The harsh reality is that Israel does not have the same luxury of ignoring the rest of the world the way Russia, China, the United States, France, Britain and Germany do. This is why U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. officials can pompously and hypocritically lecture Israel about adhering to the laws of war while pretending that Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happened.
As I’ve argued, Joe Biden has been the most pro-Israel wartime president in history. Ronald Reagan was considered at the time the most pro-Israel president ever, and it didn’t stop him from forcing Menachem Begin to end the First Lebanon War. History has shown that American presidents have played a significant role in deciding the outcome of Israel’s wars.
Without Harry Truman, Israel might not exist today. His support of partition gave David Ben-Gurion the international legitimacy he needed to establish the state, and his recognition of Israel 11 minutes after it declared independence solidified the American commitment. Truman made the decisions over the objection of his closest advisers, but he did listen to them when it came to imposing an arms embargo on Israel. The United States also supported U.N. calls for truces in fighting and, ultimately, the U.N. request for a permanent armistice. Though the U.S. State Department tried to limit Israel’s war gains, this war was decided more by Ben-Gurion than Truman.
The Suez War proved a different story. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was furious when he learned that Ben-Gurion secretly planned with France and Great Britain to attack Egypt. Though Israel prosecuted the war successfully, Ben-Gurion was forced to withdraw from the captured areas without obtaining any concessions from the Egyptians after Eisenhower threatened to discontinue all U.S. assistance, U.N. sanctions and expulsion from the United Nations. This sowed the seeds of the 1967 Six-Day War.
As it became increasingly clear that war with Egypt was on the horizon in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson warned: “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.” Then, when the war began, the State Department announced: “Our position is neutral in thought, word and deed.” As in 1948, America also imposed an arms embargo.
After just six days of fighting, Israeli forces were prepared to march on Cairo, Damascus and Amman. The Soviet Union threatened to intervene. At this point, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised the Israelis “in the strongest possible terms” to accept a cease-fire. On June 10, Israel did just that. In this case, U.S. pressure stopped the war but did not prevent Israel from achieving its military objectives because they had been accomplished so quickly, and there was no desire to fight in the Arab capitals.
As in 1967, Israel was in a position to attack Damascus and Cairo in 1973 and had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army. The United States pressured Israel to allow the Egyptians to withdraw and accept a cease-fire. Israel again complied.
In 1982, The Washington Post published a photo of a baby that appeared to have lost its arms because of an Israeli airstrike in its war against the PLO in Lebanon (the child’s injuries were from a PLO attack). Reagan was disgusted. He was already angered by Israel’s prosecution of the war and no longer trusted Begin. Then, when Israel bombarded Beirut and killed more than 300 people, he called Begin and told him the photo of the baby was becoming the symbol of the war, purposely used the term “holocaust” to describe the attack on Beirut and told him Israel “had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered.” Israel accepted a ceasefire, which allowed Yasser Arafat and thousands of PLO terrorists to evacuate under the supervision of U.S. and other troops.
History has shown that the United States can force Israel to stop fighting before it accomplishes its objectives and to give up its gains. The Lebanon case may be the most relevant because Reagan, like Biden today, was affected by the number of civilian casualties and the images of them in the media. The two leaders also have in common distrust of Israel’s prime minister.
Israelis insist they will do whatever it takes to wipe Hamas from the map, as they are justified in doing. The question is less whether they can accomplish their objective than whether Biden will allow them to do so. We are already hearing administration officials say the United States will allow Israel weeks to accomplish its mission, not the months officials say they need. After cutting off the supply of water, fuel and the internet, the administration has forced Israel to reverse course to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. U.S. officials also claim to have convinced Israel to refine its war plan.
The administration is now pressuring Israel to “pause” so civilians in the north can evacuate and more aid can enter Gaza. Israel defiantly said it would not pause but then it did, if only for three hours, to allow Gazans to move southward. Netanyahu has said he will only agree to a cease-fire if all the hostages are first released.
Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister, who has taken an active role in most of the talks with American officials, is said to have cautioned government officials that failing to respond to the pressure could result in a high political cost for Israel.
Now that the Hamas-run Health Ministry has claimed the total number of civilian deaths exceeds 10,000, whether accurate or not, pressure will increase on Biden to insist on a cease-fire. The massacre of Israelis will be soon forgotten, and Israel should not expect to retain American support when the media is showing dead Palestinian children day after day.
For better, and probably worse, the countdown to the war’s end has begun in Washington.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books,