U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in this White House handout image taken in the Oval Office in Washington April 4, 2024 (OSV News photo/White House via Reuters).

During the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden drew a number of explicit contrasts with his predecessor over Iran. He bemoaned Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama administration’s nuclear deal limiting Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities. He criticized Trump’s impulsive unilateral military actions, such as the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soulemani, and pledged to recommit to multilateral diplomacy and cooperation with the United Nations and other allies. He even suggested Trump was “dangerously close” to starting a war with Iran.

To be sure, Biden has taken steps to reestablish multilateralism, and blame for the failure to revive the Iran nuclear deal does not belong to him alone. Nevertheless, his unwavering commitment to Israel has left the United States susceptible to the whims of another right-wing populist: Benjamin Netanyahu, whose egoism, recklessness, and disdain for international law have become serious liabilities for the United States. 

Netanyahu’s own recent escalatory assassination operation took out two senior generals at the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus on April 1, bringing the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran further out into the open. Despite the fact that U.S. soldiers may have been put in harm’s way, Israel gave the Pentagon no advanced warning. The European Union condemned the attack, asserting “the principle of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises.”

Iran’s April 13 response involved at least three hundred drones and missiles and was the first direct attack on Israel from Iranian soil. Reporting from Reuters indicates that the attack was telegraphed days in advance in communications with the United States brokered by Turkey. This enabled American, Israeli, British, and French defenses to neutralize almost all of the incoming munitions. The Intercept reports that U.S. forces “shot down more drones and missiles than Israel did.” Iran seems to have tailored the assault to demonstrate its offensive capacity while causing as little actual damage as possible. Nevertheless, national-security spokesperson John Kirby strenuously denied the reports of advanced warning and insisted that Iran intended to “cause significant destruction.” 

This approach has not only been morally catastrophic; it has helped destabilize the region, imperil Israel’s future, and expose U.S. troops to harm.

Biden immediately urged Israel to consider the material failure of the attack an off-ramp and deescalate. “You got a win. Take the win,” he told Netanyahu. But Israeli minister of defense Yoev Gallant vowed retaliation, and cabinet minister Benny Gantz promised Israel would “exact the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us.” 

The United States won’t participate in any Israeli counterstrike and expects it to be limited, but it has also made it clear that it won’t try to control Israel’s response directly. At the same time, Biden has again pledged that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s defense is “ironclad,” despite reports that he is concerned Netanyahu wants to draw the United States into a wider conflict. In other words, Israel can count on U.S. support and defensive firepower no matter how much U.S. officials might disagree with its offensive actions and question its motives.

This is the stance Biden has taken throughout the war in Gaza. Time and again he has sought to temper Netanyahu’s “over-the-top” assault (and made it clear to the press he’s doing so) but failed to impose meaningful limits on military support. This approach has not only been morally catastrophic; it has helped destabilize the region, imperil Israel’s future, and expose U.S. troops to harm. Biden’s election was supposed to signal that the United States’ international standing and the lives of its soldiers wouldn’t depend on an authoritarian more concerned about his own power than global stability. If the president continues to allow Netanyahu and the Israeli Right to influence American foreign policy, he will have failed.

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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