The clashes that culminated in a ceasefire last week between Hamas and Israel is at least the fifth such round since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Only during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency was there no major fighting triggered by Hamas’s air strikes on Israel.
Correlation is not causation, as we are frequently cautioned. Still, it is worth asking whether the lack of warfare during the Trump years might have been a function of US policy.
The Palestinians have long recognized that they have no hope of defeating Israel on the battlefield. Instead, their strategy has been one of delegitimizing Israel, in the hope that the US and other Western powers will eventually pressure Israel into signing its own death warrant. The civilian casualties that inevitably arise when Israel attacks Hamas and Islamic Jihad military targets, mostly located among civilian populations, in contravention of international law, are thus an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. “If we kill Israelis with our rockets, good; if they kill us, also good,” pretty much summarizes the Hamas strategy.
Trump did not play along with this patient strategy. The message of his Middle East policy was: Time is not on your side. Remain intransigent, and the world will move on. Cutting off funding to UNRWA, the UN agency through which the Palestinians alone — out of tens of millions of refugees created by ethnic strife since 1948 — maintain their refugee status as wards of the world, did not only convey that message. It also conveyed the president’s unwillingness to go on funding blatantly anti-Semitic textbooks produced under UNRWA’s auspices. And the Abraham Accords, brokered in part by the Trump administration, signaled further that the Arab world was moving on from the Palestinians and would not be held captive by Palestinian irredentism. Trump’s support for Israel’s security was unwavering and unmistakable.
No less unmistakable was the incoming Biden administration’s intent to return to the Obama policy of placing plenty of light between the United States and Israel. That was evident in the lengthy and very public delay of the new president’s first conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. And even more so with a number of senior Biden appointees, who constitute a virtual anti-Israel all-star team. Nor were these low-level, symbolic appointments; many were to senior policy-making positions.
Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, signed a J-Street letter urging the Democratic Party to adopt a platform more critical of Israel and which condemn the “violence, terrorism, and incitement from all sides” (emphasis added). Colin Kahn, Biden’s choice for the number three position in the Pentagon, appears to the only person on Earth harboring doubts about the huge cache of documents on the Iranian nuclear program revealed by Israel, and likened them to the information on Saddam Hussein’s WMD program leading up to the second Iraq War.
Maher Bitan, the senior director of intelligence at the National Security Council, was on the executive board of Students for Justice in Palestine in college and organized BDS conferences. He has advocated for the Palestinian right of return as the only possible basis for a durable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran, was the only member of the US negotiating team at Camp David in 1999 to reject President Clinton’s characterization of Yasser Arafat as responsible for the failure of the talks designed to result in a Palestinian state.
Reema Dodin, the deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, was active in the Hamas-affiliated Muslim Students Association, and has defended suicide bombings as the “last resort of a desperate people.” Sarah Margon, Biden’s nominee to be assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, has worked for Oxfam, a major funder of Palestinian groups and supporter of boycotts of products of Israeli settlements, and the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundation. She also headed the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, which recently produced a report branding Israel an “apartheid state,” a charge for which there is not one shred of evidence, and which deemed terrorism against such a state justified. HRW’s founder, Robert Bernstein, resigned from the organization due to its consistent anti-Israel bias.
And this is a very partial list of Biden appointees who are on record as extremely hostile to Israel.
Beyond the signaling, there is the Biden administration’s reflexive return to the policies of the Obama years, without regard to any changes that might have taken place in the intervening four years, such as the Abraham Accords, which exposed the mythology that the Palestinian issue is at the heart of all Middle East conflict. In a May 11 Tablet article, “The Realignment,” Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute and Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies lay out the parameters of the Obama Middle East doctrine now carried forward by the “third Obama administration.” The term “must-read” is no doubt overused, but for anyone interested in the future of Israel, this is a must-read.
The article is a follow-up of Doran’s long piece “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” in the May 2015 Mosaic, where he explicates the concept through which Obama sought to make himself a “transformational” figure in international relations. His theory was that the Iranian mullahs are pretty much subject to the same cost-benefit analyses as anyone else. Therefore, by abetting Iranian ambitions to become the regional hegemon, and recognizing Iranian strategic interests in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Iran would stabilize the region and enable an American retreat.
It was George Orwell who remarked that there are some ideas so stupid only an intellectual could believe them. And this was one of those. It pretty much tracked Neville Chamberlain’s analysis of Hitler.
The first application of the unannounced “Obama doctrine” was in Syria, when the then president refused to enforce his self-proclaimed red lines against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, out of a desire not to harm an Iranian ally. Instead, the job of removing Syrian chemical weapons was delegated to Russia. That policy resulted in 500,000 Syrians killed, 10 million forced from their homes, and Russia more deeply entrenched in the Middle East than it had been in decades. Subsequently, the chaos arising from the United States’ acquiescence in the rise of Iran-supported Shiite militias in Iraq led to the rise of the Sunni ISIS.
The Biden foreign policy team, which is almost identical to the Obama team, came into office determined to return to the Obama concept. That return began with Saudi Arabia, which was told to withdraw from Yemen where it is battling the Shiite, Iran-allied Houthis. The Houthi slogan is: “Allah is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse on the Jews. Victory to Islam.” The Houthis were removed from the US list of terrorist organizations.
The Biden administration also declassified a two-year-old intelligence report on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi upon the order of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. (While that assassination is an ugly blot on Saudi Arabia, it hardly makes the Saudis more evil or worse upholders of human rights that the Iranian regime.)
The degree to which the United States’ actions were motivated by humanitarian concerns became evident two weeks after the release of the Khashoggi report, when the Houthis rounded up a group of Ethiopian migrants being held by them in a detention center, who had the temerity to complain of their conditions. The protesters were corralled into a hangar, told to recite their final prayers, and then incinerated by grenades tossed into their midst. Barely a peep was heard from the Biden administration about the Houthi actions.
The determination of the Obama-Biden administrations to ignore the theocratic basis of the Iranian regime will have serious consequences for Israel — none of them good. The return to the grossly defective JCPOA agreement guarantees Iran an industrial-scale nuclear weapons program by 2031. Under the agreement, they are free to pursue research on advanced centrifuges and uranium enrichment even now. Nor does the agreement restrict Iran’s ballistic weapons development, and it is now clear that the US will not demand any changes to the agreement as a condition for its reinstatement.
The recognition of Iranian interests means that the Biden administration will take a very dim view of Israeli covert activity against the Iranian nuclear program — e.g., the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the explosions at the Natanz nuclear facility, and the purloining of documentation of Iran’s nuclear program and repeated Iranian dissembling about that program to the world. Similarly, frowned upon will be Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon and its weapons shipments to its allies.
Most concerning of all, the lifting of Trump era sanctions will provide a lifeline for the Iranian regime and furnish it with potentially hundreds of billions of dollars to bolster the capabilities of its various allies encircling Israel, most notably Hezbollah and Hamas.
Finally, the Abraham Accords are anathema to Iran and its wholly-owned resistance front, for they are based on the acceptance of Israel’s existence. The Biden administration, accordingly, has done nothing to further the Abraham Accords; indeed, senior officials are proscribed from referring to them as such.
None of the signatories so far would have joined the Accords without the tacit approval of the Saudis. Yet the explicit addition of Saudi Arabia would send an important signal to the entire Muslim world, from the leading Sunni nation, of the need to moderate Islamic rejection of Israel and explore possibilities for partnership instead, especially in defense against an expansionist Iran. The Biden administration, according to Doran and Badran, will act to thwart any such warming of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in deference to Iran.
Naturally, the Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, will not enunciate an explicitly pro-Iranian Middle East policy, which would be deeply unpopular with most Americans. And that is especially so inasmuch as strengthening Iran benefits both China and Russia, which are both already close allies. China and Iran have recently signed a 25-year strategic partnership agreement.
To disguise the true thrust of its Middle East policy, the third Obama administration will instead portray itself as simply pursuing peace and humanitarian goals. The result will be a renewed elevation of the Palestinian issue to the center of America’s Middle East efforts, though the lack of importance of the Palestinians to a large swath of the Arab world has been exposed by the Abraham Accords.
Indeed, that has already happened. The Biden administration has rejoined the UN Human Rights Council, whose chief function is the passage of resolutions condemning Israel; will fund the ICC prosecution of Israel; and resume funding of UNRWA and its publishing of anti-Semitic textbooks. Biden announced $235 million in new funding to the Palestinian Authority, without preconditions, such as non-funding of the families of killed or imprisoned terrorists. Biden reportedly will seek billions for the rebuilding of Gaza, thus shielding Hamas from the consequences of shooting 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilian — and perhaps from the wrath of the long-suffering residents of Gaza. The majority of any such funding will likely be diverted to rebuilding Hamas’s military capabilities, rather than improving the lives of Gazans.
In sum, American policies encouraged Hamas’s rocket barrages against Israel, and provided grounds for returning to its long-term patient strategy of delegitimizing Israel. And they are making Iran far more lethal as it pursues its regional strategy, with the elimination of Israel at the center.
THE KEY TO THE DELEGITIMIZATON STRATEGY has always been to play up Palestinian suffering. That is why Palestinian civilian casualties have always been a feature, not a bug, of Hamas’s military ventures. Western governments, journalists, and academics play into that strategy with ill-founded denunciations of Israeli war crimes and Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Hamas rocket attacks.
In evaluating those claims, the crucial thing to keep in mind, according to Eugene Kontorovic, professor of international law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, is the “principle of distinction.” That principle requires all sides involved in the armed conflict to “distinguish between the persons thus defined (the combatants) and civilians. Combatants must distinguish themselves (i.e., allow their enemies to identify them) from all other persons (civilians), who may not be attacked nor directly participate in the hostilities.”
By embedding its fighters and military assets among the civilian population, Hamas violates the principle of distinction. And as such, Hamas, not Israel, is responsible for collateral civilian deaths and damage to property when Israel targets enemy fighters and military assets.
That does not mean that Israel may do what it wants. It must try to minimize the collateral damage to civilians from its strikes on legitimate military targets: rocket launchers, military headquarters and barracks, underground tunnels to facilitate military operations. But Israel does that. Indeed, as Lt.-Col. Richard Kemp, the commander of UN expeditionary forces in Afghanistan and a veteran of numerous asymmetric wars around the world, has repeatedly stated, “the IDF forces do more to safeguard the rights of civilians in combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare.” That includes giving residents of buildings about to be struck ample warning of the impending attack via radio, phone, SMS, and “knocking on the roof” with low impact explosives.
Yet, writes Kemp, “the world’s media have enthusiastically reported the deaths of Palestinian civilians as though they were the deliberate object of Israel’s callous and uncaring way of war.” Israel is repeatedly accused of having inflicted “disproportionate” damage — a “fact” ascertained by comparing Palestinian and Israeli casualties — as if war were some kind of weird boxing match in which one is allowed to hit an opponent back, but only as often and with much force as he hit you.
“Proportionality,” however, writes Marc LiVecche, author of the forthcoming The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury (Oxford University Press), “does not mean that an assaulted nation can only take precisely that weight in flesh that has been taken from it. It has the right to be sure the enemy’s capacity and resolve to make more flesh in the future has been humbled.”
The proportionality of civilian casualties, under the Geneva Conventions, is judged relative to the legitimacy of the planned military gain, while commanders are required to minimize civilian casualties and to avoid targeting civilians.
The goal of Israel’s recent military actions in Gaza, writes LiVecche, is the restoration and maintenance of the just security of Israel’s citizens. The punishment and deterrence of Hamas are merely the means of securing that goal.
In this regard, it is instructive that critics of Israel do not even attempt to answer the obvious question: What would you do if the civilians of your country were under rocket attack from an enemy firing from civilian areas? That refusal to engage the question means that Israel, in their eyes has no right to exist at all — for only in that case does the question become irrelevant. As LiVecche puts it eloquently, “If Hamas were to lay down their arms, there would be no more violence. If Israel were to lay down her arms, there would be no more Israel.”
MUCH MORE WAS AT STAKE in the recently concluded battles between the Israeli Air Force and Hamas than just Gaza. Gaza is only one front of a multi-pronged war against Israel. Hezbollah’s missiles are an order of magnitude greater threat than those of Hamas in number, range, and precision. Hezbollah is estimated to have approximately 190,000 rockets and missiles secreted all over southern Lebanon, as opposed to 15,000 rockets in the possession of Hamas. And many of the missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal are precision guided missiles.
The force of the Israeli response to Hamas’s initial barrage of seven rockets aimed at Jerusalem was geared to ensuring that Hezbollah does not similarly miscalculate Israeli determination and launch an attack of its own. Only time will tell whether Israel was successful in that regard.
But there was another front opened in the Iran-Israeli confrontation as well, argues Jonathan Spyer of the Middle East Forum. Currently, the Palestinians are divided into four different areas: Hamas-controlled Gaza; the PA-controlled West Bank, Jerusalem itself, and Israeli Arabs. Iran aspires to unite all four groups against the continued existence of Israel.
The Arab mob violence that broke out in numerous mixed Arab-Jewish cities — Lod, Ramle, Acco, Jaffa, and Haifa — demonstrates that alleged threats to the Al-Aksa Mosque can still be used to whip up the Arab masses, as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem did in 1929. The ability of Hamas to rally Israeli Arabs has no doubt given encouragement to Iran in its long-range vision of weakening and isolating Israel, leading to its eventual collapse.
The Israeli Arab issue further points to the far higher stakes involved than that of Palestinians in Gaza. The issue facing all Palestinians, whether in Israel or Gaza or the West Bank, is whether they will seek the way forward towards material well-being in peace, based on the model of the Abraham Accords, or continue to seek the destruction of Israel as their primary goal, according to the vision of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Hamas is not at the end of the day a Palestinian movement, but rather a pan-Islamic movement. As senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar once put it: “Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state… In the past there was not an independent Palestinian state… This is holy land. It is not the property of the Palestinians or the Arabs. This land is the property of all Muslims in all parts of the world… Hence our main goal is to establish a great Islamic state…”
That is something that Hamas’s useful idiots in the West will never comprehend: the improvement of the Palestinians’ daily lives is not the goal of Hamas, or even in their interest. As Bret Stephens recently wrote in a perceptive piece in the New York Times, America’s vital interest lies in “nurturing and sustaining an alliance of moderates and modernizers, people who can offer a plausible alternative to the forms of politics that have dominated the regions and spread their pathologies worldwide.” And for that to happen, Hamas must be routed.
Few in the West — and apparently, none in the American government — understand that. But Arabs increasingly do, as the indispensable Khaled Abu Toameh notes. Saudi writer Abdulah Bin Binjad Al Otaibi writes, “Real sympathy with the Palestinian people means searching for solutions for an actual and practical peace that ensures their safety, security, and development. The solutions should also stop those [Hamas] who are ready to burn Palestine and its people.” Hamas, he continues, is saying, “Let the Palestinians die for the sake of a Muslim Brotherhood victory.”
Emirati writer Al-Sheikh Wuldalsalek accuses Iran and Hamas (and also Turkey’s Erdogan) of “exploiting Palestinian blood without any shame or conscience.”
The Abraham Accords, he avers, were designed “to benefit everyone politically, economically and socially. But the extremists are working to kill this dream … for the sake of war and continuation of the conflict.”
Now, if someone could only get this message through to the Biden administration.