A digital billboard in Tel Aviv welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to Israel on Oct. 18, 2023

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Biden’s Three Nos

Biden’s visit puts Israel in mortal danger

Gadi Taub
October 23, 2023
A digital billboard in Tel Aviv welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to Israel on Oct. 18, 2023

Leon Neal/Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
See the full collection →︎

President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel elicited a collective sigh of relief. The show of friendship and the strong statements of support, peppered with some Yiddishisms, gave Israelis a feeling that the U.S. truly has their back. The dispatch of two American aircraft carriers to the region served to further reassure us. This is what the president intended. He staged his embrace of Israel to elicit exactly such a response—and not just from Israelis but from American Jews as well.

However, the closer you examine Biden’s hug, the more it appears like a full nelson. To be sure, there are positive aspects to the visit, but the cons decisively outweighed the pros. Biden came to Israel to preserve his—and President Barack Obama’s—disastrous policy of appeasing Iran. That policy has run roughshod over Israel’s most vital interests and will continue to do so if it isn’t abandoned soon. It’s just that now, preserving that policy requires giving Israel some limited help against Hamas while preventing it from securing what it needs most: a clear and decisive victory. Anything short of that will leave our blood in the water for the bigger sharks to smell.

When you look beyond Biden’s “I love Israel” rhetoric and examine his actions through a sober political lens, here’s what the details look like.

The first thing to note is that, from the get-go, the U.S. denied Iran’s fingerprints on the Hamas attack. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that there was no “direct” evidence of Iranian involvement. That statement is risible. The evidence is as plain as day. The Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which is an extension of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, took part in the attack. Then there are the Iranian weapons and tactics, borrowed directly from Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah—to say nothing of the money from Tehran. Hamas’ leaders publicly credited Iran for supporting them. Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times published detailed reported articles about Iran’s direct involvement in the attack.

Sullivan’s demurral about Iran’s involvement was the first sign that the administration is out to save the key element of its misguided Middle East policy, which the administration often refers to opaquely as “regional integration” or “de-escalation.” In practice, these phrases are euphemisms for a policy of appeasement that has offered Iran unofficial sanctions relief, flooding it with cash, including, most recently, a $6 billion package, which, contrary to early reports, was not frozen after the atrocities of October 7.

U.S. appeasement has enabled and emboldened Iran’s proxies, who together planned the slaughter that the world has just witnessed in Israeli population centers around the Gaza Strip. According to the press in Israel, Israeli officials asked Biden to publicly acknowledge that Iran was complicit in the attack. The Americans flat-out refused. The reason behind this refusal is simple: Admitting that Iran is behind the atrocities means admitting that the policies of two Democratic administrations are an abject failure—that they have destabilized this volatile region, even before Iran can complete its nuclear military program.

The closer you examine Biden’s hug, the more it appears like a full nelson.

Then there is the question of Hezbollah. Far bigger and more lethal than Hamas, this Iranian proxy is now playing a direct role in the war. Biden tried to appease Hezbollah at Israel’s expense when he pressured Yair Lapid’s shaky coalition to accept a maritime border agreement that served Hezbollah’s interest (including giving it access to an underwater gas reservoir) by forcing concessions on Israel—supposedly in exchange for quiet. Now Israelis see what “quiet” looks like.

Israelis put much faith in the formidable naval force now projecting Washington’s power over the eastern Mediterranean. It is here, the press tells us, to deter Hezbollah from opening a second front on Israel’s northern border. This may well be true. Here is where U.S. and Israeli short-term interests converge. Israel prefers to fight its enemies one front at a time, so that it can deploy the full force of the IDF in each confrontation. The U.S., for its part, strongly prefers that the Gaza conflict remain localized and not mushroom into a full-blown regional war that would blow its “regional integration” policy.

However, this overlap in Israeli and American interests is local and temporary. The American assistance, we learned while Biden was visiting, came with a high price tag. Many in Israel had been arguing that the right move was to start the fighting first on the northern front, the source of the greatest direct threat to Israel’s existence. Biden reportedly demanded that Israel not make a major move against Hezbollah—and Prime Minister Netanyahu complied. Now, unless Hezbollah decides to preempt Israel, its power will remain intact, beneath an American umbrella of protection.

Giving up the option to attack Hezbollah first, and even the possibility of a credible threat to do so, can still make sense, providing that Israel received a guarantee of American protection. But now we know that we received no such guarantee from Biden. On the flight back from Israel, a reporter asked the president whether he told the Israelis that the U.S. would intervene against Hezbollah should it attack Israel with its arsenal of 200,000 rockets and missiles. The president responded very clearly: “Not true. I’ve never said it.”

Biden’s public declaration was no doubt music to the ears of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Israel lost freedom of maneuver against Hezbollah but gained very little deterrence in return. 

This is also true of the Gaza front. Here too the administration will not give Israel the free hand it needs against the terrorists who crossed Israel’s border and slaughtered 1,400 of her citizens. On 60 Minutes before his visit, President Biden said that occupying Gaza would be a “big mistake.” But how can Israel secure the destruction of Hamas as an organization, as well as a military force, without at least a monthslong occupation of Gaza? No entity other than the Israeli Defense Forces, and especially not the Palestinian Authority, has the power and the willingness to keep Gaza demilitarized. If Hamas remains a viable political organization in any part of the Gaza Strip, no Israeli will go to live in the western Negev for fear of a repeat of the horrors that we witnessed on October 7. Biden’s demand that Israel avoid occupying the Gaza Strip seems like a recipe for helping Hamas avoid destruction, placing it, too, under a de facto American protective umbrella.

Still, Israel can take the Gaza Strip in stages—by occupying the northern part, and then working southward from there, gradually squeezing and degrading Hamas over time. But then came the president’s curt answer to a journalist last Friday night, as he was boarding a plane. “Should Israel delay its ground offensive until more hostages are taken out?” a journalist asked. “Yes,” the president said. If this is going to be his policy, then it amounts to a demand to hold back on even a temporary occupation of the north.

So how is Biden actually expecting Israel to strike back against the terrorists who engaged in the worst mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust? Hanging over all of these demands is the remark Biden made in his first speech, calling on Israel to abide by “the laws of war.” What was the meaning of this advice? Israel not only abides by the internationally accepted rules of warfare, it employs stricter standards than any other army, including the United States. Biden’s admonition was an early warning that the threshold of civilian casualties that the U.S. will tolerate is much lower than it set for itself when it destroyed the Islamic State, killing over 30,000 people. Raqqa and the Old City of Mosul were virtually leveled to the ground. The media was generally silent. It will not be in the case of Israel, even less so after Biden’s remarks. 

What President Biden’s strictures mean in practice is that the United States does not agree with Israel that Iran is part of this conflict; it does not wish Hezbollah to be destroyed or injured in Lebanon; and it does not agree that Hamas must be completely destroyed in Gaza. Let’s call Biden’s actual posture toward Israel “the three nos.”

Of Biden’s three nos, the most difficult to justify is the one that has the U.S. running interference for the Hamas terrorists who gleefully butchered innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly on a mass scale unseen in any Western country since World War II. Hamas didn’t just deliberately target these civilians; its terrorists recorded and often showcased on social media how they committed barbaric, Nazi-like crimes against humanity. Most of the copious filmed and photograph records that exist of these acts are simply too sickening for the Israeli government to show in public—dismembering children in front of their parents, burning people alive, beheading babies, and much else. But enough of them have been made public that no sane person in any Western country can doubt either the reality or the irredeemable evil of these actions or the evil of the people who committed them. Hamas then retreated behind the civilian population of Gaza, using them as human shields.

Hiding military personnel and materiel behind citizens is itself a war crime. And if the civilians get hurt, those who hide among them are responsible. These are the internationally accepted rules of war, which are widely understood by every military on earth, if not always by journalists. To allow otherwise would be to disastrously license terrorism and aggression.

Yet Biden’s remarks have indicated that Hamas will be rewarded for the war crime of hiding weapons and armed terrorists among civilians. Israel, according to the Biden administration, must refrain from bombing Hamas if it does so. It must also help to keep those civilians docile and pliant under Hamas’ iron fist. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel before Biden and he sat with the Israeli cabinet for many hours. According to reports of those meetings, he virtually conditioned American military assistance on Israel immediately granting Gaza so-called humanitarian aid.

Apart from a ground invasion, depriving Gaza of aid of any sort—water, electricity, medicine, food—was Israel’s most effective lever for the possible release of the over 200 hostages held by Hamas. When Biden arrived, he underscored Blinken’s demand to allow “humanitarian aid,” which has now begun to flow through the Rafah crossing from Egypt—apparently uninspected by the United Nations or any other authority.

The agreed-upon fiction is that none of the aid will benefit Hamas; it is strictly “humanitarian,” of course. But Hamas controls the Gaza side of the crossing. Ultimately, it will determine the final destination of all aid, regardless of what is written on the manifests for the trucks. The same is true of Biden’s pledge of a $100 million aid package for Gaza, which amounts to rewarding the terrorists for their atrocities, at the American taxpayer’s expense.

Taken together, Biden’s three nos add up to this: Biden has closed all possible paths Israel has for a decisive victory in this war. And the meaning of this closure, make no mistake, can be very grave for the very existence of the Jewish state. Hamas is the weakest of our enemies. If they can commit such atrocities against us and get away with it, our budding alliances with the Sunni states will certainly begin to fray, as they seek to shore up their own security. They will not count on a lame ally in this dangerous neighborhood. What is worse, the stronger, richer, and more formidable among our enemies will take note, and prepare for the opportune moment to strike. This may push Israel to extremes we do not even want to contemplate.

Joe Biden is not consciously hostile to Israel. That much seems true. But his administration obviously cannot bring itself to admit the reality that recent events have laid bare: that the U.S. appeasement of Iran that became the centerpiece of U.S. regional policy under Barack Obama has destabilized the whole region and unleashed a tide of extremism that, if not contained, may send the Middle East up in smoke. In the long run, containing extremism can only be achieved by drastically curbing Iran’s power, not by supporting it with billions of dollars and the prospect of a nuclear bomb.

Israel’s considerations must begin with its own existential interests. And those can probably not be safely delayed until the U.S. comes to its senses.

Support Our Work

Become a member of Tablet Magazine

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.