America and Israel’s interests have never been fully aligned on Gaza. But as Israel’s bombardment of the narrow strip has continued for almost 100 days, the Netanyahu government is shifting in a direction that directly threatens the stated goals of the Biden administration: Israel wants to expand the war into Lebanon and appears to welcome open warfare against so-called Axis of Resistance—Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the revolutionary government in Iran. The assassination of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut yesterday makes that clear. So far, President Joe Biden has refused the one step that can prevent both this escalation and the US from getting dragged into yet another war in the Middle East: a cease-fire in Gaza.
Since October 7, the assumption of the White House’s strategy was that in order to have credibility with Israel, Biden must first show unconditional support. Only then, the logic goes, will he have the leverage to rein in Israel. This reasoning allows the possibility that Biden wanted a cease-fire but had to earn credibility before he could press Israel. And that pressure would of course only be applied privately. Before the cameras, there would be no daylight between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But as the war has progressed and more than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed—almost half of them children—with weapons that Biden provided, the image of an American president that wants a cease-fire but is stumbling to find the leverage to force an end to fighting has fallen apart. Biden has shipped more than 10,000 tons of weapons and ammunition to Israel, twice sidestepped congressional oversight to expedite the arms transfers, twice vetoed resolutions at the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire, and even studied how to permanently transfer 2.3 million Palestinians from Gaza to the desert in the Sinai. While Biden has condemned Israeli cabinet ministers when they openly speak of their plans of ethnic cleansing, it has become increasingly clear that he’s never wanted a cease-fire, because he has bought into the feasibility and legitimacy of Israel’s maximalist war objective: the complete military destruction of Hamas, come what may. Biden wants Israel to do to Hamas what the US couldn’t do to the Taliban.
Of course, there was never a need to build credibility to pressure Netanyahu. The United States already had massive credibility with Israel, particularly after Biden openly contemplated offering Saudi Arabia a defense pact and access to the nuclear fuel cycle if it normalized relations with Israel. No other American president had ever given such concessions to Israel’s Arab rivals to secure an agreement for Israel. Even Trump, who began the normalization campaign that explicitly sought to “move beyond the Palestinian issue,” never offered defense pacts to the four Arab countries he brought into the so-called Abraham Accords.