The US has Israel’s back… and a fear of the war’s horrendous what-ifs

Joe Biden has expressed his disgust with Hamas’s ‘unadulterated evil’, writes veteran US-watcher Jon Sopel. But behind the public support, America can only watch and pray the conflict doesn’t spread across the region

Saturday 14 October 2023 13:28 BST
US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu
US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (EPA)

Like probably too many of us, I have spent an inordinate amount of time looking at social media this past, ghastly week. Each video showing some new, unfathomable atrocity. The comments below it scaling even greater heights of rage, hatred and intolerance.

Let us hope that the forging of US foreign policy is being done with calmer reflection, paying no heed to the anger machine that is so much of what is now X (it should really be called X certificate given so much of the content), but once was Twitter.

But one post did catch my eye – it was from Ben Rhodes, who was a deputy US national security adviser during the Obama years. He said: “The decisions being made now are going to impact millions of lives and risk all kinds of escalation. The US should have learned from 9/11 the profound cost of being guided by anger and fear. I hope that is what we are telling the Israeli government.”

It goes without saying that his comments have provoked sharp and contrasting reactions. Of course, he served in an administration that talked big on the Middle East, but achieved what exactly? The red lines on Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, and then – err – doing nothing about it; a lack of action that squandered a great deal of US moral authority. Or leading from behind in Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafi?

I remember sitting and talking to Rhodes in a garden in Riyadh during Obama’s tetchy visit to Saudi Arabia, back in 2016, about how rough the conversation had been with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Obama had lectured the Kingdom’s leaders on human rights.

But that doesn’t make Rhodes wrong in his warnings today. For public consumption, the US is standing four-square behind Israel in countering the terrorist atrocity perpetrated by Hamas last weekend. Though it is worth noting that in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of innocent Israelis – kids at a music festival, families on a kibbutz, Holocaust survivors taken as hostages – the US State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs said on X that it “unequivocally condemned the attack of Hamas terrorists and the loss of life that has incurred. We urge all sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks. Terror and violence solve nothing.” The tweet was quickly deleted after howls of outrage.

The clearest statement of US foreign policy came from Biden in a powerful and emotional address from the White House, where he spoke of the “pure unadulterated evil” of Hamas’s attack. “The United States has Israel’s back,” he said. “We will make sure the Jewish and democratic state of Israel can defend itself today, tomorrow, as we always have.”

The next day in Jerusalem, America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken (himself Jewish, whose stepfather survived the Nazi death camps), stood side by side with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in another very public show of US and Israeli solidarity – despite the many difficulties there have been in the relationship with the right-wing leader of Israel.

Yet it seems to me inconceivable that in private – and in slightly more coded messages in public – the US hasn’t expressed clear concerns, fearful of how this could affect the bigger picture: the horrendous “what-ifs”. What if Hezbollah launches a wave of attacks from the north? What happens if there’s an uprising in the West Bank as well? And the nightmare what-if: what if Iran – a regional superpower – is drawn in? There may be debate over the extent of Tehran’s support/encouragement for the audacious Hamas operation – but I don’t know anyone who thinks it could have happened without Iran’s quiescence.

The US is saying to Israel, of course it has a right to defend itself, but it must be cognisant of wider threats and how the geopolitics of this could become perilous. And telling a million people in Gaza they have 24 hours to get out is going to inflame passions still further.

The quote attributed to Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 50-plus years ago is still the clearest articulation of the dilemma. ‘If the Arabs lay down their weapons there is no war. If the Israelis lay down their weapons there is no Israel’

But if you’re Israel what do you do? How do you negotiate with Hamas – a group which wants to see your destruction and has it as part of its charter? The quote attributed to Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 50-plus years ago is still the clearest articulation of the dilemma. “If the Arabs lay down their weapons there is no war. If the Israelis lay down their weapons there is no Israel.” Israel, in so many ways, resembles a modern liberal democracy – like Britain, France or Italy – and is often judged by those Western standards, but it sees itself in an existential fight for survival that we in these European countries are not.

And for that reason, the US has limited leverage over what Israel will or won’t do. Israel will do what it thinks it needs to do to secure its borders, to keep its population safe, as it spectacularly failed to do last weekend.

That is when the test of the solidity of US support comes. One thing Biden is not doing is giving Israel a blank cheque; for however long it takes. Time is of the essence. Do whatever you need to do, but do it quickly, before the backlash grows too big. And this plays domestically, too.

Over the years, there has been a haemorrhaging of support for Israel from Democrats. It used to be rock solid – but not now. A landmark Gallup poll from March this year found that for the first time among Democratic Party voters, there was more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than the Israeli – 49 per cent against 38 per cent.

And though the Republicans are willing Israel to do whatever it sees fit, that support is tempered by the total dysfunction of politics at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave from the White House. There is still no speaker in the House of Representatives, so no resolutions can be passed; there is only a temporary funding bill for the government to stay open; the impasse seems set to continue even though there is a clamour among some Republicans to stop Ukraine funding and switch it to Israel instead (the politics and psychology of that could be the subject of a whole separate column).

As this plays out, Blinken is touring the Middle East shoring up support for the US position from those nations who have diplomatic relations with Israel. The big game changer would have been if Saudi Arabia had normalised relations with Israel, something US diplomats had been working hard to achieve. A prospect that had been tantalisingly close before the Hamas attack – and may have been one of the motivations of the terrorists to attack when they did: to scupper the deal by making it politically impossible. Iran is also out there on manoeuvres trying to whip up opposition to Israel.

The picture is overwhelmingly bleak, but I was with a former senior US diplomat the other night who thought there was a window of opportunity here; that Iran had overplayed its hand and that there was an opportunity to isolate it further and intensify the pressure on the Shia state. Maybe, but it sounds a bit like whistling to keep your spirits up when all the most powerful country in the world can do is watch and hope and pray.

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