engaging the IDF in southern Lebanon. For now, Arab countries, as well as Turkey, seem to be following a similar approach: talking tough on Israel but taking little concrete action, such as a Seventies-style oil embargo, for example.

Not all factions of Iran’s “axis of resistance”, however, seem to agree with this non-escalatory strategy. The Yemenite Houthis — over which Tehran doesn’t hold a complete sway — have effectively declared war on Israel, and on Sunday stepped up their actions by seizing an Israeli-linked cargo ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route, taking its 25 crew members hostage. The group said that that all vessels linked to Israel “will become a legitimate target for armed forces”, and that this marks just the beginning of their actions. Even though the IDF has denied that the ship in question is Israeli, signalling that there will be no retaliation, this still represents a very serious threat for Israel, since it makes it increasingly risky, and costly, for its ships to use the Suez canal.

The US is following these developments closely. While a minority of neoconservative fanatics view the situation as a perfect opportunity to crown their long-held dream of attacking Iran, the Biden administration seems more concerned about the prospect of a potential military escalation in the region.

As it is, Washington’s support for Israel’s is already compromising its reputation in the region. According to a diplomatic cable obtained by CNN earlier this month, American diplomats in Arab countries have warned the Biden administration that its robust support for Israel “is losing us Arab publics for a generation” and is seen across large parts of the Middle East “as material and moral culpability in what they consider to be possible war crimes”. The Washington Post also recently reported, based on the statements of Arab leaders and analysts, that that US support for Israel’s actions “risks lasting damage to Washington’s standing in the region and beyond”.

This is a massive setback for an administration that, prior to October 7, was boasting about the success of its strategy of Arab-Israeli rapprochement as a way of reasserting US influence in the region at the expense of Iran and China. For today, it’s not just Iran that is benefiting from this situation — but also China and Russia.

Since Hamas’s attack, Putin has aligned himself with the Arab world and the Global South in strongly condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza, calling for a ceasefire and a two-state solution, and accusing in no uncertain terms “the current ruling elites in the United States and its satellites” of bearing responsibility for the chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere. Meanwhile, China has spied an opportunity to present itself as the region’s peacemaker. It’s not a coincidence that the first serious international summit for peace in the Middle East, with delegates from all major Arab and Muslim-majority nations, just took place in Beijing, rather than Washington (or Brussels, for that matter). The meeting was a clear sign of how China is filling the soft power vacuum left in the region by the US, which is no longer seen as a credible peace broker.

With its influence increasingly diminished, it’s little wonder that the Biden administration is concerned about being dragged into a wider regional conflict. Early on in the war, the US State Department warned of an increased “potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations or violent actions against US citizens and interests”, and similar cautions have since been issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s Director Chris Wray. This explains why, according to a report by Axios, Defense Secretary Austin recently expressed concern to his Israeli counterpart about Netanyahu’s role in escalating tensions with Hezbollah. “Some in the Biden administration are concerned Israel is trying to provoke Hezbollah and create a pretext for a wider war in Lebanon that could draw the US and other countries further into the conflict,” it stated.

As the journalist Branko Marcetic noted, this is “a powerful reminder that the Biden administration’s current policy of unconditional support for the Israeli government’s war on Gaza carries with it no upsides and only downsides in regards to US interests”. So why does Washington continue to forcefully support Israel? Almost two decades ago, John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt highlighted the power of the American pro-Israeli lobby, which had “managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical”.

Today, this appears to be truer than ever. While it’s clear the US has an interest in de-escalating the situation in Gaza, it’s equally clear that Netanyahu’s extremist, ultra-nationalist government, which includes several self-avowed fascists, has no intention of negotiating a political settlement with the Palestinians. According to a confidential report from the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv, its strategy is to “deliberately caus[e] massive destruction to the infrastructure and civilian centres” in Gaza, in order “to show Iran and its proxies that they will stop at nothing”. Indeed, several prominent Israeli officials have openly talked of “erasing”, “flattening”, and even “nuking” Gaza.

It shouldn’t come as shock, then, to witness how the US establishment is beginning to view the current Israeli government as a liability. Asked about Netanyahu’s potential to negotiate a two-state solution earlier this month, Hillary Clinton replied: “I don’t think there is any evidence of that. I think the Israeli people will have to decide about his leadership”. In other words, negotiating a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t likely just require regime change in Gaza — but in Israel as well. Meanwhile, in a recent op-ed, Biden threatened to introduce visa bans against violent settlers in the West Bank, spoke against the blockade of Gaza, and reaffirmed the idea of a Palestinian state.

In the meantime, why doesn’t the US use its leverage to rein in Israel? According to a recent Washington Post article, Biden administration officials maintain “they are unable to exert significant influence on America’s closest ally in the Middle East to change its course”. It’s a dubious claim, at best. Washington, after all, is Israel’s largest military backer, providing it with more than 80% of its weapons imports. Quite simply, Israel wouldn’t be able to wage its current war without US support.

This makes America’s stance all the more puzzling. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: by pledging his unconditional support for Israel, Biden has inevitably bound his fate to that of Netanyahu — an ill-fated decision that doesn’t just cast a dark shadow over the entire region, but over Biden’s chance for re-election as well.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.