Plunge faster into the abyss

Dr. David Wurmser

As Israel approaches its sixth month at war with Hamas in Gaza, and likely nears another war on its northern border with Hezballah, the Biden administration continues to pursue a radically transformative regional agenda to seek rapprochement and strategic condominium with Iran and establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.  The main obstacle to this agenda, according to administration strategists, is not its dissonance with reality, but the irresponsibility and intransigence of Israel’s government.  To overcome this obstacle, thus, the administration has resumed interfering in domestic Israeli politics and intensified its efforts to destabilize an Israeli government it believes most threatens its ideological quest regionally. 

The administration seeks this ambitious agenda despite the attacks of October 7, which did little to dissuade it from its faith in the two anchoring objectives. It does so because the events reinforced its view of the importance of its informing paradigm — a truly post-colonial agenda animated by a progressive narrative (contrition over both the “interference” in Iranian affairs throughout the last century and over the dispossession of the Palestinian people as part of a larger global European oppression). Applying that self-excoriating paradigm, the administration’s cognoscente believe, will finally address the underlying grievances driving regional rage and resentment, and thus replace them with a condition of mutual strategic deference and respect between Washington and Tehran, both of whom tightly control their proxies.  

The Gaza war did nothing to dilute the administration’s obsession with this vision. Indeed, if anything, it reinforced the imperative, feasibility and urgency of advancing its two key mechanisms of its realization – establishing a Palestinian state and rapprochement with Iran’s Islamic regime.

Added to this urgency is that progressives have influenced and radicalized not only the administration’s policy, but also its domestic political understanding, strategy and operations. Progressives have intentionally peddled a climate of political despair for the entire Democratic party – without any real evidence — that is miraculously resolvable only by pandering to the most radical pro-Palestinian elements in Michigan in the run-up to the 2024 elections. 

The main obstacle they see to surmounting this electoral despair and attaining the messianic vision whose implementation would reunite the party with its progressive base, in their view, is the current obstinacy of the Israeli government.  And as a result of this conceptual box within which the administration has locked itself, the already-prioritized objective of ousting the Likud government in Israel has now intensified and risen to a perfect storm injected with steroids.

The problem is, the further this administration’s effort deepens, the more detrimental the immediate application of its ideological mission is to ousting the current government and then swaying Israeli politics in the longer term after the war.

The greatest influence which the United States exercises over Israel is the political woes of the left side of Israel’s spectrum. Ever since the election of Menachem Begin and his Likud party in 1977 — resulting from a tectonic realignment of Israeli politics crystallizing all the “outsiders” against the ossifying elite that had dominated the state since its founding – Israel’s left-leaning, Ashkenazi (European) -hyper-secular elites and the parties through which they exercise political power have faced declining prospects for electoral victories. In the last two decades, the only ability of the left to gain power was to align behind right-wing parties that bolted from personal loyalty to the current leader of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli structures in all sectors thus became increasingly distorted. Specifically, the more left-leaning elites have tried to reinforce their control over non-elected structures governing the state and society (military, judicial, financial, high-tech, societal, academic, press), as well as sought to expand the power of these structures over every aspect of life in order to maintain their control and “ownership” of Zionism.  The judicial reform upheaval that tore Israel to shreds in the year before the Gaza war erupted was a battle between the proponents of that long-term effort and the resulting backlash that had developed. And the post-war debate over the responsibility for the catastrophic failure of the war’s surprise, especially delineating who is to blame between the political (which was a right-leaning coalition) and military leadership and security elites (retired “LeSheavarim” or “formers” and current), almost immediately started fracturing along the same schism. The intensity of these debates marked just how far the right would go to finally challenge those structures and how far the left would go, even to the mat, to protect those institutions and its grip over them.  

Enter the American angle. Institutions, no matter how elite and entrenched, ultimately begin to yield to the pressure of aligning with the society from which they derive their power.  Left isolated, thus, the distortion of Israeli institutions would eventually align with the society in which it operates.  But the left in Israel is deeply invested in another layer of resilience.  It has successfully leveraged Israel’s international allies, and in particular the American relationship, to domestically overpower their more street-popular opposition.

The Israeli left has been able to do this largely because in as much as the international community had intervened in Israel traditionally, it was to advance a more left-leaning agenda. In the marketplace of politics in Israel, the world had the left’s back. 

But this whole structure is anchored ultimately to U.S. influence and dominance on both practical and intellectual levels. And it is also anchored to an international community – especially an American foreign policy establishment – that is largely homogenous in its outlook in viewing Israel’s left as more amenable to the pursuit of its agenda.  As such, Israel’s left became not only increasingly reliant on American support but also increasingly subordinate to American demands.  When administrations defined the U.S. national interest in ways roughly aligned with the interests as conceived by Israel’s left – even if it bent Israel to be dangerously dependent and more flexible than wise in things it normally would rather not be — that remained a powerful and even insurmountable alliance.  But if Washington departed from the interests of Israel’s left – especially under administrations that leaned more right – that investment drifted from essential to either useless or even detrimental.  

Back to the present.  Over time, the memory seared into the Israeli psyche on October 7 will melt into resumption of “normal” politics in Israel, and when that happens, some of the fissures in Israeli politics which raged before the war will return.  But the administration fails to grasp that moment is not yet here; the war in Gaza has not yet ended and the war in the north has not begun or even begun to be resolved.  And in this, the administration is essentially trying to prod Israel back to its pre-October 7 political atmosphere, crack the unity government and leverage the power of Israeli institutions to shift the political direction of Israeli society.

Moreover, even when the guns fall silent, there is no going back to October 6.  Israeli society has changed, and while polls suggest it holds the right-leaning government that was in power on October 7 responsible along with the military leadership, policy issues polls also suggest that the population has shifted sharply rightward. And the Israeli center-left – which had been aligned with Washington’s preferences for the last 30 years – has also shifted rightward as a result of the war at the same time this administration – under the sway of a radicalizing progressive agenda – has drifted leftward and is sharply abandoning its more liberal pro-Israeli agenda.  The gap then between Israel’s center-left and the Biden administration – which the latter fails to observe — is vast and growing.

This leads us to the current moment. For over a week, the Biden administration has encouraged the idea in Western press that this is “Netanyahu’s” war, that Israel cannot be allowed to enter the final towns and areas in Gaza still under Hamas control (Rafiah and the Philadelphia corridor), that a ceasefire and Palestinian statehood are both unattainable as long as the Likud prime minister remains in office and that absent a ceasefire the danger of escalation with Iran grows and the aspiration for regional stability through a rapprochement and strategic condominium with Tehran recedes.  So Netanyahu must go – and the chattering class of Washington has responded to echo that sentiment quickly.

The problem is that over the last week, it is clear this is not “Netanyahu’s” war. Israeli polls for example note that 73 % of Israelis support the IDF entering Rafiah and the Philadelphia corridor in Gaza, even if it means conflict with Egypt and the U.S. administration. Similar majorities want to continue fighting and reject a ceasefire until Israel has achieved full victory and destroyed all of Hamas in Gaza and brought the area under full Israeli control for the near term. Similarly, most Israelis see little hope in avoiding escalation against Hizballah in order to prevent the communities of the north becoming the next victims of an even more deadly repetition of the October 7 attacks as afflicted Israel in the south. And there is no measurable block of Israelis that holds any hope of coming to terms in any way, even in terms of a proper deterrence relationship, with Iran. 

In short, the Israeli people now see the Biden team’s self-assigned transformative regional mission to be existentially threatening and a grave danger to the very survival of the state and the safety of its citizens. Moreover, it is clear the center-left in Israel is aligned with the comparable polling blocks on these issues.  While there may be some marginal far-left parties and politicians that still cling to these views, the core of the center-left in Israel was sobered by the horrors of October 7 no less than the right of the spectrum.  As such, for example, despite the idea that PM Netanyahu is driving Israel to enter Rafiah, Benjamin Gantz, who leads the center-left party announced that there is no conceivable way in which Israel can avoid entering Rafiah and taking the rest of Gaza, nor is any currently floated form of a ceasefire agreement draft anything but a “non-starter.”

Added to this is that every public indicator also suggests that Israelis apportion the greatest blame for the national calamity which befell them on October 7 not only to specific parties or figures, but to the overall climate of fractionalization and bitterness that rendered Israeli society over the last year.  National unity at this moment is considered to be synonymous with national survival, and any actor disrupting  consensus or issue dividing the nation’s unity is rejected as a subject of address at this time. It is not an ideological view, but a practical one as well: the nation as a whole through mass mobilization of reserves is fighting, not just its regular army. To raise issues or trigger debate that can divide tank crews, elite units, combat squads and platoons, directly undermines the ability of the IDF to perform.  To break the nation’s unity and force through controversial “day after” policies and new elections now would be catastrophic in this regard.

In that context, any “day after” scenario such as Palestinian statehood, the splitting of the national unity government and the holding of elections, or even the idea of trying to leverage the desperate concern for the fate of the hostages against the imperative of absolute victory over Hamas is with disdain, disgust and determination profoundly rejected in public opinion.    

The Biden administration thus is making a parade of mistakes to emphasize its messianic progressive agenda now, in believing it has any Israeli following for its agenda, and in trying to split Israeli politics and use Israel’s dependence on American aid to oust the current government and stand up a new, more pliable one.  The administration is banking on its influence to cause a rift with Israel – with every day unveiling yet another form of crisis and break with Israel — in hopes it strengthens the left, weakens the prime minister and forces a new elections and government.

Instead, with every new crisis, and with every indication that the administration does not appreciate the deep wound suffered in the Israeli psyche to its very confidence of existence resulting from October 7, the Biden administration fails further.  Indeed, it is squandering immense credit it built in Israeli society after October 7 in its quest for a ceasefire, for protecting inflated forms of Palestinian humanitarian interests, for rejecting a war plan over which there is roughly a national consensus rather than nurturing its credit over the long run to further leverage it to seek a more modest vision in the post-war atmosphere. 

In the end, the very crises the administration embraces to try to weaken and oust the current government, the more the administration causes the U.S. to lose influence over Israel and erode the respect it holds within Israeli society. 

In the end, the administration will defeat itself.