Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 10 May 2024

 TOM FRI


OPINIONTHOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Biden’s Real Mistake in Pausing Military Aid to Israel

Opinion Columnist

It is unfortunate that President Biden chose to announce his pause of some weapons sales to Israel while on a political campaign swing through Wisconsin. I use that word — “unfortunate” — not because I don’t understand why Biden did so, but because the move has enabled Benjamin Netanyahu to deflect attention from the fact that the most dangerous leader threatening Israel today is not Biden but Bibi.

Netanyahu’s policies have not and will not produce a sustainable victory in Gaza, cannot secure Israel against its greatest existential threat — Iran — and are endangering world Jewry and undermining America’s broader Middle East strategic needs and goals.

That is the real source of tension between Washington and Jerusalem today. It is not Biden’s temporary hold on sending Israel a fresh supply of 2,000-pound bombs and some other offensive weapons — which Biden has been warning Israel for months that he would do if Israel attempted to pulverize Rafah, the way that it did Gaza City and Khan Younis, without an evacuation of civilians.

It is a measure of the level of contempt with which Netanyahu’s government views the Biden administration that Bibi’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, immediately posted on X about Biden’s move: “Hamas ❤️ Biden.” That is how Bibi’s team treats the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, the man who rushed to save Israel from Hamas on Oct. 7 and from Iran on April 13. It is just shameful.

Just do a simple mind experiment: Let’s assume Biden gave Israel all the 2,000-pound bombs it wanted. Israel leveled Rafah, where Hamas’s leadership, four intact battalions and many Israeli hostages are believed to be holed up. None of that would change the fact that Israel has no Palestinian or Arab partner to govern Gaza the next day in a way that would ensure a new Hamas would not rise from the ashes.

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Netanyahu has managed to persuade and cajole Israel’s army leadership and people to fight this war in Gaza for more than seven months with no plan for how to get out and consolidate whatever military victory has been achieved. This is a direct result of the fact that in December 2022, Netanyahu formed the most extreme, far-right cabinet in Israel’s history — to get back into power and stave off his trial on corruption charges. The Jewish supremacists in his cabinet will not let Netanyahu form any partnership with the non-Hamas Palestinian Authority that governs in the West Bank for fear it could lead to a Palestinian state there and in Gaza.

That means the morning after any triumph over Hamas, Israel will either leave Gaza and have on its border some kind of gang-governed Somalia, where Hamas would most likely re-emerge under new leadership — as it has after Israel assassinated its previous generation of leaders — or Israel will find itself permanently occupying both Gaza and the West Bank, where it is already in charge. Together, about seven million Israeli Jews would be permanently controlling about five million Palestinian Arabs in two occupied territories, which would be a moral, economic and military overstretch that would delight Iran — because it would hasten Israel’s descent into being a global pariah.

As Biden officials kept pressing Netanyahu on this, the answer they kept getting was the geopolitical equivalent of “just shut up and dribble” — that is, just keep sending us arms and using your credibility to defend us on the world stage, particularly at the United Nations. We’ll do whatever we want, consistent with Netanyahu’s political needs. Biden’s political needs and America’s geopolitical needs be damned.

It’s a grave mistake to underestimate the danger the current Netanyahu government poses to Israel and its relationship with the United States and the world.

Amos Harel, a veteran military correspondent for Haaretz, quoted a senior Israeli military commander on Friday, who summed up the situation better than I ever could: “The best way to harm Hamas now is by presenting a governmental alternative in Gaza. That’s not happening because the prime minister doesn’t want it. Every week, senior defense officials meet with foreign diplomats and generals. The repeated question is: What the blazes are you trying to achieve now? We don’t have a real answer for them.”

Look at what is already happening as a result, Harel added. The Israeli Army has withdrawn so many of its troops from Gaza, save for the fresh units now surrounding Rafah and holding the central corridor dividing Gaza from north to south, that “Hamas is taking back governance in Gaza by every means,” Harel said. “Hamas’s efforts to restore governance also include the resumption of activity by the sharia courts, municipal services and sanitation departments in the municipalities.”

If that is what winning looks like in the areas Israel has “liberated,” is it any wonder that Biden is wary of Israel leveling another Gazan city with no plan or partner for what comes next?

That said, I thought it was a mistake for Biden to speak publicly for the first time about one of the most serious departures in U.S. foreign policy — pausing the transfer of some 3,500 bombs to Israel — in an off-the-cuff exchange with CNN’s Erin Burnett at a campaign stop.

It left the impression that this was being done to satisfy the president’s left-wing base that opposes the war, and Republicans and some American Jewish leaders immediately pounced on him for it. If the president of the United States is going to discuss publicly for the first time something as serious as even a limited holdup of arms transfers to Israel, he needs to do it in a well-thought-out speech that puts all of this in context for Americans at home, for Israelis, for Israel’s friends and for Israel’s enemies.

Such a speech would begin by making clear that if the U.S.-Israel alliance is under strain today, it’s because Israel has become a radically unstable partner under Netanyahu. He made a failed judicial coup his top priority for his first year in office — not dealing with Iran or the Palestinians. That divided Israeli society and distracted its military, probably tempting Hamas to think the time was right for an attack.

This crazy lurch to the right in Israel — combined with a can’t-win strategy in Gaza combined with the fact that, as Harel wrote, “for almost a decade, Netanyahu purposefully wore down the civil service, weakened it and transferred the centers of power from the gatekeepers in the judiciary, treasury and defense establishment to a small group of” incompetent cronies — is hurting not only Israel’s interests but also America’s.

For starters, the United States’ most advanced and vital military partner in the region is now bogged down in Gaza, with no apparent way out, straining American weapon reserves that are also needed by Ukraine. And an endless Gaza war can also destabilize other U.S. allies, particularly Jordan and Egypt.

In addition, the United States is trying to forge a new security alliance with Saudi Arabia that would enable the Saudis to focus on what they most want to focus on right now — their economic development — without having to fear an attack from Iran. To help sell that deal to the American Congress, the Saudis agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel — if Israel would embark on a pathway to a Palestinian state with a reformed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Netanyahu is refusing that condition and now the whole deal is up in the air.

Last, as much damage as Hamas has done to Israel, Israel’s true existential threat is from Iran and its network of allies — Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas and Shiite militias in Iraq. On April 13, the United States pulled together an alliance with moderate Arab states, Britain and France to shoot down virtually all 300 of the drones and missiles Iran fired at Israel that night. The more Israel gets mired in Gaza and civilian deaths continue, it will get harder and harder for the moderate Arab states, particularly Jordan, to be seen as defending Israel from Iran.

There is no question that Israel will be better off, Palestinians will be better off and the Middle East will be better off if Hamas is totally defeated. And if it takes Israel going into Rafah to do that, then so be it. Hamas invited this war. Many, many Palestinians in Gaza will feel liberated by its defeat — not only Israelis. But that is if and only if Israel partners with non-Hamas Palestinians to build a better Gaza and create the possibility of a new dawn for Palestinians and Israelis. Biden is justified in using U.S. leverage to insist that Israel operate with that goal in mind — because Israel’s prime minister is not.

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