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Why Biden Is Right

One of the most famous—and most misquoted—adages about war comes from the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who dubbed war “a mere continuation of policy by other means,” adding that “the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.” In plain language, wars are meant to destroy an enemy and neutralize a threat, but they must fit into a larger grand strategy if they are to be successful.

This is a lesson that U.S. President Joe Biden—sometimes gently, other times less gently—has been urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep at the forefront of his decisions since October. It is the backdrop to the disagreements between the U.S. and Israel, which are not about Biden abandoning Israel in any way but about his desire to embed Israel’s fight against Hamas in Gaza into larger American and Israeli interests and goals. Israel’s failure to see this has been and will continue to be costly, and the fallout rests squarely on the Israeli government’s head.

The news last week that the U.S. had temporarily delayed a shipment of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs, and Biden’s CNN interview in which he declared his intention to withhold some bombs and artillery shells if Israel launches a large-scale operation in Rafah, caused many extreme overreactions. Charges that Biden abandoned Israel by holding back one out of hundreds of shipments of arms that he has sent to Israel, that he is secretly trying to engineer a victory for a U.S.-designated terrorist group that killed American citizens and continues to hold eight of them hostage, or that he has put Israel at existential risk by not providing bunker-buster bombs to use in an operation to defeat four Hamas battalions armed with RPGs and guns are too fatuous to spend even five seconds addressing. But the fact that Biden’s decision does not prevent Israel from carrying out an operation in Rafah or prevent it from defeating Hamas does not mean that there aren’t consequences to these moves.

Any sign of discord between Israel and its most powerful ally provides an incentive for Hamas to further harden its already unreasonable negotiating stances, and it encourages Iran and its proxies to test Israeli defenses in the hopes that they can do so without drawing the U.S. in any further. There is a cost-benefit analysis to any move like this, and even if the end result is an operation in Rafah that fulfills Israeli objectives while also being sensitive to U.S. concerns, there are still costs that will manifest in other places.

If you are looking to blame Biden for that, you are looking in the wrong place. The fault lies overwhelmingly with Netanyahu and the woefully inadequate and reckless government that he handpicked. There is no need to run through the litany of unprecedented assistance that the Biden administration has provided to Israel since October 7, as you would have to be living in a bunker sealed off from the outside world to be unaware of it. On multiple security and diplomatic fronts, the U.S. has worked to make sure Israel has the armaments, time, and space to carry out its operation in Gaza in a manner of its choosing. It has consistently asked for two things in return: that Israel comply with U.S. efforts and U.S. requests to ease the situation for Gazan civilians, and that Israel connect its military tactics to a larger political strategy. These are not things that the U.S. has requested because it is trying to patronize Israel or control the direction of Israeli policy. It is because they impact direct U.S. interests in the region and because the enormity of U.S. assistance to Israel makes it a heavily invested stakeholder in the outcome in Gaza.

While much of the criticism of Israeli actions has been on the humanitarian front, it is Israel’s ongoing refusal to put forward a political vision and move toward implementing it that will be the more damaging to U.S.-Israel relations in the long run, and the element that is likely driving Biden to the edge of his patience. This frustration is not only felt by Biden, as attested to by the spate of articles in the Israeli press over the past week revealing unpleasant exchanges revolving around the lack of an Israeli strategy between Netanyahu on one side and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar on the other.

As frustrating as it is for U.S. officials to back Israeli military operations and deploy American military assets in the region to allow the IDF to concentrate on Gaza, and then watch the IDF go back into spots in northern and central Gaza for the second and third times after declaring victory in those neighborhoods in November and December, it is far more exasperating for the Israeli security officials who are stuck in a repeating loop. Military operations can be enormously successful at the moment, but in a situation where the imperative is not just to kill a bunch of terrorists but to deny them their hold over a territory, the military component is a necessary means but insufficient to achieve the end. The IDF should be operating in service of a larger strategy determined by Israeli leaders, but instead, it is embarking on a wash, rinse, and repeat cycle in Zeitoun, Jabalya, and Shifa Hospital, and will soon be doing the same in central Gaza.

Netanyahu went on Dan Senor’s Call Me Back podcast this week and claimed that there was no utility to talking about a day-after plan for Gaza until that day after arrives. As is increasingly clear to more and more people, that is patent nonsense. Israel’s initial military plan for Gaza was to start in the north and quickly bisect Gaza in two, which it successfully did. It then went location by location, starting in Gaza City, then moving on to Khan Younis, and now saying that Rafah is the remaining stronghold to tackle. Israel purposely did not treat Gaza as a unified whole but approached the territory piecemeal, and the day after planning should have proceeded along the same lines.

A plan for the north should have been in place months ago since that was when Israel declared its major ground offensive in the north successfully concluded. The reason that such a plan does not exist is not because having one and implementing one is futile, but because Netanyahu does not want to have one or implement one. Doing so would mean admitting that Israel is not going to reoccupy and resettle Gaza and will have to rely on Palestinians, and would infuriate his far-right extremist Svengalis, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

And since Netanyahu would rather upset his top military and security officials, the hostage families, displaced Israelis waiting to return to their homes, Biden, security partners in Egypt and Jordan, former friends in the UAE, and future friends in Saudi Arabia than upset his most repugnant political allies, he pretends that winning a military campaign with a post-Hamas political vision cannot happen until Hamas has been eliminated. And since he knows that Hamas can be defeated but cannot be eliminated without a political vision that should already be implemented, he has himself the ultimate Catch-22 of his own creation.

While some people are still falling for this ruse, Biden and his national security team are not among them and have not been since before Israel went into Gaza. The ten principles that Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, laid out on Monday that underscore how the administration is approaching Israel’s fight against Hamas left no room for ambiguity; Biden supports Israel’s fight against Hamas to the hilt and appreciates the unprecedented burden that Israel faces in dealing with Hamas embedding itself amongst civilians, and also views Israel’s defeat of Hamas as necessarily nested within a larger strategic framework of what must happen in Gaza and across the entire region. This is ultimately why Biden’s frustrations with Netanyahu boiled over, and why American entreaties to Israel to come up with a viable strategy for all of the non-military aspects of this conflict have been so consistently enduring, and why Israel’s ongoing failure to do so will continue to strain U.S.-Israel relations irrespective of what happens in Rafah.

Some people are angry at what Biden said last week and do not understand why he withheld the arms shipment. People may continue to be angry, even if the impact of the delayed arms shipment is somewhere between negligible and non-existent when it comes to Israel’s ability to fight and defeat Hamas, but they should at least understand what led to this juncture.

While there will continue to be questions about whether or not it was the right move, there should be no question about who is right as to why Israel has still not achieved its objectives and what must happen if that is to turn around. Right-wing Israelis love to reference the apocryphal Albert Einstein quote defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result as a way to disparage the idea of a political resolution with the Palestinians. But it is Israel’s fully right-wing government that is now demanding that the IDF do the same thing over and over with the same result while refusing to discuss any larger strategy, and then expecting the U.S. not to point out that this is true insanity.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.