Any analysis of President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel Wednesday must start with two propositions: American support is essential for Israel as it goes to war. American support is a means to an end — victory. It is not a substitute for victory.
“Entire families slain. Young people massacred while attending a musical festival to celebrate peace,” he lamented. “Women raped, assaulted and paraded as trophies.”
At war, Israel needs American support for four main reasons: for diplomatic cover against the many forces that would aim to limit Israel’s ability to fight, and would denounce and isolate it or even actively assist its enemies; for security aid in the form of ammunition and other material help; for a boost of deterrence against regional and global powers that might want to intervene against Israel; and, finally, for psychological support for a country that often feels isolated on the world stage.
From the get-go, Biden rose to the occasion by provisioning Israel with these four essential ingredients for victory. He made forceful speeches, denouncing the butchery and vowing support (psychology). He immediately instructed the Pentagon to supply Israel with essential supplies (material support). He sent a message to Israel’s other enemies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian regime, that the war must not escalate, and sent aircraft carriers to the region (deterrence). And by taking such a clear position, he set an example for other Western countries to follow (diplomacy).
In doing so, he’s taken on considerable risk. He committed himself and the US to a certain cause, and now he has skin in the game. He compared Hamas to ISIS, more than hinting at how the battle must end (“eliminate Hamas completely”). And he warned Hezbollah not to force Israel to open a second front on the Lebanese border (“Don’t. don’t, don’t, don’t”).
In doing so, he handed Iran an opportunity: Tehran could defy his warnings and present him with a dilemma. Would he deepen the US involvement in the crisis even further by, for example, ordering a strike by American forces on Hezbollah? Or maybe in such a case he’d prefer to climb down the ladder of involvement — that was President Barack Obama’s decision during the Syrian civil war, when he drew a “red line” that the Syrians defied without punishment.
In an election season, what this means is that Biden took a huge gamble. Iran could make him seem like a second George W. Bush (too much war) or a second Obama (too little steadfastness). So in exchange for his staunch support and in recognition of his commitment, Israel will be asked to compromise on certain things that the administration deems important.
That is the risk Israel itself is taking by inviting American support and, specifically, the president, for a visit. Support comes with a price tag. There is an ongoing debate between Israeli and American officials about the exact terms under which humanitarian aid can enter the Gaza Strip. Israel wants stricter terms to guarantee that no aid is used to relieve the pressure on Hamas. The US is more sensitive to Arab opinion and would like Israel to make certain compromises to ensure the prevention of a humanitarian crisis.
There is also the question of the day after. Israel says its goal is toppling Hamas, and Biden is no doubt asking: What comes later? Biden himself initially supported the US 2003 war in Iraq only to end up as the president who ordered the US pullout of Afghanistan. In the 20 years in between, he witnessed the two countries that the US invaded struggle to transform their leadership from one government to another. He is familiar with the cost involved, the chaos, the bloodshed. As a friend, and also as a leader much invested in Israel’s objectives for the war, he surely wants to see a convincing answer to the question of the day after.
And that is where Israel is facing its own dilemma. To retain the much-needed American support, it must accommodate US requests and even demands. But Israel also must win a war — a war that was defined by some of Israel’s leaders as “existential” and is seen by most Israeli citizens as critical to its security. This means a constant balancing act.
To win the war without American support would be much more difficult and much more costly. To lose the war while retaining American support would be of no value.
Shmuel Rosner is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and an analyst at Israel’s public television broadcaster KAN