MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images
Hamas’ terrorist attack this weekend took everyone by surprise, but it did not occur in a vacuum. How did we get here?
Here’s a brief annotated reader.
First, let’s look at the last major Gaza war, in 2021, which started, not coincidentally, shortly after Joe Biden took office:
As with the conflagration before that, in 2014, the strategic backdrop for the war was simple: the foreign policy pivot, initiated by Barack Obama and revived by Biden, to create a “realignment” in the Middle East by partnering with Iran. Four days before the rocket fire started, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, gave a triumphalist speech, declaring that “the balance of power has swung.” The Iranian framing of a new “balance of power” fits seamlessly with the U.S. administration’s declared priorities. As part of its regional realignment doctrine, the Biden administration has moved away from the Abraham Accords as fast as it can. As all the actors involved understood, the Abraham Accords represented the framework for a U.S.-led camp of regional allies to cooperate in the face of common challenges, specifically those posed by Iran. This security architecture is what Team Obama-Biden’s realignment doctrine fundamentally rejects. The point of realignment is to create the opposite regional order of that imagined by the Abraham Accords.
Rather than create an order that clearly distinguishes between our Israeli and Arab allies on the one side and our enemies led by Iran on the other, this vision moved to erase that line and to back Iran against our former allies, forcing them to accommodate Iran and to prop up its regional assets. That, Team Biden argued, is how you achieve a “more integrated region,” which is a “less pressurized” and therefore a “more stable and secure” region, as a July 2022 op-ed under Joe Biden’s name explained it.
The administration’s examples of “integration” all involved Iranian holdings like Yemen and Iraq. And now the administration was preparing to “integrate” another Iran equity, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, with Israel:
Over the next several months, the administration maneuvered the caretaker government of Yair Lapid to sign a maritime border delineation agreement that conceded to all of Hezbollah’s demands. In the process, the administration and Hezbollah worked hand in glove, amplifying Hezbollah’s operations to pressure Israel while demanding the latter abstain from “escalating”:
The administration hailed the agreement as a prime example of “regional integration,” whose dividends included providing Lebanon, that is to say Hezbollah, with security and prosperity, which in turn, they claimed, made Israel more secure. In other words, by entangling Israel with Hezbollah, and thereby constraining its ability to target the Iranian-led terrorist group, Team Biden was advancing its vision for a “more secure and more integrated” region.
When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power shortly thereafter, Team Obama-Biden lost a pliant client government and now needed to make sure Netanyahu didn’t get in the way of their regional vision.
Israel needed to be tied down with all available shackles. The first and oldest instrument was the Palestinians.
A key element of trashing the Abraham Accords was to once again place the Palestinians center stage. As the administration paid and bestowed prestige on them, the Palestinians launched another terrorism campaign against Israel, this time in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem. The Palestinians knew that they had America’s wind in their sails, and they understood the function America wanted them to perform, one familiar to them throughout their history: to act as an instrument of sabotage for radical regimes.
The administration also continued to extend a security umbrella to Hezbollah and moved to tie down the Netanyahu government in another process with the terrorist group, replaying its maritime border scheme this time on land. By this spring, Hezbollah had been assisting Hamas and Islamic Jihad in their ongoing campaign against Israel, orchestrating rocket fires from Lebanon and dispatching a bomber deep into Israel. Recognizing that Lebanon, and therefore Hezbollah, enjoyed American protection, the group then upped the ante further by setting up an outpost inside the Israeli Har Dov region in the Golan Heights.
The group’s leader explained confidently that the Israelis were deterred and that now the Biden administration will come and pressure Israel to concede. Which is exactly what happened. The administration’s special envoy came to Israel and Lebanon carrying an “initiative” to resolve their land border dispute, and advised Israel not to escalate.
Shortly thereafter, Team Obama-Biden knifed Israel at the Security Council by approving a resolution that called that part of the Golan Heights “occupied,” even as U.S. policy, put in effect by President Trump, recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. The Obama-Biden team was dead set on reaffirming Obama’s vision, which he enshrined in UNSCR 2334, and which adopted the so-called 1967 lines. That meant that the U.S. regarded all Israeli presence and communities established in territory “occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem,” as having “no legal validity.”
In tandem with this track, the administration bogged the Israelis down in another process. This one dangled before Netanyahu the promise of a “megadeal” with Saudi Arabia—a prize the Israeli prime minister very much coveted.
U.S. officials had put out through their Israeli mouthpiece that if the Netanyahu government wants an agreement with Saudi Arabia, it will have to make concessions to the Palestinians. That is, the Biden administration had inserted its agenda on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem into the Saudi-Israeli process, and presented it as a Saudi ask that was necessary to provide “legitimacy”—through Palestinian buy-in—to any prospective agreement with Israel. You want your “historic” deal, Bibi? Sign here.
Moreover, the administration moved to paralyze Netanyahu at home, backing his political opponents and shunning him and members of his coalition. The administration’s ambassador backed the popular demonstrations against Netanyahu, openly flaunting Washington’s interference behind a movement to topple the elected government.
It is against this background of a relentless, multifaceted, and sustained campaign to disorient, distract, and paralyze Israel that we should read Hamas’ attack. As in 2021, it is Iran and Hamas who launched the war. But it is America that has conditioned the battlefield.
From the editors of Tablet Magazine.