Israel wants to pull the U.S. into a regional confrontation, but Biden remains reluctant

Earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched one of his top security advisers, the Israeli-American Amos Hochstein, to Israel. According to a U.S. official, the purpose of the trip was to “emphasize that restoring calm along Israel’s northern border is of utmost importance to the United States and it should be a top priority for both Israel and Lebanon.”

The wording there is important. The Biden administration clearly does not believe that Israel considers “restoring calm” along its northern border a “top priority.” The mention of Lebanon is pro forma; the U.S. can’t point the finger only at Israel, lest there be a political backlash. Hezbollah’s intentions are clear: they are standing with the Palestinians and, in tit-for-tat fashion with Israel, slowly pushing the envelope, seeing how far they can go before Israel really unleashes on them. Southern Lebanon can’t afford an all-out Israeli assault, given the dire circumstances in that country. They may get one anyway.

Biden has reason to worry. Despite public denials that are increasingly absurd, Israel is obviously doing a lot more than trying to strike Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Not only have they declared a war aim that simply isn’t achievable — totally eliminating Hamas — Israel has also gone out of its way to target civilian sites. Even if the President remains willfully blind, it cannot have escaped most of Biden’s staff that Israel has larger war aims than Hamas.

As clear as that may be, the boundaries of those aims are less obvious. Some in the Biden administration are concerned that Israel is deliberately trying to provoke a wider war to draw the United States into the fray. From the outside, it appears that while some in Israel would very much like to do just that, others are merely counting on the U.S. presence to deter Iran’s direct involvement if Israel and Hezbollah do engage in an escalated fight. Still, others seem to be wholly focused on the Palestinians and would prefer to avoid any confrontation with Hezbollah. For now, that is the view that holds in Israel, but clearly, the Biden administration is uneasy about how long that will last.

The last chance for the far right

One key aspect that bears more thorough examination is the fact that this Israeli government’s life is almost certainly no longer than the current fighting, and possibly even shorter. Many have observed that Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing calls to resign as prime minister and seems to have finally reached the end of his ability to survive politically, wants to prolong the war so that he can prolong his time in office, and perhaps even find a way out of his current, apparently hopeless, political position. But these concerns are not limited to Netanyahu.  

The far right, represented by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, also faces an uncertain future. Hamas’s criminal attack on October 7 gave them the opportunity to significantly escalate an ethnic cleansing program in both Gaza and the West Bank, and they have taken advantage of it. Though they need to proceed carefully on the West Bank, the massive escalation of completely unprovoked Israeli violence there, including both settler and military attacks, is a clear sign of their agenda at work. It’s hardly confined to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, of course. They are simply more blunt and less cautious about it. 

Yet many Israelis place some of the blame for their losses on the far right, its adherence to ideology over strategy, and its inexperience at governance. As a result, it seems more likely than not that the next government will not include them, although depending on how elections and coalition talks go, necessity may give them another opportunity. 

In any case, both the extreme right and the more mainstream right in the current Israeli government recognize that they have a unique opportunity right now to change the entire playing field in Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. For Netanyahu, too, such a project means a longer conflict as he works hard to buy himself more time. 

This is a key reason that Israel delayed the hostage exchange deal for so long, risking the wrath of the families with whose loved ones’ lives the Netanyahu government was playing so callously. But we’ve all seen the result of Israel’s assault: the condensation of what’s left of the Gazan population into the south, the escalating attacks and emptying of Palestinian villages in the West Bank, and the gradual introduction into the discourse of the idea of spiriting the surviving Palestinians away to other countries.

Escalation with Hezbollah

The real danger of escalation is with Hezbollah at the Lebanese border with Israel. While neither side seems to want an escalation, there are certainly forces within the Netanyahu government that do, and that is what worries the Biden administration. 

Israel and Hezbollah have been launching small escalatory attacks for weeks, inching just a bit closer to a potentially explosive confrontation. Hezbollah wants to show its support for the Palestinians, but the simple fact is that if it brings the kind of destruction to Lebanon that Israel can unleash, given the already terrible strife in the politically and economically crippled country, it risks losing most of its support in Lebanon. 

Many in the Israeli leadership are not eager to open a second front either. Its forces are already divided between defending the north and destroying Gaza. Diverting even more of its resources to the Lebanese border opens up a number of grim possibilities, particularly if the West Bank should erupt in violence, as the settlers so desperately desire.

But others may want to seize the opportunity to smash Hezbollah. They may believe that the presence of the American warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea will continue to deter Iran from directly confronting Israel, that Israel could effectively block at least a good deal of Iran’s attempts to resupply their Lebanese ally, and Hezbollah could thus be decimated by Israel alone.

More likely, though, the calculus involves drawing the U.S. into the fighting. While Iran would probably want to avoid direct involvement, an all-out battle between Israel and Hezbollah would almost certainly draw in Iran’s allies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. That could well be enough to escalate U.S. involvement. From that point, Iran might be forced into more direct participation, and almost any grim, even apocalyptic scenario, is possible. 

Wiser minds in Israel might realize that drawing the U.S. into direct conflict at the cost of American lives risks throwing U.S. lockstep support of Israel into even greater question. The Gaza campaign has already brought unprecedented protests of Israel out into the streets. The fact that they are being led by young people — Jews and Muslims, together and in their own demonstrations — and are backed by expert opinions calling Israeli actions war crimes and even close to actual genocide has brought the limits of American and European support for Israel into view. That’s prompted harsh crackdowns on any support of Palestinians, an escalation of the fear for careers and opportunities that have long been a part of Palestine solidarity activism.  

But that uptick in the crackdown is indicative of the challenge to the entrenched power of pro-Israel supporters. It is an unsubtle tactic, one that is certain to provoke a backlash in the long term. The backlash will also be magnified hundreds of times over if American soldiers’ lives are lost to the support for Israeli war crimes, and would bridge the progressive anti-war forces with the Realist foreign policy minds and mainstream Americans who have made it clear that they are tired of seeing American blood spilled in the Middle East.

Israeli divisions

The more fanatical forces in the Israeli government, however, as well as some of the more cynical, are trying to grasp this rare opportunity. It is not often that an American president is foolhardy enough to put the United States in a position to so easily be drawn into a war it does not want. Joe Biden gambled that putting U.S. forces in harm’s way would deter Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-allied militias from attacking Israel. Biden was certain that none of these actors would dare interfere while the U.S. is so visibly and forcefully present.

That has proven to be correct so far, but Biden failed to take into account the temptation he was putting before Israel. With his typical hubristic lack of foresight, Biden put the United States into a position where a slight misstep or an unexpected attack on Israel (or even American forces) could force a response from the U.S. That risk is multiplied now that Israel is in a position to take steps to draw the U.S. into a war much more easily than if the American military had to mobilize and send forces over into the region. 

That’s the scenario that Biden was clearly worried about when he sent Hochstein, an IDF veteran and a man who is widely respected in the Israeli establishment, to communicate with Lebanon and Israel. He could not, of course, talk directly to Hezbollah, but the Lebanese government could convey to Hezbollah’s leadership the threats that were surely Hochstein’s message to them. They’re not meant to have much effect on Hezbollah, and they don’t need to. The incremental escalations we’ve seen despite the atrocities in Gaza are a clear sign that Hezbollah is trying to avoid all-out war. Hochstein just had to make a show of talking to both sides. 

At this moment, Israel is also still trying to avoid escalation, but some of its recent attacks have pushed the tension needle upward — as has Hezbollah’s. Netanyahu dreads a quick end to the war that will bring forward his day of reckoning in front of the Israeli public. He is certainly not above drawing the United States into a war, regardless of the long-term effects on the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as on Israel itself, which is likely to suffer both major damage and significant global blowback in the event it is seen as willfully widening this war.

For Biden’s part, he has already had to relent to pressure, both globally and domestically, and back a brief pause in the slaughter in Gaza. He and his spokespeople have veered gradually more toward admitting that Israel has caused “too many” civilian casualties in its operations. As little as that sounds like it, it is a significant step forward from the Biden administration’s rhetoric in the first few weeks of Israel’s onslaught, and it is all due to the pressure that the White House is feeling from activists, from other countries, and even from government employees.

Implicit in that shift is the unspoken reality that Israel is after much more than Hamas. This realization is what accounts for the Biden administration’s repeated statements of opposition to relocating any of Gaza’s population. Biden has created an expectation that he will, at least, not help Israel in forcing Gazans elsewhere, although this is far from guaranteed. 

What pressure this has not resulted in yet is real and material steps to stop Israel from pursuing its more dangerous goals — both regarding the forced relocation of Palestinians and an escalation in Lebanon. That’s certainly a position Joe Biden does not want to find himself in. Any action he would take to deter Israel in that circumstance would certainly result in backlash from the pro-Israel forces, for whom he has already sacrificed some Muslim, Arab, and progressive support for him. 

Biden has put himself in this position, and now he has to depend on Netanyahu to acquiesce to his requests, especially on escalation. Recent events are not promising. The escalation may be gradual, but it is proceeding. And, while right now Netanyahu does not seem to be inclined to take steps to provoke U.S. involvement, that could change if Hezbollah manages too big a strike. Biden is right to try to cool the situation, but he needs to be bolder and let Netanyahu know that the United States will not go beyond its deterrent role. The chances that Biden is ready to take such a firm stance seem questionable based on his behavior to date. 

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