Days after the terrorist attack on Israel last fall, US President Joe Biden made a whirlwind visit to Jerusalem as a personal expression of support for the country and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Their hug on the airport tarmac, whatever its bitter history, reflected Biden’s revulsion at the massacre and his commitment to a stunned and disheartened people. He was the picture of the loyal ally: he condemned the “pure evil” of the atrocity, reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense, promised weapons, provided intelligence and moved warships to the region.
It was easier then, during that brief but decisive interlude: the roughly three weeks between the October 7 crisis and the Israeli ground attack on Gaza on October 27 (the bombing began earlier). It was then that Israel decided how to respond.
In public and private, Biden urged moderation. No doubt this was visceral and politically improbable in the midst of savagery. With each report of kidnapping, murder, torture and sexual assault, a scorched-earth response became almost certain.
Biden knew that revenge is not a strategy. There were too many doubts. Would the Gaza invasion destroy Hamas, as Netanyahu promised? How many civilians would be collateral damage? What about hostage safety? And what was the plan for Gaza after the military campaign?
Hussein Ibish, an analyst in Washington, warned that Israel was “walk into a trap.” He predicted that it would respond disproportionately, killing Gazans at a rate of 10 to 1. He worried that razing Gaza would harm the prospects for diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other countries, drawing international condemnation. Everything has happened.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times saw all this and urged doing nothing in the short term. Tolerance most likely brought the hostages home, averted a regional war, and preserved some goodwill. Reacting coolly, he said, would allow other means to be used, such as targeted raids, targeted assassinations and the isolation of Hamas.
Biden knew that blind rage after 9/11 had pushed the United States into Afghanistan and then into Iraq. It was America’s biggest foreign policy failure since Vietnam.
Not that Israel had listened. Netanyahu, who bears more responsibility than any other Israeli for the strategic, military and intelligence failure of the October 7 attacks, vowed to destroy Hamas. It was incredible. Meanwhile, his colleagues threatened much worse, making the kind of biblical vows that fanatics make, using language that now appears in legal writings that accuse Israel of “genocide,” however cynical and unfounded.
And now, some three months later, we see how Israel’s fury has turned into its madness: 25,000 dead in Gaza, the overwhelming majority innocent, almost 20 times Israel’s death toll. A humanitarian crisis. Houses and hospitals destroyed. A displaced people. Everything for what? Some leaders assassinated? Some 9,000 combatants killed or capturedwhile even more of his ilk enlist?
The tunnel network remains practically intact. Many Israeli soldiers have been killed. A regional war is coming. Thousands of people remain displaced inside Israel as the economy suffers. Anti-Semitism breaks out everywhere. The hostages remain in captivity.
The war has been a disaster for Israel, which is struggling on the ground and in the public eye. It is reeling under the leadership of Netanyahu, who refuses to step down.
For Biden, the war has become a political liability. It has cost him support, from Arab Americans in Michigan to young people who condemn Israel but hypocritically ignore Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine and Assad’s in Syria.
For weeks, Biden has been trying to get Netanyahu to moderate his position and their relations have cooled. Biden cannot endure a months-long war, led by an incompetent and messianic prime minister.
Biden may have to break with Netanyahu, who hopes he can do better with Donald Trump. Bibi’s appeal to Israelis: Only I can prevent a two-state solution imposed on us by the United States
Biden remains calm, quiet and reserved; Curiously, he has not retaliated for the recent deadly attacks on American soldiers in Jordan. He refuses to be provoked. This is leadership.
Netanyahu, for his part, is weak, distrustful and desperate. He continues to put his own self-preservation above all else, testing Biden’s patience and inviting a rift with Israel’s best friend.
Andrew Cohen He is a journalist, commentator and author of Two days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 hours that made history.
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