Biden’s visit: A loving embrace or a bear hug?
US, Israeli officials insist the administration is not tying Israel’s hands, but analysts warn that Washington may be limiting Jerusalem from responding to Hamas and Hezbollah attacks
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
When President Joe Biden landed in Israel on Wednesday, he became the first American president to do so in wartime. His speech last week and remarks to Jewish communal leaders who met with him at the White House showed an understanding of Israelis’ and Jews’ pain at this time at a level matched by few, if any, past presidents. The transfer of aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf, among other acts, show that Biden’s support was not only in words, but in actions.
However, there are concerns in Israel about Biden’s embrace — as reflected in a headline in Tuesday’s Yediot Aharonot calling it a “bear hug” – a phrase that in Hebrew refers to holding someone close in order to restrain him, not just to show love. Prominent military analyst Yossi Yehoshua argued that, while U.S.-Israel cooperation is closer than ever before, the Biden administration may not allow the Jewish state to fully pursue its goals in the war.
“There is a price to this aid, and the time has come to speak about it more clearly and without being sentimental: The Americans are taking the lead of this war in accordance with their interests in the region,” Yehoshua wrote. “It may be, for example, that Biden is not interested in an active move to remove the Hezbollah threat from [Israeli] towns in the north, and he is certainly interested in being as cautious as possible about a humanitarian disaster in Gaza.”
Yehoshua also warned that Biden’s determination to bring back U.S. hostages may leave Israelis behind in Gaza and require Israel to make concessions without getting anything in return.
The message reverberated deeply enough for Jerusalem and Washington to address it. Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi opened his press conference on Tuesday by calling the headline “an injustice to a true friend in a time of need.” Then, the White House took things a step further than simply denying that it is not limiting Israel’s response; American officials told Axios that the White House discussed the possibility of joining the fight if Hezbollah attacks Israel.
Biden “is coming to embrace us in a good way, an embrace of love…an embrace for every Israeli and every Jew,” Hanegbi insisted. “We, the prime minister and all Israeli citizens will accept him with gratitude…He not only identifies with our shared pain but also identifies…in his statements and actions with the determination we are showing as a nation and a government to attain the goals of the war until victory.”
The administration’s actions have made it clear to Iran and Hezbollah that “if they think of joining the attack against the citizens of Israel, there will be an American intervention,” Hanegbi said.
Biden’s visit does come with open acknowledgment of at least some strings attached: The administration did not announce the president’s visit to Israel until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed to Israel allowing a humanitarian package into Gaza, the Washington Post reported.
Hanegbi confirmed in a press conference on Tuesday that Secretary of State Tony Blinken sat in cabinet meetings “until 3 a.m.,” in which they worked out that aid would go to “safe zones” in southern Gaza — but his remarks betrayed Israeli skepticism about the plan.
“They can be given humanitarian aid under only one condition that we made clear to Blinken, which he shares with us,” Hanegbi said. “The aid will go to the people who we told to [evacuate] to the south, but if it does not get to the people and gets to the murderers and massacrers, there will not be any [aid].”
In addition, Hanegbi said, the “holy” issue of bringing hostages home must be central to any humanitarian efforts.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) railed against the Biden administration for “placing conditions on our support for Israel because of demands from The Squad.”
“Humanitarian aid repeatedly ends up in the hands of Hamas terrorists who use it to build rockets and kill more Israelis,” she said.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren argued that Israeli public opinion is against humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, making it a loaded political decision domestically.
“The Israeli people do not see the Palestinians as innocent bystanders, they see them as complicit and in some cases actually guilty of mass murder,” he told Jewish Insider.
Analysts noted challenges stemming from Biden’s embrace that go far beyond the humanitarian aid package to Gaza.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for policy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, posited to JI that the American diplomatic channels through Qatar and Iran to free hostages could get in the way of Israel’s planned ground incursion.
“This process is ultimately going to inhibit Israel’s ability to act quickly. It already has, and this delay is only going to be extended through Biden’s visit and possibly through [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s visit,” Schanzer said.
That wait “is not cost free for us,” Oren explained. Over 350,000 of the most productive segments of Israel’s economy are doing reserve duty. The “quote-unquote Palestinian suffering” is gaining media attention, even as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad continue to rain rockets on Israel, Oren said.
Plus, Oren said, he is concerned that “there will be growing opinion in American media against an Israeli ground incursion. I see it in Tom Friedman’s column and other people writing against it.”
The longer Israel delays its response, the more deterrence it loses and weakens the American attempt to stave off an Iranian attack, Schanzer warned.
“Every day that Israel waits, we see Hezbollah provocations grow,” he said.
The deployment of aircraft carriers is meant to “enable Israel to enter the Gaza Strip and remove an Iranian asset from the chessboard, while Iran is forced to simply watch,” he said.
However, extending the crisis gives more time for mistakes to be made, with potential to spark a broader conflagration.
“I fear the U.S. may be trying to engineer too much of this rather than just simply give Israelis the time and space they need to take Hamas off the board while providing that deterrence to the Iranians,” Schanzer said. “That is the simplest and easiest outcome — and that’s not easy at all.”
In contrast, Oren took issue with the Biden administration seeking to avoid the opening of a northern front against Israel.
“Hamas is trapped and isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Hezbollah is 50 times stronger and more experienced in fighting, and presents a strategic threat; 150,000 rockets are an intolerable threat for any nation.
“Now that we have 350,000 reservists called up and two aircraft carriers in the region, let’s deal with Hezbollah,” Oren argued.
The former ambassador said that the IDF thinks it can deter Hezbollah by destroying Hamas, and that if Hezbollah enters the fray first and then Israel responds, the Jewish state will have the moral high ground.
“I question this whole concept. Remember what happened in 1973 when we wanted the moral high ground?” Oren said, referring to the thousands of IDF soldiers killed in the Yom Kippur War.
Oren also said Israel will “pay a price” by being more dependent on the U.S. for its security than in the past.
Oren recounted that Israel was once referred to as America’s largest aircraft carrier in the Middle East.
“If we’re the aircraft carrier, why do we need two others?” he asked. But at the same time, “I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘We don’t need your aircraft carriers; we’re fine.’”
“We had neither an effective government nor did our military secure our borders,” he lamented. “It’s unpleasant for a sovereign state to rely so heavily on the U.S. We always prided ourselves on being able to defend ourselves, by ourselves. It’s not an easy moment.”
Still, Oren called the American embrace of Israel a “net positive…The psychological impact is very important not only for us, but also for our enemies.”
Schanzer said that there “may be Israeli reliance, but they appear dedicated to working together, which I think generally is a positive sign.”
He praised the “unambiguous message being delivered to the entire Arab world, Iran and Turkey…that as Israel goes through this crisis, America has Israel’s back.”
“It’s heartening to see the cooperation,” he stated.
But the scale of that cooperation does not come without risks.
“I think the Israelis are giving the U.S. wide latitude right now, but this assumes the U.S. knows what it’s doing. We’re definitely in uncharted territory here. There has never been a crisis like this in 50 years in the Middle East, where the entire region is this close to full-blown conflagration,” Schanzer said.