Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on Oct. 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
As the U.S. presidential race heats up and, for some, domestic politics begins to take priority over national security interests, America is entering a crossroads in its Middle East policy. Its primary ally, Israel, cannot meet the Biden administration’s preferred timetable to wrap up its war with Hamas. Will President Biden courageously stay the course and support Israel, or will he bend under political pressure?
It is in America’s interest for Israel to devastate Hamas and emerge as the winner of this conflict, despite the growing chorus to pressure Israel to prematurely end this war.
Hamas is not an existential threat to the world unless you connect the dots to its sponsor — Iran — which few apparently choose to do. Many critics of Israel’s military operation in Gaza have said it is better to leave Hamas standing to save the lives of civilians embedded within its infrastructure. But the transparent strategy of this terrorist organization is to manipulate world opinion against Israel and accuse it of war crimes.
Hamas’s goal, as stated in its charter, is to kill Jews and eliminate Israel in the name of Jihadist Islam. Hamas militants are entirely comfortable utilizing hospitals, schools, mosques and homes, and showing images of dead children to wage its war. Those killed, along with the terrorized hostages that Hamas captured during its Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, are the group’s currency to force a diplomatic end that would allow them to claim victory.
I recently returned from the front lines of Israel’s battles on the borders with Gaza and Lebanon. I met with several Knesset leaders and military, intelligence and defense officials, as well as with some of Israel’s wounded and civilian leaders from evacuated cities in the north that are continually targeted by Iran’s primary proxy, Hezbollah. Along with the Gazan evacuees, they number in the hundreds of thousands. Israel cannot help them return to their homes unless Gaza is demilitarized and Hezbollah withdraws in the north.
That would mean having Hezbollah withdraw to the Litani River, as demanded by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 after the Second Lebanon War. Amos Hochstein, President Biden’s representative, is tasked with implementing that resolution and will have a difficult time doing so. The U.N. force (UNIFIL) in place since 2006 has allowed Hezbollah to come up to the Israeli border, violating the resolution with no consequences. It has permitted Iran to transfer a reported 150,000 missiles — much more accurate and lethal than those fired by Hamas — to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
For comparison, think of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States couldn’t allow a nuclear threat to exist at its border; similarly, Israel cannot allow Iran to have a potential atomic warhead in Lebanon. As Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) has said, Israel to Iran is a “one-bomb nation.”
Israel is a traumatized country. Hours after the Hamas invasion in October, I witnessed some scenes of the massacre in Sderot. When I returned to Israel two months later, most families I met had connections with those kidnapped or killed, or family members who were called up to the reserves.
A weakened Israel is not in American interests. Despite the profound security issues imposed upon it by Iran’s terrorist proxies — Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Houthis in Yemen, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah — Israel’s remarkable resilience and unity make it a U.S. ally of unusual strength, and diplomatic support from the U.S. government strengthens its potential to withstand these threats.
Israel today faces an existential threat from the north and south, but its goals evidently conflict with those of some policymakers and critics in the U.S., who want the war in Gaza to wrap up quickly and to not allow fighting in the north to escalate to a regional war. However, America’s reported withdrawal of one of its carrier groups from the Mediterranean, the USS Gerald R. Ford, could increase the chance for a northern war.
In America’s short-term favor, it is likely that Iran also does not want a war in the north at this time, so that it can keep Hezbollah as an intact threat against a future preemptive strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Too many American analysts appear to have forgotten about Iran’s march to nuclear weapons — which has accelerated since Oct. 7.
Israel needs buffer zones on the borders with Gaza and Lebanon. The northern one is possible to achieve diplomatically, but the southern one would face opposition from the United States, since it would conflict with the U.S. goal to keep Gazan territory whole. More challenging for the United States is that, to truly subdue Hamas, Israel will need security control in Gaza, as it now has in the West Bank, something the Biden administration opposes. Yet this control is why missiles currently don’t fly into Tel Aviv, despite the presence of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.
A partially defanged Hamas will continue its insurgency, emerging from its remaining tunnels, wearing civilian clothes, to fight a war of attrition. The sophisticated Hamas and Hezbollah entrenchment within civilian structures could take months, if not years, to address.
If international or Arab forces were to take charge of Gaza following a ceasefire, they would be targeted, and when their soldiers became casualties, they would withdraw. Then, the war with Hamas would return.
Israel doesn’t want to control Gaza’s 2 million hostile citizens. It wants the return of its hostages, and the elimination of an existential threat. A number of Israelis may accept a Hamas left standing, but this is, at best, kicking the can down the road. The short-term gain of a premature ceasefire would enable Hamas — and Iran — to claim victory, thereby encouraging other terror groups to continue attacks on U.S. troops throughout the Middle East.
It is not an easy choice in a U.S. political season to not pressure Israel to discontinue its war against Hamas or Hezbollah, and it’s not easy for America to be criticized or isolated by backing an internationally unpopular ally. Yet America needs a strong Israel for deterrence against other wars in the Middle East. When Israel is perceived as weak, it invites attacks against it and U.S. troops in the region.
Israel must come out of this war as the victor. That is essential for its survival and that is in America’s security interest — but will presidential and domestic politics take precedence in the United States?
This article originally appeared in The Messenger on Jan. 5, 2024
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and Mandel Strategies. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report and is a contributor to the Jerusalem Post.