The Biden Effect (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- October 23, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Has US President Biden taken over Israeli strategic decision-making regarding the war? Has PM Netanyahu bowed to an American strategic diktat?

A. The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is far more nuanced.

Israel entered this war after a surprise attack by Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces entered this war unprepared; they have been scrambling to fill neglected equipment and logistics gaps for two weeks now. The vicious brutality of the Hamas attack and the 200+ hostages Hamas took have traumatically reminded Israelis of both the Holocaust and the 1948 War of Independence. The danger of a bigger war between Israel and militant Islam is palpable.

Small wonder that a dazed, dis-functional Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned to the United States: not just for military aid, but for comfort and moral support from the world’s preeminent senior citizen, Joe Biden.

Biden came last week and addressed the Israeli public, which was quite plainly smitten. Yes, he delivered moral support, in spades. But he also laid down conditions that left some Israelis uncomfortable. Biden represents American strategic interests globally and in the Middle East, and some of those interests do not necessarily correspond with Israel’s narrower strategic calculations. He made that clear when he, and before him Secretary of State Blinken, sat in on extended Israeli tactical and strategic discussions in the IDF General Staff wartime bunker and offered advice--an unprecedented scene in the annals of Israeli-US strategic interaction.

Q. American strategic interests like humanitarian aid for Gazans, for example?

A. That’s the easy one. Israel’s knee-jerk angry reaction to the October 7 attack was to cut off all electricity, fuel and water supply to the Strip. Granted, all these are dual-use logistical items that Hamas can easily appropriate from civilians. But starve two million Gazans? As IDF Major General Ghassan Alian told Hamas, “you wanted hell; you will get hell.”

Words written in anger. No one seems to have considered what to do when Gazan civilians are thirsty.

In sharp contrast, Biden reminded Israelis of American mistakes, made hastily post-9/11, in attacking Afghanistan and Iraq, and cautioned very justifiably, “do not be consumed by rage”. Biden’s demand that Israel agree to the provision of food and water from Egypt via the Rafah crossing was accommodated, beginning Saturday. That made sense, I would hope, even to blustering Israeli generals.

But Biden also insists that Israel, in destroying Hamas, not reoccupy Gaza, not hit civilians there, not attack Hezbollah in the north, and coordinate strategically with the US. One of his motives for making these demands is apparently--and logically, following the events of October 7--lack of confidence in Netanyahu’s strategic decision-making skills and perhaps even in the IDF as well. Another is American fear that the Israel-Gaza conflict will expand into a major regional war that affects additional US areas of strategic interest: global energy security, the Ukraine war, and relations with Russia, China and Iran.

Biden is also asking Congress to approve emergency military aid for Israel of upwards of ten billion dollars. That falls under the definition of making Israel an offer it cannot refuse. Yet in coupling this with an aid request for Ukraine and Taiwan, the administration is making a statement as to the way it sees Israel’s emerging war with Hamas: as part and parcel of Ukraine’s war with Russia and the threat to Taiwan from China, all reflecting US global interests.

Finally, Biden continues to advocate a two-state solution. He has in effect put Netanyahu on notice that the more successful Israel is at eliminating Hamas, the more likely it will be asked in the post-war era to renew a peace process, asked by an administration whose guidance and weaponry Netanyahu has agreed to. This could well be integrated with an American effort to renew the normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in keeping with Washington’s concern to contain Iran.

Q. How does Israel fight a war against the militant Islamist threat on its borders, yet respect Biden’s demands?

A. Indeed, invading the Gaza Strip will inevitably involve Palestinian civilian losses, however much Israel has tried to persuade civilians in the north of the Strip to move to relative safety in the south. Removing Hamas from power would appear to require at least a temporary Israeli occupation of the Strip to root out Hamas leaders and forces from tunnels under Gaza City. (Already Israeli commandos are reportedly active reconnoitering on the Gaza side of the fence.)

All this, even if accomplished slowly, carefully and with the utmost caution regarding civilians, could well provoke Iran to order Hezbollah to start firing its rockets and missiles at all of Israel, thereby potentially obliging the US Navy to join the fray in Lebanon.

Here it bears mention that two previously existing fronts pitting Israel against militant Islam remain in play. The Israel Air Force reportedly continues to attack Iranian arms shipments on Syrian soil. And the IDF is constantly interdicting Palestinian terrorists based in Jenin and the northern West Bank.

How all this could play out is difficult to predict. How to destroy Hamas without occupying the Gaza Strip? How to absorb blows from Hezbollah without opening up a second major front. How to plan and execute an invasion which somehow manages to evade the pitfalls that doomed previous IDF anti-terrorist invasions of the Strip and of Lebanon? Nor has Israel ever before, even in October 1973 and in the 1991 First Gulf War, been obliged, potentially, to enter into such complex combat coordination with the American military.

At one and the same time, this situation reflects two US presidential concerns. First, Biden’s justifiable impulse to ‘babysit’ a weak and extreme Netanyahu who cannot bring himself even to acknowledge his responsibility for October 7. A Netanyahu incapable of or unwilling to restrain government ministers who, day by day, support ongoing settler attacks on West Bank Palestinians and their land.  

And second, Biden’s concern for broader American interests in both the Israeli-Palestinian and the broader Middle Eastern arenas--interests which do not always necessarily correspond with Israel’s narrower and more immediate interpretation of the strategic course of events. Already US troops in Iraq and Syria, far from Israel’s borders, are facing heightened Islamist attacks, presumably because of an Islamist presumption of greater American vulnerability, and US diplomats are being evacuated from Iraq. And we just learned that in addition to the growing US Navy fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, another US Navy ship sailing in the Red Sea intercepted three missiles fired by pro-Iran forces in Yemen, presumably against southern Israel.

Nor are these issues the entirety of the IDF’s concerns. Circles close to Netanyahu and his wife Sara are reportedly busy circulating fake news that completely exonerates Bibi (who consistently refuses to take responsibility) and the Likud of blame for the events of October 7. Only the IDF and the Shin Bet, which acknowledge their own responsibility, are according to these sources to blame. The fake news atmosphere even reportedly echoes in high level war-planning meetings where Netanyahu casts aspersions on IDF generals and backs off from IDF initiatives.

Fake news, then, is yet another front of this war. Here the situation in the Middle East is complemented by the overt fake news efforts of pro-Hamas extremists in the West to deny the atrocities of October 7 and portray Hamas as a movement of democratic Palestinian freedom fighters.

Q. Now factor in the hostage crisis . . .       

A. As of Sunday, the hostage count had reached 212, with dozens still listed as missing. Hamas had released two Americans in a deal apparently arranged with Qatar (where Hamas leaders live) and Egypt. The release, last Friday, was seemingly timed by Hamas to catalyze an additional delay in Israel’s Gaza offensive--above and beyond factoring in Biden’s admonitions.

Under present circumstances, an Israeli ground offensive, coupled with more bombing, will almost certainly endanger some hostages even as it conceivably rescues others. Does the release of the two Americans hint at the possibility of prioritizing some sort of prisoner exchange or hostage release negotiations over a ground offensive? This is what Biden apparently favors. How long will the IDF wait?

Q. What about the post-Hamas future? Assuming Hamas is vanquished, what will the Israel-Palestine conflict and the broader Middle East look like?

A. It is too early, and the situation far too complex, to venture even a speculative guess. We hear, for example, talk of a Saudi role in rebuilding the Strip, integrated with steps toward Saudi-Israeli normalization. Right now this is wishful thinking.

There are too many very dynamic and unpredictable variables at work: for starters Hezbollah, Iran, enflamed Arab public opinion in key states bordering Israel, and the fate of the hostages. In the months ahead, Israel will still have a completely untrustworthy prime minister; the US, a president bent on reelection.

Inevitably, an atrocity in Gaza, a Hezbollah missile striking a US Navy ship, or a major fake-news triumph by one side or another will distort the current picture beyond our imagination.

Q. You are describing a revolutionary situation in which the best we can do is understand the present, not predict the future. In that revolutionary spirit, have any Israeli sacred cows already been sacrificed?

A. Beyond the obvious precedent set by Biden and Blinken’s participation in IDF operative planning, here are two. One is encouraging, the other gives pause for thought.

First, in the past two weeks, some 3,000 Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth have ignored their ‘get out of army service free’ passes generated by Haredi political maneuvering and signed up to serve in the IDF. In a normal year, only 1,200 end up serving. Have Hamas’s atrocities finally sent a wake-up call to these Israelis who prioritize lifetime religious study over serving their country and defending their families?

Second, Israel has during those past two weeks evacuated around 120,000 residents of border kibbutzim, moshavim and development towns located near the Gaza boundary and the Lebanon border. Other than the residents of Gaza boundary kibbutzim rendered homeless by the Hamas onslaught, these are precautionary evacuations generated by ongoing cross-border rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah.

But weren’t these Israeli agricultural and urban border communities placed there precisely to enhance Israeli security? Doesn’t their evacuation send a very different message about their residents’ security and the army’s confidence in border defenses? Or has Israel simply learned to place higher value on the lives of its pioneers? Were we wrong about this all along?

Does this sound paranoid? Consider the Gaza periphery kibbutz dwellers, those still alive and currently evacuated, who worry that after the war their homes will be rebuilt and repopulated by West Bank messianist settlers. After all, before the war the left-leaning kibbutzim were stripped of much of their self-defense capacity in favor of shunting arms and soldiers to the West Bank where extremist settler provocations were meeting with a Palestinian armed response. After the war, what will the Netanyahu government have in mind for these ‘lefties’?

Q. Bottom line?

A. More than two weeks after October 7, the Israeli public is impatient: for revenge; for released hostages; for an end to Hamas. Considering how unprepared the IDF was on October 7, two weeks is not too long a time to train, to equip, and to coordinate with the United States. But how much longer will we wait?

Not that Israel finally has a coherent long-term strategy for the Gaza Strip or any other dimension of the Palestinian issue. To depend on the president of the United States to provide the strategy would be the ultimate Netanyahu statement of dis-functionality.