With the situation in the Middle East quickly spiraling out of control, how high a price is Biden willing to pay to be on the wrong side of history?
By Liz Shiverdecker
Last week, I posted about the International Court of Justice case in which South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. At the very least, there is overwhelming evidence that Israel has committed innumerable war crimes against Palestinian civilians since Oct. 7.
Despite this, President Biden continues to arm Israel, in violation of both US and international law. Even if the ICJ rules against Israel, it seems unlikely Biden will stop. This will officially put Biden on an equal footing with Vladimir Putin among the ranks of international scofflaws and renegade war criminals.
Even now, Israel is determined to commit further aggressions against its neighbors, potentially setting off World War III and dragging the US in with it. Last week, we lost two US Navy Seals in an operation to disarm one of Israel’s foes far from its shores. These are likely the first US military casualties of Biden’s unconditional support for Israel. However, they likely won’t be the last.
War on the horizon
In the early days after Oct. 7, President Biden dubbed the attacks “Israel’s 9/11”. With some prescience, he warned Israel against repeating the mistakes committed by the United States after our 9/11. He was referring of course to disastrous US foreign policy quagmires, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only has Netanyahu ignored that advice, it now seems that Biden, too, is setting it aside. By continuing his unconditional support for Israel, Biden is putting the US on a trajectory to make those post-9/11 missteps seem minor by comparison.
Officials within the Biden administration have come forward to express their alarm about the situation to news outlets. One of the most worrying prospects is Israel potentially starting a wider war in the Middle East, which is already taking shape. Officials say that in all the various war simulations conducted, such a war will draw in the US and end in catastrophe.
It may be that in some of these arenas, the die is already cast. But it is still within Biden’s power to avert what can only be described as a global nightmare scenario. That is, Biden can use his considerable leverage over Israel to halt its unrelenting assault in Gaza. So far, he has demonstrated no willingness to do so. Unless Biden changes course, and soon, he risks squandering American lives and resources on an unimaginable scale and bringing about a cataclysm that will darken the world for generations to come.
Could Biden stop the war?
Over the last several months, Biden, Sec. of State Antony Blinken and other US officials have done a lot of public handwringing over the high civilian death toll in Gaza and the potential for a wider Middle East war. While this might be misinterpreted as a sign of US powerlessness in the face of overwhelming Israeli aggression, nothing could be further from the case.
In a recent interview, retired Israel Defense Force Maj. General Yitzhak Brick admitted that, “All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the U.S. The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting. You have no capability. … Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.”
Not only has Biden not turned off the tap, but he’s also lifted all controls within the State Department which normally track where our weapons go and what they’re used for once handed over to foreign actors. This has alarmed many officials, both in the department and elsewhere in the administration, who fear that Israel may be planning to use these weapons to start a war with Lebanon. Furthermore, since Oct. 7, Biden has twice bypassed Congress to send Israel even more weapons.
Biden has also shielded Israel from international pressure to halt its aggression against the Palestinians. The US has twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions aimed at a ceasefire in Gaza. In mid-December, our State Department also quietly moved to block any action against Israel for violations of the Geneva Conventions. The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act not only increased US military giveaways to Israel (in addition to the nearly $4 billion a year in US military aid Israel already receives), but also increased diplomatic support for the Abraham Accords to push Arab states to normalize relations with Israel and sideline the Palestinian question. Even now, Biden is pushing for an additional $10 billion in mostly military aid to Israel.
To pretend that Biden is impotent in all this would be ludicrous. In the early days after Oct. 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Biden put a stop to that with a single phone call.
With the situation quickly spiraling towards an all-out multi-front war, the next logical question must be “Why doesn’t Biden make such a phone call now?”.
Biden, a lifelong cheerleader for Israel
Administration officials, especially those in the State Department, are busily putting out fires, any one of which could blow up into a full-blown conflagration. But in all the ways that matter, their hands are tied. As one official lamented, “The problem is no one can rein in Biden, and if Biden has a policy, he’s the commander-in-chief ― we have to carry it out. That’s what it comes down to, very, very, very unfortunately.”
But this is nothing new. Biden has long been an ardent supporter of Israel. In a 1992 speech to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (starts at the 36 minute mark), Biden articulated that he doesn’t view America’s support for Israel through the lens of “American largesse” or “American sacrifice” but “American commitment”. That “commitment”, in Biden’s view, is to support Israel, right or wrong. Over his career, Biden has adopted the view that, “the only time progress has ever been made in the Middle East is when the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us and Israel”.
Years later as Barack Obama’s Vice President, Biden continued working behind the scenes trying to thwart any criticism of Israel from the administration or any checks on its excesses. In the early days of that administration, Biden assured Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that, “Israel could get into a fistfight with this country and we’d still defend you”. It appears that Biden still holds that stance today, which may be setting up the US for the mother of all black eyes, courtesy of his old friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.
Despite recent (questionable) reports that Biden and Bibi haven’t spoken in weeks, Biden remains entirely deferential to Israel. Just yesterday, Netanyahu outright rejected the US policy of pursuing a two-state solution in Israel. The State Department response to this was to reiterate that US support for Israel remains “iron clad” despite this snub.
Biden’s buddy Bibi
President Biden has been personal chums with Netanyahu for more than 40 years. Their friendship dates back to Biden’s days in the Senate. They first met in 1982 when Israel waged an incredibly deadly and destructive invasion of Lebanon, the savagery of which was only recently eclipsed by the IDF’s campaign in Gaza.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Biden’s jingoistic support for Israel chagrined even many of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the US. In the intervening decades, Israel’s political discourse has shifted further and further to the right, finally catching up with Biden, and only recently, perhaps, surpassing him. Israel’s right-ward shift has now found its ultimate expression in Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
Despite international pressure, Netanyahu plans to continue the current war for months to come. Indeed, Bibi has every reason to want to see the Gaza war continue and even spread.
Firstly, the Oct. 7 attack was not just a horrific atrocity. For Netanyahu, it was a humiliating low point in his long political career. Bibi and his right-wing Likud party bill themselves as the party of security. The intelligence and military blunders of Oct. 7 dealt a serious blow to his credibility. It also seriously undermined Israel’s “deterrence capacity”, which is shorthand for the fear of Israel in the Arab world.
Secondly, Netanyahu has a fragile coalition of ideologues who are even further right-wing than he is, or at least more openly so. People like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have threatened to leave the governing coalition unless their frankly insane and genocidal demands are met. Among those demands, much as many would like to pretend otherwise, is a total ethnic cleansing of Gaza – the removal or “thinning out” of the Palestinian population to allow illegal Jewish settlements once present in Gaza to be rebuilt. Starting a wider war to distract from Gaza would be a perfect cover for such an undertaking.
Thirdly, Netanyahu’s approval rating in Israel is currently in the single digits. Once Bibi is voted out, he then faces the prospect of finding himself behind bars. A years-long bribery and corruption case against him awaits him as soon as he is no longer in the Prime Minister’s chair.
Despite widespread calls for Netanyahu’s ouster, these political questions are on the back burner as long as the war is still going on. If Netanyahu has any hopes of staying in office, he must find some sort of “victory” that he can hang his hat on. There’s no prospect of a quick victory in Gaza, so Bibi now sees it as being in his interest to cast his net wider. In recent remarks, both Netanyahu and other members of his coalition have been beating the war drums for a confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran.
Here follows an overview of all the traps being laid for us.
Gaza – Hamas
Apart from IDF’s unconscionable slaughter of innocents in Gaza, what has been largely overlooked in the press is that the IDF’s stated tactical mission in Gaza has largely been a failure. Given their lack of top-notch equipment and the fact they are hemmed into a small enclave, Hamas and its allies in Gaza have put on a pretty impressive show against the IDF ground troops.
In the beginning, Israel’s stated goal in Gaza was to “destroy Hamas”. As the months have worn on, Israel has moved its goal posts from “destroying Hamas” to “containing Hamas” to, now, “degrading Hamas”.
By Israel’s reckoning, there were about 30,000 or so Hamas militants in Gaza on Oct. 7. According to Israel’s rosiest estimate, they have succeeded in killing about 8,000 Hamas fighters (other estimates put the number below 3000 combatants). By December, the IDF was claiming that it had complete control of the northern sector of Gaza and that there were only a few “isolated” fighters operating in that area.
Reports from the ground paint a very different picture. Hamas fighters retain the ability to move, operate and communicate freely anywhere within the Strip. They’ve also retained command-and-control capacity and have been very successful in carrying out sneak attacks on IDF tanks and soldiers, inflicting major damage and casualties.
Although Israel is a very militarized society, its public is very intolerant of troop losses in combat. To avoid political fallout, Israel’s government has tightly controlled information about its killed and wounded soldiers. An investigation by Ha’aretz suggests the IDF has been significantly under-reporting the number of soldiers wounded in Gaza. In fact, based on what has happened already in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s health authorities are expecting 12,500 more soldiers to become permanently disabled in fighting this year.
“The Day After” in Gaza
The IDF has now withdrawn some of its troops from the Strip. The IDF is continuing its ground operations in central and southern Gaza, where it faces an even greater uphill battle against Hamas. The stated reason for this partial withdrawal is to allow reservists to return to their civilian work, and to train and regroup for eventual redeployment to the north of Israel (more on that later). In reality, it seems more likely that they realized they couldn’t pull out anything resembling a quick victory there and decided to cut their losses on the ground invasion and resume carpet-bombing.
So how has the IDF done in achieving its stated objectives in Gaza?
- “Degrading” Hamas – Even if we accept Israel’s assertion that they’ve killed 8,000 Hamas fighters, their actions have probably helped to recruit many times that number.
- Rescuing hostages – In four months of fighting, the IDF has managed to rescue only one hostage. In fact, Hamas says IDF bombing has killed around 60 hostages.
- Targeting Hamas commanders – The IDF hasn’t managed to take out any of Hamas’ command figures in Gaza, including their most elusive prize, Yahyah Sinwar. The highest-ranking Hamas figure Israel has managed to eliminate was killed in Lebanon.
- Disabling the “terror tunnels” – Despite having struck some 30,000 targets by their own admission, using heavy munitions such as bunker busters, the IDF has also been thwarted in this objective.
Despite the abysmal performance, Netanyahu said recently that fighting in Gaza is likely to continue through 2025. There has been much talk, and apparently a great deal of internal strife within Israel’s leadership, about “the day after” in Gaza. Some might rightly wonder “The ‘day after’ what, exactly?”. Even the “what” cannot be agreed upon.
According to reports, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi recently warned Israel’s leaders, including Netanyahu, that even the modest gains the IDF has achieved in Gaza will be reversed without concrete objectives. One “day after” plan recently floated by Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant would see an international force take control in Gaza, led by the US. Such a proposition would be a win-win for Israel and a lose-lose for the US. Israel would get to essentially reoccupy Gaza by fiat rather than force. The US would be acting as Israel’s subcontractor, while simultaneously footing the bill for the rebuilding of Gaza – and substituting American troop losses for Israeli ones.
Lebanon – Hezbollah
When compared to the military capacity of Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon is a different beast altogether. Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah (“The Party of God”) is a fully-modern, well-equipped fighting force with deep pockets. They are supplied by Iran, which sees Hezbollah as its first line of defense against Israeli aggression.
Hezbollah has a massive arsenal of state-of-the-art missiles that can wreak immense havoc. These Iranian-made missiles are capable of reaching deep into Israel to strike critical infrastructure and hazardous targets such as petrochemical plants and nuclear reactors. Hezbollah recently demonstrated the effectiveness of its arsenal with a devastating strike on an Israeli air base. Whereas Gaza is largely helpless against an aerial onslaught, Hezbollah has surface-to-air missiles capable of taking down fighter craft.
A ground invasion in Lebanon is an equally unappealing prospect. Hezbollah’s tens of thousands of fighters are well-trained, well-armed and determined. Having seen how poorly IDF soldiers fared against a much less intimidating foe in Hamas, it’s hard to imagine them taking on the Party of God in close quarters. That is why Israel needs the US to back them up.
Hezbollah also has a long track record of dealing out humbling defeats to Israel, most notably in 2000 and 2006. The last time the US went into Lebanon at Israel’s behest, we didn’t fare much better. A single suicide bombing targeting a barracks killed 241 Marines, the Corps’ biggest single loss since Iwo Jima.
Given Israel’s losing record against Hezbollah, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent threat that, “What we are doing in Gaza, we can do in Beirut” was the height of hubris. US officials have recently warned that Israel cannot defeat Hezbollah since its military assets will be stretched too thin. Of course, both Gallant and Bibi are counting on Biden’s bite to back up their bark.
Israel’s fearmongering about Hezbollah since Oct. 7 has been equally hollow. Up to now, the response of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrullah, has been surprisingly restrained. Even with Israeli troops amassing on the border and Israeli strikes within Lebanon, Nasrullah has not declared all out war. Hezbollah recently responded to a killing of a high-ranking Hamas official in Beirut (most likely by Israel) with a devastating missile attack in Israel. However, even then Nasrullah reiterated that he was not seeking a wider war
Yemen – Houthis/Ansar Allah
In mid-November the Houthis (or Ansar Allah, “the Supporters of God”) of Yemen declared war on Israel, the first foreign power to do so following the events of Oct. 7. In the last three months, the Houthis have imposed a blockade of commercial ships passing through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which leads into the Red Sea and the vital shipping corridor at the Suez Canal. In most, though not all, cases the Houthis have targeted ships that are either Israeli-owned or are doing business in Israeli ports. The Houthis’ demand to end the blockade is simple: end Israel’s assault on Gaza.
By imposing their blockade, the Houthis are not only exacting a cost on Israel for its crimes in Gaza, but they are also solidifying their own legitimacy among the Yemeni people. Support for the Palestinian cause is a major uniting force in the Yemeni population. This is partly because, until very recently, Yemen itself was subject to a brutal bombing campaign and illegal naval blockade by its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Over six years, the Saudis dropped billions of dollars’ worth of US-made bombs in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries. The Saudis tried and failed to dislodge the Iran-backed Houthis from their powerbase in Western Yemen. However, over 377,000 Yemenis died, mostly due to a lack of food and medicine resulting from the blockade. Last year, the Saudis finally had enough and negotiated a truce.
Due to the Houthi attacks and skyrocketing insurance rates, many of the world’s largest shipping companies avoided the strait. Some later resumed, having announced they would no longer do business in Israeli ports. Those who wished to continue visiting Israel had to go around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, adding about 2 weeks to the journey.
On a few occasions, Houthi fighters have boarded ships, but in most cases they attack using either missiles or drones. Depending on their type, the Houthis’ drones cost between $2000 to $20,000, while US ships fire missiles costing $2 million to take them down. By any estimation, the Houthis are punching above their weight, and quite successfully.
“Operation Prosperity Guardian”
In mid-December, the US announced “Operation Prosperity Guardian”, a joint naval operation meant to ensure safe passage through Yemen’s waters. According to a Dec. 18 press release from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the other participating countries initially included the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. However, France, Italy and Spain have since distanced themselves from the operation. In fact, Spain vetoed broader EU involvement in Prosperity Guardian. Perhaps they foresaw that the operation was doomed to be a counterproductive and humiliating failure.
On December 31, the US announced it had sunk three Houthi boats and killed ten fighters. Then last week, the US and UK began launching air strikes on military targets in Houthi territory, the latest of which happened yesterday. Also, we’ve only recently learned that two US Navy Seals were lost at sea last Thursday during an operation to intercept Iranian arms bound for Yemen. Inexplicably, the US has attempted to distance the loss of these two sailors from the wider mission of Prosperity Guardian.
The US strikes seem only to have strengthened the Houthis’ resolve and the support among Yemenis for the Palestinians. On Friday, the day after the first air strikes, Yemenis came out in a massive solidarity demonstration.
As if to show that the British-American assault on their territory hadn’t compromised their operation, the Houthis have launched retaliatory attacks, including on US Navy ships and US-owned cargo ships, which the Houthis weren’t targeting before the air strikes.
The net result of “Operation Prosperity Guardian” has been two-fold. Firstly, open naval warfare near the straits has further discouraged shipping through the Red Sea. This is going to increase inflation on imported goods and has already increased oil prices worldwide. Secondly, by attacking Houthi territory directly and failing to disarm them, the US has only strengthened the Houthis’ support in Yemen.
Just yesterday, Biden committed to continuing the strikes while acknowledging in the same breath that they weren’t working. “When you say working, are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”
Given that the 6-year Saudi bombing campaign failed to defeat the Houthis, the only effective means of disarming them and ending their blockade would likely require a full-scale ground invasion. One might hope that Biden is not so foolish as to contemplate such a debacle, but that hope is becoming increasingly faint.
Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria
Last week, Netanyahu gave a Hebrew-language address saying essentially that he would press on with his war plans and that neither the UN nor the ICJ would stop them. This is a particularly brazen statement since the ICJ hasn’t even ruled yet. It’s possible that Israel expects to lose that case despite the political pressure brought to bear on the court by themselves and by the US.
In this same address, Netanyahu said he told Blinken that this is also America’s war, and that ultimately the goal should be a direct confrontation with Iran to ensure they don’t obtain a nuclear weapon. This echoed a recent editorial by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett titled “The US and Israel need to take Iran on directly.” In the piece, Bennett did stop short of threatening war with Iran, advocating instead for other ways of undermining Iran’s regime. However, Bennett revealed for the first time that Israel was behind an air strike on Iranian soil in February 2022. In effect, the message was that if less direct tactics fail to bring about regime change in Iran, no option should be off the table.
Dismantling Iran has been the wet dream of war hawks both in Israel and the US for decades. However, there is a reason that it has never been fulfilled, namely that an invasion of Iran would be utter madness. It would easily rank among the most costly and most destructive wars the US has embarked on to date, next to which our boondoggle in Iraq would pale into insignificance.
Even if such an invasion were “successful” (however one might define “success”) consider the hellish situation left in the wake of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. A regime change war in Iran would have massively destabilizing consequences in an already very volatile neighborhood. Unlike Iraq in 2003, Iran also has very powerful friends in the form of Russia and China, both nuclear-armed powers.
Iran, meanwhile, is not sitting on its hands and waiting on the US and Israel to come to them. Since Oct. 17, Iran-backed militias have launched over 130 attacks against US bases in Iraq and Syria. By some miracle, no US service member has yet been killed nor have there been reports of serious injuries from these assaults. Earlier this week, Iran launched a long-range missile from its own territory and hit a facility in Iraqi Kurdistan belonging to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. This Mossad base was very close to a new US consulate in Erbil. The range demonstrated by these missiles suggests they could strike directly within Israel, making the Erbil strike a not-so-subtle warning to Tel Aviv.
What does “winning” look like?
This is not a war that we can “win” at a price any sane person would be willing to pay. Even if we could “win”, we would get some pretty sorry prizes for our trouble- on the one hand, temporarily preserving the career of a megalomaniacal ethnonationalist with a bruised ego; on the other, the continued oppression or extermination of millions of godforsaken people squeezed into an ever-tinier postage stamp of earth.
There is a supreme and bitter irony that the nation of Israel, born out of the greatest crime of the 20th century, now seems set to commit the greatest crime of the 21st century. How much American blood and treasure is Biden, our own Neville Chamberlain, willing to sacrifice to protect their “right” to do so?