SINGAPORE: The decision by United States President Joe Biden to travel to Israel, announced early Tuesday (Oct 17), marks a surprising – and extremely fraught – turn in the deepening turmoil engulfing the Middle East.
Mr Biden is no doubt making the trip to show that the US stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel in the wake of Hamas’ multi-pronged surprise attack on Oct 7, and to demonstrate American resolve to prevent opportunistic actors from widening the conflict.
But that is nothing that the deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean, shipments of US weapons, and a frantic bout of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State Antony Blinken have not already done.
Instead, with a massive ground invasion of Gaza looming, the President’s trip risks signalling American acquiescence with what is to come. Although Mr Biden has warned that Israel would “make a big mistake” if it re-occupies Gaza, the world’s focus has been shifting from the initial terrorist attack by Hamas and the retaliation by Israel to the widening humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-controlled Gaza – one that will worsen appreciably once the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) move in.
INCONCEIVABLE THAT ISRAEL WILL WAIT MUCH LONGER TO INVADE GAZA
While there is little doubt that an invasion will be paused for at least as long as the US leader is in the region, it is inconceivable that Israel will wait for very much longer. It has been clear that pressure by the US and others has forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s timelines for action to be delayed: On Oct 13, Israel gave over a million people 24 hours to evacuate from northern Gaza, but that deadline has been progressively shifted amid frantic efforts to open humanitarian corridors.
Once the invasion begins, however, such efforts will be forgotten. A likely lasting image will be that of Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu conferring perhaps days before Israeli tanks grind through the warren that is Gaza, where the extremely dense urban environment, Hamas’ defences, and the presence of those unable to evacuate will ensure a bloody campaign.
An American leader’s visit to Israel now contrasts with the stance taken by its main rivals, China and Russia. Beijing has focused on the Palestinians in its responses to the terror attacks: Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week that the “crux of the matter is that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people”. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has compared what is happening in Gaza to the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during World War II, surely an affront to Israelis. Both are taking advantage of events to undermine the US.
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SCORING PERSONAL POLITICAL POINTS
At this stage, it is hard to see what Mr Biden can gain from visiting the region, apart from perhaps some domestic political capital: His presumptive challenger for the presidency in 2024, Donald Trump, has not endeared himself to the American public by describing Hamas as “smart”. In a country where full-throated support for Israel is a bedrock political stance, Mr Biden stands to pick up some points.
Perhaps the hope is that by looking Mr Netanyahu in the eye, he can force the Israeli leader to exercise some restraint and avoid piling more misery on Palestinians. Given the current climate in Israel however, with the country reeling, growing frustration with the government’s failure to prevent the attacks, and the ground conditions, that appears a long shot.
Carl Skadian, a former journalist and editor for 30 years, is Senior Associate Director at the Middle East Institute, NUS.