President Biden is emerging as the key leader in Israel’s war against Hamas, with a grief-stricken Israeli society deeply distrustful of its government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden’s solidarity with the Israeli public has earned him enough political capital to delay Israel’s anticipated ground offensive, even as the country is fully mobilized for war and anxious for revenge.
While Biden said Wednesday he has not explicitly asked Netanyahu to delay an invasion, he and other U.S. officials have sent repeated warnings in recent days over hostages still held by Hamas and the need for a clear Israeli endgame.
“It’s hard to overstate the goodwill that President Biden earned from the Israeli public in his first speech, and in the very clear moves, both of the carrier groups and the shooting down into missiles from Yemen,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“And, as a result, [Biden] is able to use that political capital,” he added. “I think it’s quite clear to everyone that America is part of the reason that Israel is taking more time.”
The U.S. has deployed two aircraft carrier strike teams to the Mediterranean in the wake of Hamas’s brutal raid on Israeli border villages on Oct. 7. And a U.S. Navy destroyer last week intercepted a barrage of missiles fired by Iran-backed fighters in Yemen.
Biden has staunchly backed Israel’s right to respond to the unprecedented attack on its soil, dismissing calls for a cease-fire from some within his own party amid a mounting Palestinian death toll from Israel’s airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
The president has said Israel must prosecute its war within the boundaries of international law, but on Wednesday he called civilian deaths the “price of waging war” while rejecting Hamas’s reports of more than 5,000 deaths due to Israeli shelling.
“I think the Israelis should be incredibly careful to ensure they are focused on going after the folks that are propagating this war against Israel,” he added.
The president has also warned Israel not to let emotions drive its decisions and has called for clear goals — a contrast to some Israeli leaders who have offered sweeping aims without clear strategies to realize them.
“Eliminating Hamas is an empty promise, it’s not something you can do in two or three months,” said Lee Hoffman Agiv, a member of the activist group Building an Alternative that was part of the mass protest movement against Netanyahu’s government but has since shifted operations to respond to the needs of survivors of Hamas’s attack.
“So when the minister of national security says we are going to eliminate Hamas, that makes me very worried, and so what I feel when Biden comes here is that there is someone in charge, it’s very sad, sad but true,” she said in a phone call from Israel with The Hill.
The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that Israel had agreed to delay its invasion as the U.S. boosts its air defenses to protect American troops in the Middle East.
The New York Times reported earlier this week that the U.S. was advising a delay to buy time for hostage negotiations and the delivery of aid to the Gaza Strip, and in a separate report the Times said that U.S. officials are concerned Israel lacks “achievable military objectives” in Gaza.
Biden on Wednesday denied making any specific requests for a delay but said he had raised the hostage issue with Netanyahu.
“What I have indicated to him is that if that’s possible to get these folks out safely, that’s what he should do,” Biden said of Netanyahu during a press conference with the Australian prime minister. “It’s their decision, but I did not demand it.”
Israel’s military says it is ready to launch a ground offensive at any time.
Israel has mobilized an estimated 350,000 reservists to respond to Hamas’s attack and defend Israel from threats emanating on its northern border and in the West Bank. Many of those reservists have been pulled away from their day jobs, making a deep impact across Israel’s society and economy as they train and wait for orders.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has promised troops staged outside Gaza that they’ll soon see the territory from the “inside.”
‘Every day that goes by, we become better trained’
Among the reservists is 35-year-old Corey Feldman, who is almost 10 years removed from the last time he was mobilized for the Israel Defense Forces outside the Gaza Strip.
A dual American-Israel, who works in New York City as an entrepreneur, Feldman was on a plane to Israel within a week after Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack against Israel.
“Every day that goes by, we become better trained,” Feldman said in a phone call with The Hill from southern Israel.
“There is a moral and existential imperative at this point on the army to prove that we can prevent such a thing from ever happening,” he said.
Feldman noted he was already a critic of Netanyahu before Oct. 7, a view now widely shared across Israel’s population. Recent polls show trust in government at a 20-year low, while some 80 percent of Israelis say Netanyahu must take responsibility for security failures that allowed Hamas to invade.
Yet despite the widespread frustration toward Netanyahu, commonly known as Bibi, Feldman described the cognitive dissonance as Israel rallies behind its wartime leader.
“I think there’s a lot of anger towards Bibi for his role in this, but at the same time, he’s now the commander in chief of a wartime army, and so we will support him. And he’ll lead us through this, and then I think like [former Prime Minister Golda Meir], he will pay for the consequences of his actions,” Feldman said.
Meir, Israel’s prime minister during the Yom Kippur War, which was fought against Arab states led by Egypt in 1973, resigned the next year amid finger-pointing and claims that she could have avoided the war.
‘It’s OK to be yelled at’
Hoffman Agiv, the pro-democracy activist, drew stark comparisons between Biden’s empathy with survivors of Hamas massacres and families of hostages, and what’s being criticized in the Israeli media of Netanyahu hiding from confronting his failures.
“It’s OK to be afraid, and it’s OK to be yelled at. If someone lost his daughter and he’s angry and you’re the prime minister, then sit there and listen to him scream, and sit there until he finishes … President Biden, he sat for an hour and a half with the families of all the American citizens and he listened to them.”
Hoffman Agiv also expressed fear for Israel’s soldiers — who are connected to nearly everyone in the country, due to mandatory conscription — whose fates are in the hands of a government and security establishment widely blamed for the current crisis.
“It’s a big trust issue, and we’re kind of stuck in the middle, because we don’t want to upset anyone because we still have to finish burying the dead — our kids, and our families and friends are in Gaza fighting, and who’s running the show?”
Among the many risks of an Israeli offensive into Gaza is that it will become a long war, given Israel’s stated goal of rooting out Hamas for good. And for now, the hostages are allowing Hamas to buy time. The militants have released only four of more than 200 hostages so far.
“But at one point the Israelis have to move because we don’t have unlimited time,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “At one point you have to, quote unquote, make a statement and change the landscape of this war.”
While Israel’s tanks and armored personnel carriers may easily push their way into Gaza City, Yaari cautioned that the plan from there remained unclear — especially as long as Hamas has enough fuel to keep their extensive tunnel network ventilated.
“The big question is what happens next? You don’t want to stay there too long. You don’t want to get engaged in, you know, street fights in the rubbles. How do you handle that?” he said.
Israel’s public is far more familiar with war than most countries, he noted, and the public also realized that the current air offensive on Gaza will ultimately make the operation easier for troops on the ground.
And though Biden has urged caution, Yaari said he has not detected any opposition to an eventual offensive into Gaza.
“We do not see the U.S. objecting to a counteroffensive,” he said. “We see the U.S. wanting to be assured that it’s a good plan, that it has a good chance of working with minimal civilian casualties in Gaza, while humanitarian aid keeps coming in. That’s what we see.”
–Updated at 7:04 a.m.