Unprecedented Presidential Visit
This week’s visit by Joe Biden to Israel is unprecedented in United States history. A presidential visit to a conflict zone so soon after the outbreak of a war, particularly one in which no United States forces are directly involved, has never occurred before. Special features of the visit raise the stakes. Following the deadliest violence in its history, Israel is embroiled in a state of war, and the Gaza Strip is unfolding into a humanitarian calamity. Simultaneously, the persistent menace of a broader regional conflict persists. Biden enters the tumult, desiring to influence future developments and ensure that decisions made will have lasting consequences for decades.
Demonstrating Support for Israel
It is evident that Biden places the utmost importance on demonstrating his steadfast endorsement of Israel. Since the onset of the crisis, Biden has unequivocally declared his intention to furnish Tel Aviv with material and moral assistance in its conflict against Hamas. Biden also intends his presidential visit to serve as a signal of support for Israel; however, sending that message comes with associated hazards. As hostilities escalate and casualties accumulate in Gaza, Biden is, in essence, accrediting Israel’s actions and any future moves that may emanate from the United States.
This is one reason why Biden’s additional objectives for this voyage are all related to the necessity of exerting American influence in order to modulate and restrain Israel’s actions. Vice President Biden is placing his trust in the administration’s “hugging them close” strategy, which involves displaying ardent public support for Israel. He hopes that this approach will endow him with the necessary credibility to exert covert pressure on Israeli leaders. However, Israeli leaders appear to be adamant about the fundamental tenets of an approach—a war to eliminate Hamas, even if it means sparking a regional conflict—which may not align perfectly with the objectives of American policymakers.
Necessity of Exerting American Influence
Biden’s goal of alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe is an example of this. Lack of access to humanitarian aid and fundamental necessities of life, as well as the danger of becoming entangled in the crossfire between armed Palestinian factions and Israel, are the two greatest challenges faced by civilians in Gaza. Ahead of Vice President Biden’s visit, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been feverishly attempting to broker an agreement on aid provision in the region. There are signs of a solution. However, achieving consensus is one thing; putting that agreement into practice in the coming weeks is quite another.
Providing direct protection for Palestinian civilians is an even greater challenge. Expect Biden to persuade Israeli leaders to adopt war norms that aim to reduce harm to civilians. However, the extent to which the Israeli government can or will safeguard civilian life in order to achieve its objective of annihilating Hamas remains uncertain. Numerous analysts in the United States cite the rigorous urban warfare conducted by the US military in Mosul and Falluja, Iraq, as a possible blueprint for future actions. These battles were different from Gaza because most civilians could evacuate. Egypt, Israel, and the sea surround Gaza, and the midnight detonation at al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital shows that no site is safe.
Challenges and Hazards
An additional objective of Biden’s visit is to convey a resolute message to Iran and organizations like Hezbollah that their involvement in the conflict against Israel almost certainly would result in antagonizing the United States. There are also some hazards. The region is rife with animosity towards Israel, and if Israel were to invade Gaza, the pressure on other actors to intervene in the conflict would be tremendous. If deterrence fails, the United States may have to wage another conflict in the Middle East – an endeavor that the administration ardently wishes to avoid, and one that has the potential to sour public opinion for an entire generation. Already before the Israeli ground offensive has begun, a group of Arab leaders have canceled a scheduled meeting with Biden in response to the hospital detonation, demonstrating how isolated the administration is becoming.
Attempting to convince Israel to prevent the same errors that the United States committed during the initial years of the war on terror constitutes a third objective of Biden’s visit. Already, the administration is exerting pressure on Israel to reconsider its vengeful inclinations and instead consider the political destination it aspires to attain. What ensues following Hamas?
Furthermore, what measures can be taken to depose Hamas without inflicting such extensive damage on civilians that it prompts the emergence of a comparable movement?
Unfortunately, such long-term considerations are seldom at the forefront of leaders’ concerns when responding to an attack, especially one as catastrophic as the one Israel endured, as Washington all too well knows. Biden appears to advocate for the United States to assume the position of Israel’s more seasoned elder sibling, offering counsel grounded in its own practical knowledge. Israel may not follow the advise, especially since its leaders seem determined to regain their credibility by force.
Uncertainties and Future Implications
This uncertainty regarding subsequent events is the primary factor that casts such a heavy pall over Biden’s voyage. Biden has indicated that, regardless of the outcome, he intends to closely connect the reputation and fortunes of the United States to Israel. It is unclear if this will have a good impact or further embroil the US in a tumultuous situation over which it has little control.