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analysisIsrael at War

US pressure on Israel in times of war

Despite growing U.S. pressure on Israel amid its war against Hamas in Gaza, experts say Washington's support remains strong.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on Oct. 16, 2023. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on Oct. 16, 2023. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.
Troy O. Fritzhand

Despite a friendly speech or two, there are growing indications that Israel’s interests and Washington’s may not be aligned with regard to the Jewish state’s war against the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Following Hamas’s mass terror attack on Oct. 7 that left more than 1,400 Israelis dead, mostly civilians, and 4,100 wounded, U.S. condemnation of the brutality was nearly unanimous, as was support for Israel’s right to respond forcefully.

U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated this in an address emphasizing his commitment, and the commitment of the U.S. government, to Israel’s safety and security, that according to many was the most pro-Israel speech ever by an American president. “We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack,” said Biden.

Shortly thereafter, two U.S. carrier strike groups were deployed to the Mediterranean, in a move seen as a warning to Hezbollah and Iran not to get involved in the conflict.

However, as Israel’s offensive against terror groups in Gaza continues, this initial outpouring of support seems to be giving way to pressure on Israel’s government.

One measure Jerusalem took early on in the war was to cut water, food, electricity and humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas. As that happened, and as Israeli Air Force jets pounded Hamas targets, the Israel Defense Forces warned Gazans to evacuate southward for safety.

However, according to Israel, Hamas instructed the residents of northern Gaza to stay in place and even blocked the routes to the south.

Amid mounting collateral civilian deaths, the United States demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turn the faucets back on.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has been jetting back and forth around the Middle East, was also able to convince Israel’s government to open up humanitarian corridors from Egypt for aid to reach Gazans. This was agreed to without any preconditions to ensure that what is coming in on the hundreds of trucks is actually aid, and not a resupply for Hamas. And despite assurances that this aid, even if it is aid, will go only to civilians, history—more than a decade of it—points to the likelihood that it will be appropriated by Hamas.

Then there was Biden’s “60 Minutes” interview, during which he said that it would be “a mistake” for Israel to reoccupy Gaza, a move many consider to be the only real solution to avoiding another massacre such as that suffered by Israel on Oct. 7. In response, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog stated that Israel would not reoccupy the coastal enclave.

Moreover, many believe that in the “post-war” power vacuum that will be created in Gaza if Israel does eliminate Hamas, the United States will push for the Palestinian Authority, an organization neither popular with the Palestinian population nor able to maintain security in those parts of Judea and Samaria ostensibly under its control, to take over the Strip. The P.A. is extremely hostile to Israel, and has not condemned Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians.

It was also reported on Monday that the U.S. administration forced the IDF to stand down on a plan to preemptively strike Hezbollah in Lebanon, as the terror group continues to probe Israel’s northern border. America instead offered support for Israel should Hezbollah strike, according to the reports.

If true, this scenario is quite harrowing. If Hezbollah strikes Israel first, likely causing the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians and soldiers—which is entirely possible that they will attempt to do—only then will the U.S. government deem it acceptable for the IDF to act.

It is reasonable to question whether the Israeli government is seriously willing to put its soldiers’ and civilians’ lives in danger to avoid angering the United States.

However, Yehuda Ben-Meir, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a defense-focused think tank in Tel Aviv, disagrees that American pressure hurts Israel, saying, “The support Biden has given in this war is good and should be praised.”

Ben-Meir said that with a few exceptions, such as the U.S. pressure on Israel after the 1956 Suez Crisis, America’s support for Israel has been steadfast. A former Knesset member, Ben-Meir said that as a friend and ally, America’s voice should be listened to, even if sometimes there are disagreements.

Such disagreements occurred for example in 1967, when Israel was pressured by the United States not to attack first, just as it was prior to the Yom Kippur War. In Lebanon, American pressure pushed the IDF back, leading to the current reality in which Israel remains under threat from Iran’s terror proxy Hezbollah.

As for Hezbollah, Ben- Meir believes it is not in Israel’s best interest to strike first, saying Israel “has nothing to gain from a war with Hezbollah.” This said, he believes that if the IDF came to the conclusion that a preemptive strike on Hezbollah, or any other military action, was an “essential national security action,” then it would follow through irrespective of American or international pushback.

If such an action was deemed not to be essential, he said, Israel should consult with the United States.

Yonatan Freeman, an expert in international relations at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, views the pressure as requests, not demands. In general, he sees U.S. global influence, particularly its veto power at the United Nations, as a key factor in why Jerusalem takes Washington’s requests as seriously as it does.

Freeman pointed out that Blinken met with Israel’s war cabinet for nearly eight hours on Monday, noting that it was completely unprecedented for a representative of a foreign government to sit in on serious policy and military deliberations. Freeman believes this is to help with legitimacy for any moves both within the U.S. government and public.

He pushed back on the idea that the two countries agree on everything, stating that disagreements happen constantly behind the scenes, and adding that Jerusalem will ultimately act on its own if it feels that it needs to, pointing to Israel’s destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor as proof of this.

Nevertheless, it remains true that for better or for worse, Washington’s voice reverberates loudly in Israel, particularly in times of war.

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