Mideast Conflict Was Tough for Israel, Terrible for Hamas, Great for Biden

The tentative ceasefire between Israel and Hamas announced late Thursday afternoon, to take effect on Friday, did more than avert a crisis for President Joe Biden. What at first looked like a nightmare scenario—intensifying violence between Israel and the Palestinians after four years of relative quiet while his predecessor Donald Trump was in office—has turned out to be a dream opportunity seized.

The exchange of rocket and mortar fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza had put Biden in a difficult spot. The left flank of the Democratic party has been increasingly outspoken in its support for the Palestinian people. And when Israel responded militarily to Hamas's attack, progressives—led by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar—criticized Israel and went after Biden himself. Biden's statement after the conflict broke out that Israel had a right to defend itself, Ocasio-Cortez said, had "dehumanized Palestinians" and "implied the U.S. will look the other way at human rights violations."

The White House was furious at the statement, senior officials say, but refrained from getting into a public spat with the progressives. One pro-Israel Democratic Congressman told Newsweek that one of his colleagues wanted his caucus to issue a relatively routine statement in support of Israel when the Hamas rocket attacks started. But he then dropped the idea. ''It became pretty clear that debate over the statement would turn into a bloodbath." Biden himself is uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric coming from some members of his own party, said one aide who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. Biden is a traditional Democrat when it comes to relations with Israel. He served for years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and was a reliable supporter of Israel. But as the violence escalated this week, so did the pressure on Biden to somehow both affirm U.S. support for Israel and stop the division within the Democratic party from gaping any wider before it cost Democrats any chance to retain control of Congress in 2022.

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US President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2021. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The president's immediate goal was to be seen trying to get Israel to a cease fire, while at the same time allowing Netanyahu sufficient time to degrade all of the military sites Jerusalem is targeting in this round of conflict with Hamas. The Thursday afternoon announcement, coming after the U.S. had quietly but firmly upped the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Egypt worked on Hamas—looked like a clear win. Indeed, If Hamas's ability to attack has been sufficiently degraded to forestall another even bigger conflict later in Biden's first term—and that appeared to be the case, according to Israeli officials—all the better. "This could actually redound to his [Biden's] benefit," says Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

In his first three calls to Netanyahu, Biden reaffirmed Washington's position on Israel's right to self-defense. On the fourth call, though, he demanded "a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease fire." Biden shifted his tone in part because ''he wanted to show [his left flank] that his patience with Israel had its limits," says one national security official not authorized to speak on the record. But the president wanted no part of using the true leverage the U.S has over Israel: the massive amount of aid and military support that it provides every year. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, one of the progressive wing's leaders, said he would introduce a resolution condemning the imminent sale of $735 million worth of precision-guided munitions from the U.S. to the Israeli government. The White House would have opposed that, but now likely won't have to if the left's rancor subsides once the ceasefire takes effect.

The cease fire will also diminish some of the political heat Biden and the Democrats had been taking. Republicans lambasted the Democrat's "Hamas caucus"—Tlaib, Omar et al.—and cutting off aid and military sales would not play well with most Americans. True, a recent Gallup poll shows that 53 per cent of Democrats support increased pressure on Israel "to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"—a ten percentage point increase since 2018—but only 31 per cent of independents and 17 per cent of Republicans do. Overall, 44 percent of Gallup's respondents favor the U.S. putting more pressure on the Palestinians to resolve the conflict, while 34 percent prefer pressuring Israel. The fact that Biden pressured Netanyahu to get to a cease fire—but not too quickly, and without seriously damaging the alliance—will play well pretty much across the board politically.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas also threatened to put the Biden administration push to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—in a harsh light. Iran sponsors Hamas and supplies the rockets the terrorist group (it is so designated by the U.S. government) was firing at Israel. Iran seeks the elimination of all U.S. sanctions in the talks, and the Biden administration appears inclined to go along in order to get back in the deal.

That would have been politically impossible while the violence in Gaza continued, particularly since the administration has pledged to strengthen the deal, in part by getting Iran to limit its production of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. Making a deal with Tehran that puts money in its pockets—after Hamas had been shelling Israel with Iranian-supplied weaponry—would have exposed Biden to severe criticism from Israel's supporters in the U.S., many of whom are still skeptical of the JCPOA.

The talks in Vienna, between European, Chinese and Russian diplomats and Iran—with a U.S. delegation housed across the street in a hotel because Tehran thus far refuses direct talks with Washington—had adjourned May 19. They were to resume next week. An administration official not authorized to speak on the record said the White House was considering asking its European allies to delay the resumption of the talks if the Hamas-Israel conflict was ongoing into next week. Now they'll likely resume on schedule.

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Rockets are launched towards Israel from Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, on May 20. Diplomatic efforts gathered pace for a ceasefire on the 11th day of deadly violence between Israel and armed Palestinian groups in Gaza, as air strikes again hammered the enclave. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

The JCPOA was Barack Obama's chief foreign policy legacy—his proudest international achievement. Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, and now, for Joe Biden, getting the U.S. back into it is his chief foreign policy priority.

Israel bitterly opposes this, as it did when the Obama administration was first negotiating the deal. Iran remains committed to Israel's destruction, and Netanyahu, like almost all of the deal's critics, believes the JCPOA provides a slow but steady glide path to Tehran being able to develop a nuclear weapon.

Biden's team, which was largely Obama's team, denies that. But the controversy points to why, for Biden as for Obama, aid to Israel—and in particular military assistance—is so important. During the Obama years, U.S. aid to and cooperation with the Israeli military increased steadily. Indeed, the Iron Dome missile defense system, which shot 90 percent of the Hamas rockets out of the sky over the last eleven days, is a critical product of that aid and cooperation.

The Biden administration wants that assistance to continue unabated, no matter the criticism from the Democratic left. The cease fire allows that. ''The ongoing provision of American security assistance [to Israel] allows the administration to plausibly claim that containment is alive and well—that the United States is indeed pushing back against Iran's destabilizing activities, and that far from discarding old allies, it is committed to their welfare," wrote Michael Doran, a former national security council staffer under George W. Bush, and Tony Badran, a Senior Fellow at FDD, in a recent essay in Tablet Magazine.

In their essay, they call this "the bear hug." And in the wake of the latest conflict in Gaza, the Biden administration will be intent on squeezing Israel as tight as Obama ever did. But he is not Trump, who pretty much gave Israel everything it wanted. Biden is willing to tolerate a deterioration in relations with Jerusalem should the JCPOA negotiations with Iran succeed, as they are likely to. In fact, at the start of the Gaza conflict, the administration already created some daylight between Washington and Jerusalem by having national security adviser Jake Sullivan call his Israeli counterpart to complain about the pending eviction, by court order, of some Palestinian families from a neighborhood in Jerusalem. That was one of the triggers of the current conflict.

The cease fire announcement means that the Biden administration had successfully traversed a path fraught with danger. It took out some of the sting of the pro-Palestinian left's criticism of the administration and of Israel; it worked closely with an ally, Egypt, to get to a cease fire; it provided Israel enough time to strike the targets it wanted to. And it preserved the White House's ability to pursue the Iran deal.

"They applied enough honey for the first week, giving Israel the time it needed, and then some vinegar in the last two days in the form of pressure to wrap this up," says Aaron David Miller, a veteran State Department official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. A senior administration security official said late this afternoon, ''All in all, we feel pretty good about where we are."