Israel-Palestine war: The wheels are coming off the cart of US Middle East policy
Joe Biden is not having a good war. Three days after the Hamas attack, the US president gave a speech that had even Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, settler-lover David Friedman, eating out of his hand.
Biden falsely endorsed the claim that Hamas had beheaded babies, in remarks that the White House had to row back later; he promised US support for giving Israel everything it needed to “respond to this attack”; and he falsely asserted that civilians in Gaza were being used as human shields.
In those three days, the leadership of Israel made it crystal clear that the gloves were off, and that the state would not be bound in its response to the Hamas attack by the rules of war.
Events played out accordingly, as Israel dropped the equivalent explosive power of a quarter of a nuclear bomb on Gaza in 10 days.
As Biden was about to take off for his latest Middle East trip, Israeli forces struck a hospital in Gaza, which they had attacked a few days before, amid a warning to evacuate. Around two dozen other hospitals have received such threats.
This time, close to 500 people were killed. The carnage at al-Ahli, one of Gaza’s oldest hospitals, so delighted the Israeli national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, that he prematurely claimed responsibility: “As long as Hamas does not release the hostages in its hands - the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tonnes of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid.”
So did Hananya Naftali, who worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s digital team, posting on X: “BREAKING: Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza.” He quickly deleted the post.
Later in the day, a spokesperson for the Israeli army said that an “enemy rocket” en route to Israel misfired and hit the hospital. Such rockets lack the explosive power to kill 500 people. The army initially appended footage showing an Islamic Jihad rocket, but after it was discovered that this video was recorded 40 minutes after the bombing took place, the army removed the footage.
Someone appears to be working overtime at their laptop to kick over the traces of the hospital attack. There is even audio that purports to reveal Hamas operatives discussing the failed missile launch - except according to Channel 4, it’s fake, using the wrong tone, syntax, and accent.
Bright green light
By the time Biden landed in Israel on Wednesday, much of the regional tour he had planned had been cancelled. Such was the rage in the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt, that no Arab leader could agree to see him - for their own safety.
With hundreds of people gathering outside the US and Israeli embassies in Jordan, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the revocation of the peace treaty with Israel, the visit to Amman was off.
But shortly after arriving in Israel, Biden only dug himself further into the deep hole he was already in, telling Netanyahu of the hospital attack: “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.”
Behind the scenes, the wheels really do appear to be coming off the cart that carries US Middle East policy.
To be clear, the actions that the US took behind the scenes in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack paved the way for the crisis the region is now in.
The actions that the US took behind the scenes in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack paved the way for the crisis the region is now in
The US not only gave the brightest of green lights to a bombing campaign aimed at pushing more than one million people in the northern half of the Gaza Strip down towards the Egyptian border. It not only gave Israel JDAM bombs and several thousand 155mm artillery rounds, according to defence officials.
It also, according to multiple credible reports, tried initially to persuade Egypt to take one million refugees from Gaza. Al Akhbar first reported that the US tried to coordinate with the UN and “international organisations receiving EU funding” to persuade Cairo to open Rafah. A bribe was of course involved.
Sources spoke of the US willingness to provide significant funding to Egypt, exceeding $20bn, if it agreed to the operation. They pointed to a request from Cairo to “facilitate the transfer of large teams of organisations working in the relief field to the border with Rafah without entering Gaza”.
The Egyptian website Mada Masr also reported that Egyptian officials had been in talks about the displacement of a significant part of Gaza’s population. Such was the sensitivity of this claim that Egyptian authorities came down on the website like a tonne of bricks: The editors were summoned and an investigation was started by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation over publishing “false news”.
Undoubtedly, these talks took place before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi realised how explosive they would be to him in a re-election year.
The US made three key blunders in its response to the Hamas attack. It encouraged Israel to attack Gaza without restraint; it initially entertained the scenario of a mass exodus of Palestinians to Egypt; and it brought the Middle East to the brink of a regional war.
Right from the start, the narrative used by both Israel and the US was that the Hamas attack was Israel’s 9/11 moment; that Hamas was no different than the Islamic State; and that Israel had the moral duty not only to reply to Hamas’s attack, but to eradicate the whole movement.
This allowed Israel to think it could use air strikes on Gaza not only to wipe out Hamas but also to make structural changes to the balance of power in the Middle East, which would mean dealing with Hezbollah and eventually Iran.
Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz have both alluded to a plan that would, in Gantz’s words, “change the security and strategic reality in the region”. It is not clear to me if the US would have allowed Israel to go ahead with a plan wider than Hamas and Gaza, but the plan was clearly there.
Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, wrote: “This war is much more than a conflict between Israel and Hamas. In the West, an understanding is developing that the Iron Swords War is a defining moment and a one-time opportunity to reshape the Middle Eastern architecture - which is expected to also affect the relations of power in the entire world.”
For a few days, it looked as if the forced expulsion of half of Gaza, under the guise of setting up humanitarian corridors, would work. The northern border with Lebanon remained quiet. Hezbollah did not initially react. The western media accepted the plan to conquer Hamas and reoccupy Gaza.
The turning point came when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken apparently realised that another Nakba on the scale of what happened in 1948 was a red line.
Jordan’s deputy prime minister, Ayman Safadi, said all Arab countries pledged collective action against any attempt to expel Palestinians from their homeland after a meeting of foreign ministers. The same message was conveyed by King Abdullah II of Jordan on his recent European tour.
Such was the outcry from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia that Blinken had to concede it was a “non-starter”. Biden has also said that the re-occupation of Gaza would be a “big mistake”. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that everyone should avoid escalation.
These were accompanied by other clear warnings. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned that the axis of resistance would open “multiple fronts” against Israel if the attacks on Gaza continued, telling Iranian state television: “Time is running out very fast. If the war crimes against the Palestinians are not immediately stopped, other multiple fronts will open and this is inevitable.”
If the US still did not get the message, all it had to do was look out the window at the record mass demonstrations across the region.
As Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday, the region was boiling. Quite apart from moral issues, the US military is clearly unprepared for such a venture, having spent the last several years drawing down its military assets.
According to the Wall Street Journal, it withdrew more than eight Patriot missile batteries last year from Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system from Saudi Arabia. It emptied its stockpiles of 155mm rounds in Israel to give to Ukraine. It moved its naval assets to the Asia Pacific.
It has had to reverse most of this in short order. One carrier group is in the Mediterranean, and another is on the way. The last time the US had two carrier groups in the Middle East was in 2020. Along with ships, it has had to move A-10 attack aircraft and F-15 and F-16 fighters back to the Gulf.
There is an argument circulating in Washington that the nature, speed and extent of the Hamas attack changed the US-based Middle East system
All this is supposed to deter Iran. It won’t. I don’t often refer to the analysis of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Israel, but on this occasion, I will break the habit of a lifetime.
Friedman wrote: “If Israel goes into Gaza now, it will blow up the Abraham Accords, further destabilize two of America’s most important allies (Egypt and Jordan), and make normalization with Saudi Arabia impossible - huge strategic setbacks. It will also enable Hamas to really fire up the West Bank and get a shepherd’s war going there between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Altogether, it will play directly into Iran’s strategy of sucking Israel into imperial overstretch and in that way weakening the Jewish democracy from within.”
Hamas does not need to fire up the occupied West Bank, as there are huge demonstrations in all of its major cities calling for President Mahmoud Abbas to go, after Palestinian Authority (PA) forces used live fire on demonstrators. But on the strategic point, I agree with Friedman, although it pains me to say so.
He is also right to say that a ground invasion of 360,000 aggrieved Israeli soldiers is a recipe for even worse, and more wide-scale, massacres than we have seen up until now.
There is an argument circulating in Washington that the nature, speed, and extent of the Hamas attack changed the US-based Middle East system. James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador in the region, told Middle East Eye: “Hamas’ ability to overcome an entire Israeli military defence line puts this war at the level of Yom Kippur (the 1973 Middle East war). No recent war has threatened the US-based Middle East system so much as this, and that is how the administration views it.”
But this analysis starts the clock at the attack itself, not at all the warnings that went before it - the collapse of the PA, the Israeli encroachments on Al-Aqsa Mosque, the impossibility of negotiations, the attempts to make a deal with Saudi Arabia over the heads of the Palestinians, and the impossibility of all Palestinians being able to break out of their collective cages.
Could it also be that the “US-based Middle East system”, the foundation of which is blind support for Israel, is broken? The resignation letter of Josh Paul, a senior official at the US State Department, who quit over his administration’s stance on the Gaza War makes for interesting reading.
Paul called the Hamas attack the “monstrosity of monstrosities” but continued: “This Administration’s response - and much of Congress’ as well - is an impulsive reaction built on confirmation bias, political convenience, intellectual bankruptcy, and bureaucratic inertia. Decades of the same approach have shown that security for peace leads to neither security nor peace, The fact is that blind support for one side is destructive in the long term to the interests of the people on both sides.”
Biden might finally have gotten the message. But having released the brakes on Israel’s collective rage 12 days ago, he is going to have a tough job trying to apply them now.
I said earlier that the wheels have come off the cart - and it really is a rickety, horse-drawn cart. What these past 12 days have demonstrated more than anything else, is the inability of the US to be a world leader. It lacks the requisite analytical skills, regional knowledge, and brainpower. It shoots from the hip and thinks about the consequences later. It is led into wars for which it is patently unprepared.
Blinded by dogma, ever keen to divide the world into Manichean opposites - democracy versus autocracy, the Judeo-Christian world versus Islam - America has lost touch with the values it claims to uphold. Is lying on Israel's behalf about the war crimes it is perpetrating, helping to defend it?
Washington is losing the support of its allies. No one looking at US actions can have much confidence that they have been thought through. The consequences of these 12 days, and the days to follow, will send tremors far and wide.
Biden has every interest in shutting this episode down now, by stopping the ground assault and forcing the opening of Gaza to basic humanitarian aid.
Only then could negotiations with Hamas take place over a prisoner exchange. If he does not achieve these basic goals, he too will find out how much damage an unfettered Israel can inflict on itself, the region, the US, and indeed the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.