Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 10 October 2023


Hamas’s Global Test for Biden

His response to the attack on Israel will show the world what he is made of.

Walter Russell Mead

Oct. 9, 2023 6:13 pm ET

President Biden delivers remarks about Hamas’s attacks on Israel at the White House in Washington, Oct. 7. PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS

Gaza is burning as Israeli forces methodically proceed to dismantle its structures of terror. The coming retribution will be terrible, but it is necessary and just. Hamas has lost the right to rule Gaza. It must be dismantled and disarmed, and neither Israel nor its neighbors can permit the group to return to power. Despite the best efforts of the Israel Defense Forces, innocent civilians will suffer, and too many will die. Urban warfare against a brutal enemy that doesn’t scruple to use civilians as shields can have no other result, but what is coming to Gaza is not the fault of the IDF.

WSJ Opinion Potomac WatchHamas' Surprise Attack Pushes Israel to War

What will follow the fighting can’t be foreseen. The establishment of a new Palestinian governing authority for the territory, linked to Fatah, closely guarded by Israel and Egypt, and funded by the Gulf states would be perhaps the best outcome for all concerned, but the war must be won before peace can be built.

At best, Gaza’s future seems bleak. More than two million people are crowded into a barren wasteland with few natural resources and little hope. A rational Palestinian leadership would understand that, so situated, the only hope for the people of Gaza lies in close collaboration with Egypt and Israel. It would then settle down to the hard but necessary task of creating an economy that can support its people with dignity and security.

Hamas has had other ideas. The misery and poverty of the Palestinian people is the soil, the only soil, in which a movement this perverted can flourish. Hamas has done all it could to keep Gaza wretched while inculcating an ideology of genocidal rage.

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Israelis are temporarily setting their differences aside in the face of this hideous shock, as well they should. But there will be a reckoning in Israel too. Those who missed or misread the signs of danger will be driven ingloriously from office if they lack the grace to resign. A national-security establishment that wasted the past year in frenzied political infighting shouldn’t be allowed to escape harsh public scrutiny. From the prime minister to the intelligence chiefs, those at the helm of Israel’s affairs will have to account for their actions.

We aren’t yet past the height of this crisis. While the exact details of Iranian involvement in the attacks are unknown, there is no doubt that Iran trained, supported, advised and equipped the killers. The hands of the mullahs are dripping with Jewish blood, and no one in Israel doubts that the fanatics in Tehran are hungry for more. In self-defense, Israel can’t allow Iran’s engagement with Hamas to go unpunished, but taking on a near-nuclear regional superpower means potentially a much wider war.

The consequences of the Hamas attack for President Biden’s Middle East policy are, as Iran may well have calculated, devastating. Desperate to avoid a Middle East crisis while war rages in Europe, oil prices rise and tensions over Taiwan mount, the Biden administration has consistently sought to pacify Iran.

Believing détente with the mullahs to be America’s best hope of avoiding yet another conflict in the Middle East, Mr. Biden has extended olive branch after olive branch to Tehran, which has slapped them away. Iran turned down the Biden administration’s offer to re-enter the nuclear deal. It wasn’t moved by the administration’s quiet but dramatic loosening of sanctions. It released five hostages in exchange for $6 billion but is obviously more interested in collecting ransoms than in building bridges to Washington.

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There’s a pattern here. When he arrived in the White House, Mr. Biden hoped, in a phrase administration officials often used at the time, to “park Russia.” In the spring of 2021 he exempted a company engaged in the construction of the massive Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from U.S. sanctions and publicly contradicted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s claim that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was ready to accept Ukrainian membership. Instead of applauding Mr. Biden’s statesmanship, Vladimir Putin thought he smelled Western weakness and cast his covetous eyes toward Kyiv.

Mr. Biden has tried even harder to park Iran, but as Tehran’s support for Hamas’s attack on Israel demonstrates, he hasn’t had much success. It’s a failure Franklin D. Roosevelt would have foreseen. “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it,” FDR said. “There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb.” The Biden administration hasn’t merely been stroking the Iranian tiger, it has fed it salmon and cream, yet the tiger isn’t satisfied.

The Hamas attack was not only an assault on Israel. In recent months, Mr. Biden’s efforts to promote normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations began to bear fruit. American backing for a security and diplomatic partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia has the potential to stabilize the Middle East while limiting America’s direct military role. A major war between Israel and Hamas, the Iranians hope, will throw a monkey wrench into Team Biden’s plans.

The world will now see what Mr. Biden is made of. Will he stand up against terrorists seeking to derail what could otherwise be his greatest diplomatic accomplishment? Will he offer Jerusalem his full military and diplomatic support when and if it is ready to show Iran the price of supporting mass murder in Israel? Or will he abandon America’s closest Middle East partners in their hour of greatest need?

Fecklessness in Washington breeds recklessness abroad. Standing by Israel in a confrontation with Iran carries risk, but yielding to Iranian threats is more dangerous still. As Winston Churchill said to Neville Chamberlain after Munich, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”

Unless Israel and the U.S. acting together can deter Iran from more aggression, Mr. Biden could soon face a similar choice.

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