October 31, 2023 | Reading Time: 9 minutes
A Biden goal is restraining Israel ‘through the bear hug’
Hussein Ibish explains the president and the Israel-Hamas war.
I am publishing this long interview with Hussein Ibish, because he does such a good job of explaining in plain English what’s happening in the Israel-Hamas war, with Gaza in-between.
More than anyone else I have encountered, Hussein starts with a practical premise – that most people most of the time really don’t know what’s going on. They have a feeling, which is good, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far. So he pulls up a chair and begins class.
Hussein is a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. He’s also a columnist for The National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, and a contributor to Bloomberg and others.
JS: There’s a growing debate in America about the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. Some say he’s not doing enough to stop the Israelis from killing Palestinians as they try to end Hamas’ rule. In doing so, he’s siding with Jews more than Arabs/Muslims. Your thoughts?
HI: Judged in the abstract, and removed from the actual context in which all of this is taking place, you’d have to be pretty critical of Biden’s policies. But his personal views and experiences, the Democratic Party’s orientation, and the broad consensus of US policies in recent decades form the backdrop for what Biden believes he can do or wants to do, personally and politically, in the US national interest. Of course he is siding with Israel. The US has always sided with Israel since 1967, and probably will, or at least for the foreseeable future. These are as much matters of domestic politics as foreign policy.
But I disagree with those who think Biden has no coherent policy goals. I would argue that he is trying to pursue an overarching aim in the US national interest: to prevent the war from spreading beyond Gaza, dragging in Hezbollah and involving a potential Israeli-Iranian war, and a conflict that also draws in the United States.
To that end, he’s got two parallel policies working simultaneously.
“I disagree with those who think Biden has no coherent policy goals. I would argue that he is trying to pursue an overarching aim in the US national interest: to prevent the war from spreading beyond Gaza, dragging in Hezbollah and involving a potential Israeli-Iranian war, and a conflict that also draws in the United States.”
First, there is the huge US naval buildup in the eastern Mediterranean, including two aircraft carrier strike groups, the Eisenhower and the Ford, mainly designed to deter Hezbollah from getting engaged and to let all parties in Iran’s network of armed militias in the Arab world know that if they are caught attacking US forces, especially if any Americans are killed, the US is more than ready, willing and able to strike back. It’s also warning that the US is there to help defend Israel if need be. He’s waving a bunch of sticks in front of US adversaries and those pearly Iranian groups that might be tempted, with or without prompting from Tehran, to leap into the fray and expand the conflict.
Second, he’s trying to restrain Israel through the bear hug he has given it. The huge Biden administration embrace of Israel already helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overrule defense minister Yoav Gallant from authorizing massive a preemptive strike against Hezbollah which would have insanely spread the war throughout the Middle East in a thoroughly avoidable manner and kicked off the very conflagration the Biden administration is seeking to avoid.
He was somewhat successful in persuading the Israelis to hold off on the ground incursion into the population centers of Gaza for a couple of weeks – though they have entered on the ground now – while urging them to come up with a viable post-conflict plan for either getting out or finding a sustainable governance system in Gaza, something they freely admit they have not given any consideration to concocting and which, frankly, defies the imagination.
Biden initially got the Israelis to hold off by citing the need to negotiate for hostages. He then invoked the need to build up US missile defenses around its own troop presence throughout the region to protect US forces from rocket and drone attacks by Iranian backed militia groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – a threat that has emerged as a real source of danger, including to US naval forces thanks to intercepted strikes by the powerfully armed Yemeni Houthi rebels. But, eventually, Israeli troops did enter northern Gaza and I don’t think Biden ever believed he could prevent that from happening.
My sense is that the administration believes they have been successful in preventing the conflict from spreading and that if it were going to spread, particularly to involve Hezbollah, it would have already. Of course, the dangers are by no means lifted, but I think there’s a lot less anxiety now about a broader regional conflagration. That has meant a certain shift in administration attention and rhetoric. Biden and his officials are now spending more time warning Israel about not going too far, limiting the humanitarian catastrophe that is accompanying this war, especially for innocent Palestinians in Gaza, and working behind the scenes to get the Israelis to think through the end game.
Most importantly, he has been publicly urging the Israelis not to replicate the US mistake of overreacting to Sept. 11. Any sensible person familiar with history knows that when insurgent, guerrilla and terrorist groups engage in acts of spectacular overkill they are trying to provoke the more powerful entity into a wild overreaction that inflicts more damage on itself than the insurgency ever could.
Sept. 11 is a good example of this, because the invasion of Iraq was completely deranged, and it’s exactly the kind of lunatic lashing out that Al Qaeda was hoping to provoke. Biden’s message to the Israelis is, “don’t get baited into doing anything extremely stupid,” and he has specifically warned them against a “reoccupation” of the Gaza interior.
Biden is warning Israel that this is exactly what Hamas is hoping for, and he’s right. Hamas is seeking to use the outrages of October 7 in a long-term bid to take over the Palestinian national movement and leave its secular rivals in Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the dustbin of history, or at least pushed to the margins of Palestinian politics.
The strategy is to draw Israel back into Gaza, take the initial beating while delivering as much damage to Israeli troops as possible. (Expect Hamas to have prepared some very nasty surprises for Israeli troops.) But more importantly in the weeks and months after Israel’s apparent “total victory,” Hamas hopes to slowly regroup amid the rubble and begin an insurgency against a prolonged on-the-ground Israeli military presence in the population centers of Gaza, slowly gaining steam and picking off Israeli troops on a routine basis.
They would then argue that while Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are sitting in Ramallah policing the occupation on behalf of Israel, and while the PLO is pointlessly making its case at the UN and in its embassies around the world, in contrast to these useless secular nationalists, Hamas is actually fighting for Palestine against heavily armed Israeli occupation troops and picking them off one by one.
The Biden administration is urging Israel to avoid providing Hamas with this scenario by simultaneously parroting Israeli talking points about no return to the status quo ante, even though no one has a plausible alternative to either of three outcomes: precisely, a return to the status quo ante of a basically Hamas-controlled Gaza, albeit smashed to pieces; a resumed prolonged Israeli occupation leading to a potent insurgency (precisely Hamas’s aim); or total chaos in Gaza.
And Biden is keen to try to find a way to quickly get Saudi Arabia and Israel back into triangular negotiations with Washington on a potential three-way deal that all of them were convinced might actually occur before the 2024 election. Maybe it has to be a second term project now, but if Biden can succeed in containing the war to Gaza and also restraining Israel from the worst excesses, he might be able to salvage his complex triangular diplomacy as well. At least, this is his goal.
JS: Relatedly, there are those who say Biden has lost support among Arab/Muslim Americans, imperiling his chances of winning swing states like Michigan. Others say he’s lost support of young people of color (BIPOC), who tend to sympathize with the plight of Palestinians. In your view, is Biden’s position here, domestically, that unbalanced?
HI: Quite probably, because everything I said above is not fully appreciated by many people in the country, and Arabs around the world, including Arab Americans, are extremely angry with what they perceive to be an unreasonably pro-Israeli stance by the Biden administration. Again, viewed in a vacuum, that’s absolutely correct.
But in its actual political, cultural and policy consensus context, it’s not exactly a good policy, but it’s a reasonable one consistent with American national interests as understood by the internationalists in the Democratic Party and that broadly seeks to limit the conflict and restrain Israel as well as deter Hezbollah and other third parties.
It’s not as bad as a lot of people think, in other words. But it’s bad enough, and those who are highly attuned to the suffering of Palestinians cannot be placated by the kind of dispassionate analysis with which I answered your first question. Biden may well lose a lot of younger votes among Arab/Muslim Americans, including in Michigan.
“Maybe it has to be a second term project now, but if Biden can succeed in containing the war to Gaza and also restraining Israel from the worst excesses, he might be able to salvage his complex triangular diplomacy as well. At least, this is his goal.”
It looks like his opponent will be Trump, and I can’t imagine them possibly voting for the orange menace either. They will probably turn to some irrelevant third party like Cornel West or some such silliness.
But is that enough for Biden to lose Michigan to Trump? I’m not so sure, not at all. And I think there will be a lot of more sober, and older, Arab and Muslim Americans who, looking at Biden versus Trump, no matter how enraged they are about Gaza, may prefer not to see a second term for The Donald, especially given everything he has threatened, including a restored “Muslim ban,” among other things.
So, yes, Biden’s position is that unbalanced from an Arab perspective, but does that make Trump more appealing? No. In short, I don’t see any of this making Trump’s reelection particularly more likely, or, I would say, less unlikely. It still strikes me as highly unlikely.
JS: How about press coverage in the US of the war? Some say Israelis are “killed,” but Palestinian “die.” The American press is provincial, to be sure. There’s probably more coverage of the Oct. 7 massacre than of Israel’s bombardments. There’s confusion about who’s doing what to whom (eg, the story about the “hospital explosion”). What’s your take?
HI: It’s still the case that Americans in general, including the American press corps and television producers and so on, are much more familiar with Israel, Israelis and the pro-Israel narrative than they are with Palestine, Palestinians and any pro-Palestinian narrative.
There is also a tremendous network of pro-Israel organizations of all stripes, including non-Jewish liberal groups and various rightwing Christian groups, particularly evangelicals and others, set up to do nonstop media messaging and even propaganda on behalf of Israel.
It remains one of the most effective messaging and public diplomacy networks of a foreign country ever seen in the United States, certainly the best since Britain’s in World War II, which was amazingly effective. And the Israeli government is a master at directing and manipulating US and other western media, with a few notable failures.
There’s never been anything like it anywhere else in the Middle East, and is certainly not in the Arab world. There are very few voices emerging from Gaza, other than random individuals or a few respected persons, that have any traction with the US media in general.
That’s not wrong, but there is a willingness to take official Israeli pronouncements more seriously than they should be, while profound skepticism is reserved for the other side of this particular conflict, especially regarding Gaza. That’s unhealthy and unwarranted, because the Israeli military has a long history of talking utter crap and lying like hell to protect itself from scrutiny in the western media.
That said, there is real understanding that didn’t used to be there among editors, producers and journalists in the mainstream US media that there is a Palestinian voice that deserves to be included in their reporting and pro-Palestinian analyses or narratives that, if left out entirely, will result in impoverished and incomplete coverage. They don’t really want that, so there is an effort to reach out.
One problem is that there is still a tendency to view most pro-Palestinian arguments as essentially the same, because the unfamiliarity with the wide range of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian perspectives with their myriad and nuanced differences can’t be detected by these American journalists, editors and producers.
The same is not at all true of Israeli voices, where differences between, say, Netanyahu and [minister of finance and leader of the Religious Zionist Party] Bezalel Smotrich are readily apparent. In practice, this means that a lot of non-pro-Hamas but pro-Palestinian perspectives end up sounding like apologias for Hamas, even when they’re not. It also means that there is a tendency to say, “we’ve covered that perspective” when they really haven’t at all, just because there was another, and quite different, pro-Palestinian viewpoint included.
Finally, it remains the case that most American reporters who are covering the Israel-Palestine area and therefore now the conflict reside or stay in Israel, and especially West Jerusalem, and very few are based in the occupied Palestinian territories, let alone Gaza.
So it’s very easy to report from what amounts to an Israeli experience or Israeli point of view, and to access the Israeli government, Israeli experts and ordinary Israelis, while it’s a lot more difficult to do that for Palestinians in general, and Palestinians in Gaza in particular.
So, despite everything that has changed for the better, since, say, the 1970s and 1980s, the imbalance is still pretty glaring.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.