The view from Israel

Biden debate performance won’t sway Israel-Hezbollah war considerations, experts say

Short-term calculations unlikely to be impacted by the debate, but Iran may try to get away with nuclear advances and Israel may try to defer decisions until November

Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump (L) looks at U.S. President Joe Biden during the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Joe Biden’s halting performance in last week’s presidential debate is unlikely to impact short-term decision-making in Jerusalem as Washington continues diplomatic efforts to prevent an escalation into all-out war on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, but it could have longer-term effects, experts told Jewish Insider on Sunday.

Thursday’s presidential debate came amid efforts by the U.S. to push for a diplomatic solution to avoid a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which has launched barrages of missiles and rockets into Israel since Oct. 8. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been unable to return to their homes for months, and Israeli leaders have warned the situation is untenable. U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein warned Lebanon last week that Washington would not be able to restrain Jerusalem and would help Israel defend itself from the Iranian proxy in the event of an escalation.

Defense and diplomatic analysts in Hebrew-language media across the political spectrum said a weak showing by a U.S. president would embolden Israel’s enemies, in a response so uniformly anxious that it warranted its own New York Times writeup.

Yet some experts were more circumspect when asked if the debate impacts Israel’s considerations regarding Hezbollah.

Shira Efron, senior director for policy research at the Israel Policy Forum, said, “I don’t think the debate performance necessarily emboldens the bad guys, Iran or Hezbollah … and I don’t think Israel thinks it emboldens them.”

“According to all assessments, they have no interest in a full-scale war at the moment,” Efron noted.

Asher Fredman, senior managing fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, pointed out that Biden is not directly conducting the negotiations with Lebanon, such that Hochstein can continue regardless.

In addition, Fredman said, “it doesn’t appear the Biden administration is going to hold back munitions that Israel needs. I think Israel is not particularly counting on the U.S. to help beyond that.”

“I think that obviously the American position is going to be important, but I don’t think Biden’s debate performance has a direct impact on Israel’s calculations vis-a-vis Hezbollah at the current moment,” he added.

However, Fredman said, Israel’s enemies may believe they have more leeway for malign acts between now and the presidential election in November.

“While President Biden’s performance at the debate may not directly impact Israel’s short-term calculations with regards to Hezbollah, it may well encourage Iran to use the next half year to advance its nuclear weapons program,” he said. “In such a case, Israel will be forced to decide whether it is prepared to act militarily against Iran’s nuclear program, which would likely lead to a high-intensity war with Hezbollah as well.”

Efron posited that Biden’s debate performance may affect Israeli decision-makers’ calculations between now and the election. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might decide to “wait this all out – the ‘day-after’ plan for Gaza, West Bank decisions, Lebanon – until November, thinking there’s a higher likelihood [that former President Donald] Trump will win,” Efron said. “There are a lot of people in [Israel] including in the coalition who would prefer a Trump victory.”

Amid rampant speculation and calls in the U.S. media for Biden to step down, Efron said that leaders in Jerusalem are likely concerned that whoever would be selected to replace Biden could be less friendly to Israel.

“If Biden drops out of the race, there could be a Democratic candidate who hedges on Israel,” she said. “I’m not saying it will be someone anti-Israel, but getting a Democratic candidate that will be like Biden is very, very unlikely, and [the candidate] would be catering to the Democratic base.” 

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