Netanyahu Outsmarted by ‘Wily’ Biden? No, Biden Is the One Being Played

by | Dec 27, 2023

Biden smirked and responded, “I know”, when told by a guest that Netanyahu is drawing the U.S. into a civilisational conflict – and further that Netanyahu blames him (Biden), complaining that the White House wants to block Israel from getting at the root of the problem, by harping on about Gaza and the ‘day after’.

In practice, what Netanyahu is doing is simply mounting a classic flanking manoeuvre – attempting to circumvent Biden by pointing to the ‘broader conflict’ with Iran: ‘Why are you pestering me about Gaza when there’s a monumental conflict raging’, suggests Bibi in exasperation?

“This is not only ‘our war’ but in many ways your war… This is a battle against the Iranian axis… now threatening to close the maritime strait of Bab Al-Mandeb… It is the interest … of the entire civilized community”, Netanyahu has said – not very subtly.

Biden’s reaction is a smug smile, hinting that he thinks he can outplay Netanyahu (‘the fox’). This is Biden’s approach: He aims to disarm Netanyahu’s allegation of an obstructionist U.S. through a parade of top-level visits that reiterates his unstinting support Israel – and to pre-empt Bibi, through insisting that he (Biden) will take care of the non-Gaza issues (Hizbullah, Yemen etc.).

So, the U.S. is assembling a maritime force to confront AnsarAllah in Yemen; the Biden Admin will act to sanction violent settlers in the West Bank; it is warning Baghdad to rein-in the Hashad al Sha’abi; and his envoys in Beirut are trying to forge a ‘diplomatic agreement’ that will include the withdrawal of Hizbullah’s Radwan Forces to the other side of the Litani River in southern Lebanon, and also deal with the unresolved border disputes between Israel and Lebanon.

Biden prides himself on being a hugely experienced foreign policy actor – and thinks himself too wily for Bibi’s tricks. But maybe, Netanyahu – for all his many faults – better understands the Region?

Biden clearly is being played. Even though he fails to recognize it.

Netanyahu knows that ‘no way’ will Hizbullah disarm, and withdraw to north of the Litani. He knows this, and thus can wait out Biden’s diplomatic failure, before saying that the approximately 70,000 Israeli citizens displaced from the northern towns in the wake of 7 October need to ”go home”, and that if the U.S. cannot remove Hizbullah from the border-fence, then Israel will do it.

Netanyahu is using Biden’s diplomatic Lebanese initiative to build European justification for an Israeli operation in a few weeks’ time to push Hizbullah away from the border with Israel. (An Israeli operation against Hizbullah has been in the works from the outset of the Gaza war).

Netanyahu knows too that control over settler violence in the West Bank lies not with him, but is in the hands of his partners: i.e., Ministers Ben Gvir and Smotrich. Neither he, nor Biden can dictate to them – they have been quietly increasing the squeeze on West Bank Palestinians for months.

And finally, Netanyahu knows the Houthis: They will not be deterred by Biden’s maritime flotilla. They will, rather, relish drawing the West into a Red Sea quagmire.

Like it or not, Biden’s tactic of containing and pre-empting regional escalation through the U.S. itself becoming lead actor – in lieu of Israel – is clearly drawing the U.S. deeper into conflict. Does Biden believe that the Houthis will just quietly ‘roll-over’ because the Gerald Ford is anchored off Bab Al-Mandeb, or that Hizbullah will accept instruction from Amos Hochstein?

The second way that Biden is being outplayed is through him seeing the Israeli problem as ‘just Bibi’ – indulging in personal politics. Of course, it is true that the Israeli PM is moulding Israeli politics to his own survival needs; yet pause a moment to consider what President Herzog said on Tuesday during an interview facilitated by the Atlantic Council, a leading Washington-based think tank.

Herzog has long been viewed as distinctly ‘dovish’ and ‘Leftist’ by the Beltway foreign policy establishment – prior to the war – compared to Netanyahu.

In the interview, Herzog said: “We intend to take over the entire Gaza Strip and change the course of history”. He said that the current conflict is a clash of “a set of civilizational values” and he cast Hamas (in pure Manichaean terms) as a “force of evil”, adding that Israel would no longer tolerate Gaza being a “platform for Iran – driving everyone into the abyss of bloodshed and warfare”.

Not much daylight then between him and the PM then.

The convergence between Herzog and Bibi reflects, perhaps, a more substantive change taking place in Israel – a strategic shift that extends far beyond Biden’s personal obsession with Bibi:

Since 7 October, the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post report that 36% of Israelis have moved decidedly to the right on a number of political issues, including support for settlers in the West Bank, endorsements for far-right politicians, and even settlements again inside the Gaza Strip. And while public opinion of Netanyahu himself is faltering, his government is not expected to fall.

And even were that to occur, the more important point to grasp is that support for the policies upheld by Netanyahu’s radical Rightist government is growing, and rapidly.

Israel’s Right generally believes in Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, with many right-wing Israelis opposed to the principle of Palestinian state existing at all alongside Israel. This can be seen in many of the current government’s policies, which have worked toward expanding Israeli settlement of the West Bank and rendering Gaza unlivable for Palestinians.

On the opposite side of the spectrum sits Israel’s Left. The Jerusalem Post notes that the Left largely believe that Israel is ‘occupying’ the West Bank, and that an end to the conflict can only be achieved by ending the occupation and enabling a two-state solution. But no one is explicit on where that second state – a Palestinian state – would be situate. Legally it would be Gaza, the West Bank and part of Jerusalem. But who could enforce that? Who would expel settlers from the West Bank?

For many Israelis, the separation ‘apartheid’ Occupation state of the past 30 years was the workable ‘two-state solution’ – but its pillars (structural separation, military enforcement and deterrence) which had for many Israelis seemed to promise the ‘quiet’ that many hoped for – blew apart on 7 October.

“The trauma of what happened on Oct. 7 shifted Israeli society. It made them question the most basic tenets of whether they were safe in their homes”, said Israeli columnist, Tal Schneider:

“They are calling now for more — more military, more protection, more hard-line policies”.

“Many right-wing people,” Ariella Marsden writes in the Jerusalem Post, “and a minority of left-wingers, saw 7 Oct as proof that peace with the Palestinians is impossible”. Not surprisingly, thinking has turned to population removal which chimes with Netanyahu’s ‘new war of Independence’ theme.

In short, Biden may believe that his ‘long experience’ puts him on the ‘right side’ in judging events. His experience however, is drawn from another era. The political Israel he knew is over: It has reached the end of the road in respect to the old paradigm of its Palestinian modus vivendi. Demography no longer pushes towards ‘giving’ the Palestinians a state, but rather to a clearing of the land of all ‘hostile populations’.

Israelis are rummaging now for their new solution.

And just as Hamas’ resistance has pointed to new ways of conducting warfare, so Biden’s ‘long experience’ exemplified in the sending of 1960s era carriers and vessels to sit offshore, in an age of smart nimble, often untraceable drones and pinpoint missiles, points to something also passé.

The U.S. is directly engaged today in Yemen, Lebanon, the West Bank, Iraq and Syria. And as the war widens, so the U.S. will be held at least partly responsible – You deliberately let Gaza break, and what’s broken, you own. What further gets broke, you own that too.

A destitute 2 million Gazans will be all refugees with no government to provide basic functions and services. Does Netanyahu get it? Of course. Do the vast majority of Israelis care? Nope. But the rest of the world does, and sees a dark stain spreading across the map, and leeching into the West.

And does the U.S. Red Sea flotilla; does the diplomatic effort in Lebanon; do the frantic calls to China to ask for help to rein-in Iran, and the efforts in Baghdad – will this suffice to bring an end to the Axis’ plan?

No – the Resistance must see the U.S. floundering and that Israel – suffused with anger – is positively inviting the next ascent up the escalatory ladder of diffused incremental wider conflict.

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.