Conflict Israel Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense United States and Canada
New Atlanticist October 18, 2023

The Israel visit was just the start. Here’s what Biden needs to do next. 

By William F. Wechsler

In the years 1948, 1967, and 1973, the Israeli people confronted truly existential threats. We’ll soon know whether 2023 will be added to that list.

US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel came at a time when it is entirely possible that the war between Israel and Hamas might expand to include Hezbollah and then Iran and its entire network of allies and proxies, which might then drag in the United States as well. Even if this worst case does not emerge, the region may be thrown into disarray after an Israeli ground campaign begins, with protests and riots threatening the stability of Israel’s Arab partners and thus threatening US interests. If either of these scenarios materializes, then the chasm between Biden and his political base at home will become starkly evident.

Biden undoubtedly understood all of these risks when he quickly decided to support Israel wholeheartedly in the wake of Hamas’s massive October 7 terrorist attack. If these risks become reality, that decision will go down in history as a true profile in courage, as President John F. Kennedy defined the term.

This visit was physically courageous as well. It’s easy for observers to be dismissive from the safety of their sofas, but when presidents visit war zones, those trips are almost always kept secret in advance out of concerns about security. The last time I can recall a president doing otherwise was back in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush overruled his advisors to travel to Colombia.

By his very presence, Biden clearly demonstrated US resolve and friendship to Israelis. His words reinforced this core message.

In advance of this trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was engaged in a manic period of shuttle diplomacy throughout the region, seeking to walk a diplomatic tightrope between the United States’ support for Israel, the immediate, strategic threat from Iran and its proxies, and a growing fury on the Arab street and within some Arab governments. Blinken benefits from a deep personal relationship with Biden, a bond at the highest levels between the Department of State and the White House not seen since the days of Secretary of State James Baker and Bush. But Blinken’s task in Arab capitals is far more difficult than any Baker had to manage; while Baker was defending Arab monarchies and punishing Israel, Blinken is doing the opposite. Indeed, at least until the coming ground war is complete, this diplomatic challenge may be insurmountable, as evidenced by Biden’s recently canceled Arab summit.

Biden arrived in Tel Aviv far more popular among Israelis than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over whom he has significant leverage as a result. In the days following this visit, Biden should not hesitate to use this leverage, though he must do so wisely.

Given this context, the United States has core objectives that are public, military, political, and diplomatic. By his very presence, Biden clearly demonstrated US resolve and friendship to Israelis. His words reinforced this core message. He was willing to put the credibility of the United States on the line to support the Israeli narrative on the recent deadly explosion at the hospital in Gaza City, a critical action given the lack of Israeli credibility among many global audiences. Given the trend lines in the region and in Europe, this in and of itself made the trip worthwhile. But if this is all that emerges from the trip in the end, then it will have been largely a missed opportunity.

Outside observers don’t know the details of the military matters that were discussed when Biden met privately with the Israeli war cabinet—and let’s hope secrets can actually be kept on this subject. But here’s what I would have advised Biden to put on the table. First, in the weeks and months ahead, there must be no daylight between the United States and Israel when it comes to the specifics of the requests for US military assistance. It would be a mistake if the United States were to give Israel a proverbial blank check only for a narrative to develop, as has been the case with Ukraine, that the administration is reluctant to provide what is desired. And differences on this subject should be resolved behind closed doors.

Realistically, the price of Israel’s current dependence on the United States is that it no longer possesses complete freedom of action.

Second, Biden should have full knowledge of Israel’s plans for its ground invasion and, given the seriousness of the wider risks emerging, encourage them to be sized and structured to prioritize speed in meeting military objectives over marginal efforts to mitigate risks to force. The optimal scenario for Israel, for the United States, and for those governments in the region that despise Hamas as much as they care about innocent Palestinians is for the ground war to proceed as quickly and successfully as possible.

Third, Biden should have a clear understanding of the likelihood that Israel might act to preempt any Hezbollah decision to open a northern front. Similarly, Netanyahu must have a clear understanding of the exact circumstances that would require the two US carrier strike groups nearby to do more than enhance deterrence in that theater. Of course, this would require both leaders to have come to these conclusions themselves before sharing them with the other. Both the United States and Israel have previously erred by entering into hostilities without having internally made firm decisions about their own decision trees and escalation ladders. This cannot be allowed to happen now as their fates are increasingly intertwined. Realistically, the price of Israel’s current dependence on the United States is that it no longer possesses complete freedom of action, something it has previously guarded jealously.

On the political side, I would have preferred that Biden also found time to meet with a group of former Israeli prime ministers. That would have implicitly highlighted the necessity of a more comprehensive unity government in Israel, one that would exclude the extremists that remain part of the existing coalition.

Diplomatically, it was a good first step that Biden got Netanyahu to agree on a structure that will allow key humanitarian items—food, water, and fuel—to enter Gaza through Egypt. I hope Biden and Netanyahu privately went further and directed their top advisors to quickly develop and publicly issue a joint set of principles that will guide the future of Gaza once Israel’s full military objectives against Hamas are reached. These must include: 

  • Allowing all innocent Palestinians to return to their homes in Gaza 
  • Encouraging rapid and comprehensive rebuilding in Gaza, with a leading role given to those who have long opposed Hamas rather than those who have long abetted it 
  • Removing all possible Israeli restrictions on Gaza that were initially imposed after Hamas won the Battle for Gaza in 2007 
  • Working together and with key partners in the region to build a new model for local government in Gaza, one that is legitimate in the eyes of its people, is focused on tolerance and economic prosperity, and does not pose a military threat to Israelis 

Issuing a set of principles will go a long way toward rebutting the narrative taking hold throughout the region that the true goal of Israel’s coming ground war is to produce a second Nakba. 

With the Arab summit cancelled, Biden should engage in a series of bilateral calls to remind the United States’ friends that it is not uncommon for the aftermath of successful wars in this region to open up opportunities for diplomacy in ways that were previously thought impossible. It was only after the success of Bush’s 1991 war in Iraq, for instance, that the Madrid Conference could be held, which eventually led to the Oslo Accords. Indeed, one of the most constructive steps the United States could take with those partners now, if it isn’t doing so already, is to start joint planning for an Israeli military success scenario. This would involve creative explorations about how to, as Biden and Blinken regularly put it, ensure that Palestinians and Israelis should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. His most recent US government position was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism.

Further reading

Image: US President Joe Biden meets Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrives in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday Oct 18, 2023.