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Biden’s containment migraine

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It may ultimately come to naught. But Joe Biden’s Middle Eastern acrobatics over the last week would make Henry Kissinger blush. As long as there is no war between Israel and Iran, the US president can claim it is working. But it involves frequent somersaults before breakfast.

A week ago, America and its allies helped Israel shoot down almost all of the 300 or so missiles and drones coming in from Iran — the first time the Islamic republic has attacked Israel from its soil. Through Swiss and Turkish intermediaries, Iran in effect briefed Biden on its actions in advance (though the scale of its salvos surprised everyone).

Since then, Biden has vetoed a UN resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian state, even as it pushes Israeli normalisation talks with Saudi Arabia that could result in precisely the two-state solution he had just scuppered in New York, and urged Israel to “take the win” on Iran and refrain from retaliating.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ignored that last bit of advice and on Friday launched an undeclared strike on an Iranian military facility in Isfahan. The limited Israeli response, which disappointed hardliners in Netanyahu’s coalition, was within the symbolic bounds of what Biden is urging. It remains to be seen whether Iran feels obliged to continue this tit for tat, which could still risk slipping from a performative exchange into war.

The suspicion in Washington is that Netanyahu wants to keep the Iran-Israeli situation just below the brink without it tipping over into actual war. But that assumes a skill that even he — the Houdini of Israeli politics — might lack. For the time being, however, he has widened the global lens from the catastrophic humanitarian picture in Gaza to the risks of a full-blown regional conflict. Such a war would be a major blow to Biden’s re-election prospects, which depend to some extent on keeping a lid on inflation. To contain global oil prices, the US president must indefinitely succeed in restraining Iran and Israel.

That balancing act could get even trickier in the coming days. In spite of Biden’s exhortations, Israel says it is finalising plans to evacuate roughly a million Gazans from Rafah in order to pave the way for what Netanyahu bills as the final assault on Hamas. Biden has all but drawn a red line around Rafah and privately threatened Netanyahu with unprecedented conditions on US military aid to Israel if he goes ahead.

But Netanyahu has routinely ignored Biden’s invisible lines. There is no reason to think that the next phase of his war on Hamas will be any different. Any further mass casualties, in addition to the 34,000 or so Gazans who have died in the past six months, would bring the focus back to the now paused Israel Defense Forces’ ground operations. It would also jeopardise Israel’s recent promise to allow humanitarian trucks into the Palestinian enclave on something closer to the scale the world had been demanding. 

As ever in the Middle East, the sequence of events — and the apportionment of blame — depends on who you ask. The latest phase in Israel’s post-October 7 war to eliminate Hamas arguably began on March 14, when Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and America’s most senior Jewish official, shocked Israel by calling for Netanyahu to go. Given Schumer’s record of backing the country to the hilt, his break with Netanyahu was a signal of just how much sentiment has shifted in the US, especially among Democrats.

In the ensuing fortnight, Biden tried and failed to persuade Israel to let more humanitarian aid into the Gaza strip. Then on April 1, two dramatic and unconnected events took place. The first was the Israeli killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers — the global humanitarian charity set up by José Andrés, who is a celebrity chef in Washington DC. Although an estimated 200 aid workers have lost their lives since October, the WCK deaths struck home with unusual force in the US capital.

That same day, Israel struck an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, killing several senior Iranian commanders, including the former head of Iran’s forces in Syria and Lebanon. Israel says it had long tracked the commanders’ movements. But the effect of the strike was to remind the world that Israel’s struggle with Hamas could easily degenerate into something far more dangerous.

Biden’s short-term aim will be containment. As the US election approaches, the implications of anything going wrong keep mounting. Among the left of his Democratic party, the president is now openly accused of complicity in what they brand a genocidal war. On the right, Donald Trump is blaming the entire crisis on Biden. “It would not have happened if we were in office,” Trump said after Iran’s attack on Israel.

On the upside, it is just conceivable that this latest chapter in the tragic Israel-Palestine story could yet result in Biden’s goal of a two-state peace process. Before then, however, he must stop a regional war, limit further casualties in Gaza and defeat Trump in November. That will require an almost continuous feat of acrobatics. 

edward.luce@ft.com

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