Past US presidents have rejected Israel’s push to attack Tehran, but Biden is falling into their trap.

Iranian missiles and drones did not even approach Israeli airspace when Tehran declared the matter concluded. Iran’s retaliation for Israel’s April 1 bombing of an Iranian consular building in Damascus was choreographed to be heavy on symbolism and light on destruction. The point was not revenge but the restoration of Iranian deterrence and the avoidance of a wider war. But the choreography suffered a major flaw: a wider war with Iran is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seeking for more than two decades.

At the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, the Biden administration worried that Israel was ready to expand the war into Lebanon. According to Wall Street Journal, USA President Joe Biden successfully convinced Netanyahu to set aside plans for a preemptive strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon. But what neither Biden nor the Washington establishment fully appreciated was that Netanyahu, since the late 1990s, sought to drag the United States into war with Iran.

Netanyahu has an interest in prolonging the ongoing war with Hamas since the moment it ends, his political career is likely to end as well—and a prison sentence could soon follow if his corruption trial proceeds. Likewise, the hard-line Israeli leader also has a long-standing desire to broaden the conflict to deal with what he perceives to be Israel’s greatest strategic threat: Iran.

A military conflict with Iran that draws in the United States would achieve several Israeli objectives. This would degrade Iran’s nuclear program as well as its conventional military and, in doing so, restore a regional balance more favorable to Israel, as well as avoiding a U.S.-Iran rapprochement that Israelis see as tantamount to Washington’s abandonment of Israel. A de-escalation of Iran would also weaken Iran’s regional partners, from Hezbollah to Iraqi militias to the Houthis in Yemen, all of whom depend on Iranian weapons and financial largesse.

But a broader war would not advance U.S. strategic objectives, and actively entering another conflict in the Middle East could seriously harm Biden in an election year. The question, then, is whether Washington will use the leverage it accumulated by helping Israel shoot down Iranian drones and missiles to prevent further escalation.

US PRESIDENTS DID NOT SHARE Netanyahu’s enthusiasm for armed confrontation with Iran. George W. Bush, Barack Obama and even Donald Trump pushed back against Israel as they recognized that Iran’s nuclear program could not be irreversibly destroyed militarily and that U.S. interests would not be served by yet another war in the Middle East, as it would destabilize the region and undermine the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, a deepened U.S. military commitment to the Middle East would divert resources from what they saw as a more pressing strategic issue: the rise of China.

Although Bush adopted a very optimistic public stance on Iran, he was much more optimistic in private. When then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought U.S. support for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in May 2008, Bush refused to offer it and made clear that his position would not change for the remainder of his presidency. Bush also refused to offer Israel the bunker-busting bombs it needed to hit Iran’s nuclear sites.

Obama went a step further and made it clear publicly that the United States was not offering Israel any green light to attack Iran. But more importantly, as Netanyahu increased pressure on Obama to take military action, Obama responded by doubling down on diplomacy with Iran.

By ringing the alarm bells on Iran’s growing nuclear program, Netanyahu hoped to eliminate Obama’s “kick the can down the road” option and force Washington to strike Iran militarily. But his behavior had the opposite effect. This forced Obama to risk transformative diplomacy with Iran rather than start a war. Had Netanyahu not cornered Obama, he likely would have left the Iranian nuclear headache to his successor.

Even Trump, who has pursued the United States’ strongest line on Iran to date and who did not hesitate to escalate matters with Tehran when he felt it served his own personal interests – and who bowed to pressure from Netanyahu to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran – however, stopped going to war with Iran in the name of the Israeli prime minister. According to a former senior Trump administration official speaking to Axios, Trump felt that Netanyahu was “willing to fight Iran to the last American soldier.”

But US presidents’ long-standing refusal to allow Netanyahu to draw the United States into war with Iran may now come to an end. Biden’s support for Israel in recent months is often described as a continuation of long-standing US policy toward Israel. In reality, it is a break with tradition.

This is because Biden has refused to pressure Israel to show restraint in the way that US presidents like Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Obama used to. It is also a break with the previous position of firmly rejecting Israel’s attempts to drag the United States into war with Iran.

Not only has Biden been more dutiful to Netanyahu than any other U.S. president — Bush Sr.’s Secretary of State, James Baker, banned Netanyahu from entering the State Department — he has committed himself to two contradictory goals: preventing a regional war while proclaiming support for Israel in the event of war, even if Israel starts it.

Israel attacked Iran’s embassy compound in Syria, killing one of the country’s highest military officers, Mohammad Reza Zahedi—which was treated by Tehran as an attack on Iranian soil and an act of war. Following Iran’s retaliation against Israel – during which the US military, along with the British, French and Jordanians, helped Israel defend itself against Iranian aerial threats – Biden declared that the United States would not participate in or support offensive military action against Iran by Israel, but that they would provide defensive support if Israel were attacked again. But the distinction between offensive or defensive support becomes meaningless the second a war breaks out.

Biden’s logic encouraged Netanyahu to attack Iran. He knows that although the United States does not participate in the attack, it will be drawn into the fight, the second Iran responds to Israel’s offensive. Either way, Washington will be drawn into a war in the Middle East that does not serve U.S. interests, that will further draw the United States into rather than out of the region, and that will likely result in Iran arming its nuclear program. .

If Biden truly wants to prioritize war prevention, he will need to establish much stronger and clearer red lines. Biden must clearly state publicly that the United States will no longer tolerate any further escalation from either side. He must signal to Israel that US military aid going forward can no longer be unconditional. And he should take a page out of the playbook of Bush Sr., who, during the first Gulf War, refused to provide Israel with IFF codes (“friend or foe” identification to distinguish hostile and friendly aircraft) and thus prevented Israel from attacking Iraq and unraveling Bush’s anti-Saddam coalition.

By prioritizing the prevention of war, Biden will also not need to update his ironclad defense promise, as war will not break out in the first place.

Netanyahu – desperate to prolong and widen the war to avoid the prison sentence he likely awaits at the end of his political career – has consistently disregarded Biden’s soft, private resistance over the past seven months and may do so again, as, so far , he faced no consequences for his defiance.

This is the inevitable failure of Biden’s bear hug approach to Israel and his break with the treatment of Israel by previous US presidents. But while more than 33,000 Palestinians paid the price for Biden’s first bear hug, the American people – and US soldiers – may end up paying the price for Biden’s second bear hug, as Netanyahu may finally achieve the war that three administrations before this one rejected it.

Text published by Foreign Policy.


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