Biden Repeats Obama’s Israel Mistakes

People look through a fence at Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system in Ashkelon, Israel, May 12, 2021. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
The end result is a further-empowered Iran. But Congress can take the lead in supporting the U.S.–Israel alliance.

Events in Israel this week are eerily similar to what occurred in the summer of 2014. Then, the Iranian regime, buoyed by its engagements with the Obama administration, empowered and encouraged its terrorist proxy Hamas to attack Israel from Gaza so it could gauge the U.S. response. Iran must have been delighted by what transpired. After Israel used the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel (WRSA-I) for resupply during the fighting, President Barack Obama was so enraged by the Jewish state’s audacity in defending itself that he instructed the State and Defense Departments to instate an extra round of bureaucratic review on an urgent Israeli request for additional Hellfire missiles. The message to the world could not have been clearer: The Obama administration would not act as a guarantor of Israel’s security but rather as an impediment to Israel’s obligation to protect its citizens. Startled and alarmed, Israel attempted the de-escalation demanded by President Obama and then–secretary of state John Kerry, leaving Hamas bloodied but still intact to plot future offenses. The incident convinced Tehran that they had their desired negotiating partners, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed to shortly thereafter, on terms highly favorable to the Iranians.

This unfortunate episode is now replaying in Israel as the new Biden administration returns to the failed policies that fueled the violence in 2014, such as creating a moral equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian actions, providing unconditional aid to the Palestinians, and attempting a rapprochement with Tehran at Israel’s expense. This approach leaves Israel uncertain of the alliance, provides Palestinian terrorist elements with sustenance, and gives the Iranian regime the impression that they have a pass to attack America’s allies with impunity.

In short, in just 100 days the Biden administration has completely undermined the extended period of relative calm and expanding peace under President Donald Trump. That happier state of affairs was achieved by his administration’s unambiguous embrace of the U.S.–Israel alliance and dismantling of the diplomatic doublespeak that kept Israel in a gray area for so long. The resulting clarity in the American position brought clarity to the region as well. Rather than inflaming the Arab street, initiatives such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, its capital, and even the historic Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE elicited little, if any, response.

For its part, Hamas was well on the way to being reduced to a nuisance factor, so diminished were its resources, as were the resources of its Iranian masters. Certainly terrorist operatives could still cause disturbances with crude tools such as flaming tires and balloons, but they did not have the level of weaponry they previously had. Now they are fully resupplied — in fact one member of Hamas publicly thanked Tehran for the upgraded weapons. Even more, the Iranian regime is reportedly upping its financial support for Hamas from $70 million a year to $30 million a month — a staggering $360 million a year, no doubt to be paid for from the sanctions relief anticipated from current negotiations with the Biden administration in Vienna. Once again, this economic windfall will not be invested in improving the quality of life of the Iranian people, but rather on spreading violence and instability across the region.

As Hamas’s savage, Iranian-sponsored attacks escalated in recent days, with missiles exploding over Tel Aviv and several other cities as Israel deployed its Iron Dome defense system, President Biden’s silence was deafening. When he eventually did make a statement, it contained the tired talking points of the past, blaming both sides and demanding restraint and de-escalation from Israel. But the good news is that, though the Trump administration ended, the American people’s strong support for Israel is alive and well. In February, for example, their elected representatives in the Senate voted 97–3 to keep the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, demonstrating the overwhelming bipartisan support that landmark fulfillment of an American promise enjoys.

Congress can and should take immediate material steps to provide both the rhetorical and the material support the administration is not offering, starting with robust support for Israel’s obligation to defend its sovereignty. This has gone far beyond the milquetoast “right to self-defense,” which prompts the inevitable question of whether the Palestinians have a similar right. Of course the Palestinians can defend themselves, but they are not a nation-state under relentless attack from a terrorist group sponsored by a sworn enemy. There is no equivalence, and to pretend that there is does both sides a disservice.

In addition, Congress should insist that we not repeat the mistakes of 2014 and ensure that Israel has expeditious access to any resupplies it may need if the fighting is prolonged. In the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, Congress authorized the transfer of $600 million to replenish the WRSA-I for the period 2021–24, as well as the transfer of precision-guided munitions to the stockpile. The Pentagon could use the obligated funding provided for under the WRSA-I to supply, for example, an additional 1,000 Hellfire missiles to Israel, which would allow the Israel Defense Forces to target Hamas as precisely as possible. Members of Congress can also urge the Department of Defense to deploy a destroyer such as the USS Arleigh Burke, one of the four ships equipped with an AEGIS Combat System permanently based in Rota, Spain, to the Eastern Mediterranean. These vessels patrol the Mediterranean and Black Seas as part of our collective missile-defense effort to protect Europe against the Iranian threat; by making a port call at Haifa, the Arleigh Burke would also supplement Israel’s missile defense and deter Tehran’s other regional terrorist proxies from joining the fray. Such actions would be defensive in nature, designed to reduce potential civilian casualties while sending the signal that Israel is not in this fight alone.

Congress also can vigorously defend Israel from the standard attacks that will be coming from the United Nations in short order. While the White House originally protested that this week was too soon for a U.N. Security Council meeting on the fighting, the administration has now agreed to an open meeting on Sunday that will inevitably descend into a chorus of condemnation of the Jewish state and potentially include a UNSC resolution. It should be remembered that in its closing days, the Obama administration reversed decades of bipartisan U.S. rejection of such measures by abstaining from, rather than vetoing, UNSC Resolution 2334 condemning Israel. But given that the U.N. is almost as unpopular with the American people as Israel is popular, if Congress focuses sufficient attention on whatever goes on there, it may deter the Biden administration from repeating this particularly shameful bit of history in the event another UNSCR is proposed. And if the White House falters, Congress can continue leading support for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a principal member of Vi et Arte Solutions, LLC. She served as deputy national-security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African affairs in the Trump administration.


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