What the Hamas war in Israel has meant for America

With a presidential election looming, the crisis in Israel has highlighted Joe Biden's policy reversal in the Middle East and exposed the many fault lines in democrat and republican attitudes towards the region


Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Biden landed in Israel on October 18, on a solidarity visit following Hamas attacks that have led to major Israeli reprisals. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

October 19, 2023 10:48

The “October surprise” is the unforeseen event that upends an American presidential campaign in the weeks before the November elections. This time, the October surprise arrived a year early.

Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israeli civilians and the possibility of regional war sent Joe Biden, who planned to pursue his domestic agenda westwards to Colorado this week, eastwards to Israel.

This war has done more than upend Biden’s diary. The Democrats’ decade-long effort to court Iran has ended in disaster and a complete policy reversal.

I can’t think of a historical precedent for an American administration, or indeed any world power, flipping as quickly as the Biden administration has. In the space of days, the Biden team went from sending billions of dollars to Iran to sending out the fleet.

The surprises keep coming, and not just across Israel’s borders. Biden promised to make Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia a “pariah”. He treated Benjamin Netanyahu like one too, by denying him a public meeting for more than two and a half years.

Antony Blinken, the hapless secretary of state, is now begging MbS and America’s other Arab allies to help free the Israeli hostages in Gaza. And Biden could not refuse Netanyahu’s invitation to come to Israel in a show of support. The 2024 election campaigns are already afoot.

Donald Trump leads the Republican field by a massive margin and, court appearances notwithstanding, is already jetting around the country to rallies. Biden has to do the same, not least to prove to his own party that he has another four years in the tank.

Israel is one of the few foreign policy issues to “cut through” into domestic politics. A majority of the American public consistently supports Israel.

Congress is almost unanimously in favour of backing Israel, including by sending advanced munitions. As we saw in the shameful celebrations of mass murder on campus and the shameful evasions of the pro-Islamist Congressional “Squad”, only the Democrats’ left prefers the Palestinians.

The cable news stations are either following public opinion by backing Israel or backing the administration as it performs its policy reversal on Iran. Even the New York Times has restricted itself to both-sides equivocation, rather than the usual denunciations of Israel. For now.

Even if the media do flip, and they soon will, it probably won’t change public opinion. Americans have seen the bloody results of Israel’s bombing campaigns in Gaza for decades.

They don’t like it, but it doesn’t seem to alter their overall attitude. They also see the bloody results of the terrorist attacks that force Israel’s response, and they really don’t like Islamists.

The more Americans see of Palestinian strategy, the less they like the Palestinians. A Reuters/Ipsos poll on October 12-13 showed that support for backing Israel in a war with the Palestinians in Gaza has risen from 22 per cent in 2014 to 41 per cent. Support for backing the Gazans remains steady at 2 per cent. Who knew there were so many college professors?

Republicans are more likely to be pro-Israel than Democrats (76 per cent to 59 per cent). Republicans are more likely than Democrats to view Israel “very favourably” (36 per cent to 20 per cent). Somewhere in the middle of those numbers are the moderates and independents, the swing voters who flipped from Trump to Biden in 2020 and who will decide the 2024 elections.

Biden is a man of principle. The principle is to stay in power at all costs. He is now caught on the horns of his failed Iran policy, and it is hard to see how he can easily dismount.

He needs to look strong if he is to avoid going into 2024 with a hostage crisis and the kind of humiliation by Iran that helped to sink Jimmy Carter in 1980. But he is constrained by the American public’s wariness of foreign wars, especially wars in the Middle East.

Yet the voters also want America to look strong in the world. Democrats in particular want the US to back fellow democracies. How can Biden restore American deterrence against Iran, rebuild trust with Arab allies, prevent the war from going regional, and also make the Democrats look good?

The obvious answer is an exit strategy that aims for a regional peace — perhaps a resumption of the Israeli-Saudi normalisation talks, with the GCC states formally responsible for rebuilding Gaza and preventing it from becoming “Hamastan” again.

Netanyahu has yet to declare his thoughts, but Benny Gantz made an exit strategy a condition of entering the war cabinet. Gantz is supposed to be overseeing a committee, though obviously he is distracted.

The Biden administration’s sudden embrace of Israel can be used for peace as well as war. If Israel doesn’t state its aims for the day after the shooting stops, the Americans may make Israel an offer it can’t refuse. Expect more October surprises, and possibly more after that.

October 19, 2023 10:48

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