by Ivo Daalder * – Politico, OtherNews
When United States President Joe Biden decided to travel to Israel this week, his immediate objective was to express solidarity with Israel, to avoid escalating the war beyond Gaza and to ask tough questions about the strategy Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet were pursuing. But even before Air Force One could take off, the fallout from the horrific deaths at al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza late Tuesday night had called all three of these goals into question.
The deadly hospital blast signaled that concerns about a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza were now displacing the shared anger and grief that had followed the previous week’s brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilians.
Fury on the Arab streets has now made the prospect of escalation more likely. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who had previously warned the Middle East was “on the brink of falling into the abyss,” cancelled a summit with Biden in Amman that was scheduled for Thursday, declaring a three-day period of mourning. Meanwhile, the shortcomings of Israel’s strategy in response to Hamas’ brutality are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
All of this suggests the need for a new strategy in the Middle East – one that addresses some of the core issues that have been exposed by the devastating events of this month and, at the same time, prevents further threats to Israel’s security.
Though Biden understandably hesitated about whether to set off to Israel after the sudden turnaround, he decided to go through with the trip, hoping to make the best of a rapidly deteriorating situation. Upon his arrival, he repeated the sentiments that had made him the most popular leader inside Israel after the October 7 attacks: “I come to Israel with a simple message, you are not alone.”
Promising to submit an “unprecedented support package” for Israel to the U.S. Congress by the end of the week, Biden doubled down on his support for the Jewish State while also using the visit to emphasize his determination to prevent the conflict from escalating. Earlier, he had commanded the Pentagon to send two massive aircraft carriers to the Eastern Med, to deploy 2,000 Marines offshore and to put another 2,000 troops on standby. He then repeated a message to Iran and any other hostile actors who might think of attacking Israel: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”
Biden also pressed Netanyahu’s Government to let humanitarian supplies into Gaza immediately, which it reluctantly agreed to do – provided none of it went to Hamas. But given the escalating crisis now facing Gazans as a result of Israel’s bombing campaign and siege, whatever limited supplies cross into the territory are likely to address only the direst of needs.
Finally, the U.S. President undoubtedly asked some tough questions of Israel’s war cabinet when they met behind closed doors. He later reminded everyone that the search for justice – as the U.S. had learned – isn’t easy, saying that “While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” Success, he noted, “requires being deliberate, it requires asking very hard questions, it requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives.”
Biden wasn’t about to tell Israel what to do. But his statement suggests growing doubts about the course its Government is on – and he is right. U.S. President Joe Biden undoubtedly asked some tough questions of Israel’s war cabinet.
The core problem facing Israel is that the strategy it developed in response to the shocking brutality of the mass slaughter of over 1,300 of its citizens is unlikely to work. How can Israel crush Hamas without also inflicting massive and unacceptable casualties on the surrounding civilian population? And even if it can, who rules Gaza thereafter? These questions are urgent yet remain unanswered.
It’s not clear that the extensive bombing campaign – the largest Israel has ever launched against Gaza – will truly crush Hamas, many of whose leaders aren’t in Gaza. Nor is the much-anticipated ground offensive likely to succeed, unless, that is, the intent is to entirely empty the territory of its population – which no one in Israel is suggesting it do.
What Israel wants to do is reestablish deterrence, and the bombing campaign has probably done this. But it’s important to understand that what happened on October 7 was less a failure of deterrence than a huge operational and intelligence mistake on Israel’s part.
The Government took its eye off the ball, redeploying much of its capability and focus to the West Bank, where a growing aggressive settler movement was increasingly confronting the local population. And Israeli intelligence assumed – wrongly – that Hamas had changed its stripes, and was now more interested in governing Gaza than attacking Israel.
Taken together, all this suggests it’s time to shift focus in the Middle East and develop a new strategy to tackle the underlying issues laid bare by this devastating conflict. Among them is the threat posed by Iran and others like Hezbollah and Hamas, which form a self-proclaimed “axis of resistance.” They seek the destruction of Israel, and they must not succeed.
It’s past time the U.S., Europe and others worked with Israel to do whatever they can to undermine the ability of this axis to inflict further damage – through coordinated sanctions, improved intelligence and actively countering Iran’s many nefarious activities in the region and around the world.
Achieving rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is one of Biden’s top priorities. Additionally, achieving rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which was already a Biden priority, is now more urgent than ever. The two major Countries in the region must stand united against Iran and against extremism by normalizing their relationship. The U.S. will need to do what it can to make this a reality.
Finally, the Palestinian issue can no longer be ignored. A new effort to resolve it – which is only possible through some kind of two-State solution – must again be made a priority. This is a tall diplomatic order for any President and administration – but especially for one tormented by political dysfunction at home and urgent demands abroad.
Its importance, however, suggests the need to appoint a special envoy who carries political weight and holds the confidence of many in the region – perhaps someone like former President Bill Clinton, the last U.S. President to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of the Middle East agenda. Whatever the particulars, now is the time for a fundamental course correction – before an even greater disaster hits.
* Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is CEO of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.”