The President's Israel visit comes at a pivotal moment
Depending on your perspective, Joe Biden’s Middle Eastern diplomacy mission has come at either the best or worst of times. When the visit was planned, the region already stood paused at the edge of the abyss. Last night’s catastrophic explosion at Gaza’s al-Ahli hospital, claimed to have killed hundreds of refugees sheltering in its courtyard, threatened to plunge it straight towards its bloodiest depths. While daylight images of the impact site now appear to substantiate Israel’s assertion that the cause was an errant Palestinian missile, for neighbouring countries the matter is already settled, and the Jewish state is firmly at fault.
Last night, the scheduled summit in Amman between Biden and Egypt and Jordan’s rulers, along with the West Bank’s internationally recognised but powerless administration, was cancelled in protest. Brushing aside their recent rapprochement with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have condemned the IDF for the blast. In Lebanon and Iraq, angry crowds marched to American embassies to denounce Israel’s superpower patron for the slaughter of Arab civilians, just as two US carrier groups and a Marine expeditionary force sail into the looming storm.
America’s early expressions of unswerving support for Israel’s punitive expedition against Hamas have seen it assume regional blame for a mission whose expansive aims and inevitable mass civilian casualties seem to be causing the Biden administration alarm before it has even fully begun.
Biden has likely cautioned Netanyahu’s government to tone down its war aims to avoid a wider regional conflagration. As well as the expected expressions of unshakeable loyalty, he today notably warned Israel, “while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the US. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” Following America’s earlier public instructions not to think of occupying Gaza and to avoid unnecessary civilian harm, we should assume Israel was warned privately that world opinion places defined limits on American support.
Yet this may not be a cause of frustration for Netanyahu. Surprised by Hamas’s murderous rampage, Israel has already found itself off-balance against the group’s newfound capabilities. An Israeli ground operation against Hamas will be bloody and difficult, and there is no obvious or internationally acceptable solution for what to do with Gaza when victory is finally achieved.
Despite calling up its largest army of reserve soldiers since the ultimately disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel will be sorely tested by simultaneously managing the ongoing and slowly escalating exchanges of fire with Hezbollah on the northern border, and any uprising in the West Bank provoked by Palestinian outrage at Gaza’s civilian suffering.
America’s naval deployments to the region are a clear warning to Hezbollah not to think of exploiting the situation for their own benefit, yet they are also an admission that Israel may be losing control. An opportunity to de-escalate, or to pause the Gaza invasion to assess the regional situation, is not necessarily a hindrance to Netanyahu, particularly if he can direct any resulting domestic dissatisfaction towards Biden.
Yet whether a grieving and vengeful Israeli public will accept anything less than Hamas’s total extirpation is doubtful. His already divisive public image eroded further by the brutally successful Hamas raid, Netanyahu cannot afford any other result than overwhelming military success.
The escalatory logic of recent days has driven the region closer towards a conflict of unimaginable scope and suffering, and yet Israel, Hezbollah and Iran are still cautiously micromanaging their clashes. For all its expressions of confidence, Israel has no more desire to fight a three-front conflict than America does to find itself dragged into war against Iran. Iran may calculate that it is worth sacrificing Hamas to avoid a wider war against a far stronger enemy, yet it may also consider the current moment of geopolitical flux an opportunity to remake the region that will never be repeated.
The decisions made in the coming hours will determine whether the Middle East pulls itself back from the brink or hurls itself beyond it, but they will also define the historic legacy of the waning empire personified by Biden, shuffling amiably onto the tarmac in Tel Aviv.