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Who Is Scoring, Who Is Losing?

Who Is Scoring, Who Is Losing?

After Tehran’s missile wave against Israel, Biden warned Jerusalem about escalation. Is Israel losing, while Iran, Russia, and China are advancing? If America, Israel, and the Arabs play their cards right, Tehran will not walk off with the pot.

Josef Joffe

Six weeks before Iran’s missile assault on Israel, Joe Biden served up pie in the sky in his State of the Union Address: “two states” for Israel and Palestine as the “only real solution.” In response, Republican Senator Mario Rubio quipped that the President had actually meant Michigan and Minnesota, “the two states [he] is trying to solve for the elections in November.” 

The tortured sarcasm is not off the mark. Domestic politics beats foreign policy when the presidential race is on. These two swing states are among eight or so that will decide the contest. Yet Rubio should have mentioned a third “state,” the Democratic Party. A haven for America’s Jews in the 20th century, the Democrats—especially Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—are coming down ever harder on the Jewish state. Though contrecoeur, Jewish voters are edging toward the Republican Party, once a WASP redoubt, and the GOP is happily grazing in the Israel camp. Another realignment of American politics is in the making. 

“It is no accident, comrades,” the Soviets used to orate, that the Biden Administration has recalibrated after the first weeks of the Israel-Gaza war. The President had loyally stood by Israel with hardware and warm words. Then, he sought to secure his left flank at home by pushing ceasefires and threatening arms cut-offs. Honi soit qui mal y pense, runs a catty French line—“Shame on those who think ill of it.” These are the ways of electoral politics.

So far, so transparent. Yet, there is more in the life of nations than politicking, especially for the world’s mightiest power, the linchpin of the global order. So, another twist on April 13, when Iran unleashed its drones and missiles against the “Little Satan.” Luckily, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were well prepared, averting catastrophe with American (and more) help. Simultaneously Biden warned Israel against massive retaliation. Please no regional war, friends. And if you trigger it, don’t count on us! The April assault and Israel’s counterpunch must not overturn the status quo ante. 

The United States is not to be envied. It has to hold off China, Russia, and the “Axis of Resistance” led by Iran: Syria plus the “Three H” of Hamas in Israel’s south, Hezbollah in the north, and the Houthis in the south. The Yemenites are disrupting maritime traffic through the Red Sea, a key trade route between Europe and Asia, and tying down American and British military assets. These threats to American and Western interests dwarf the claims of the Democratic Left as well as the weight of fifteen electoral votes held by Michigan with its sizeable Arab minority. Pennsylvania, where the Democrats are losing their traditional working-class clientele to Donald Trump, has nineteen.

Gaza is but one piece in the puzzle, no matter what the headlines screamed before Iran’s attack on Israel. Take in the whole tableau. 

Start with Biden’s Palestine pitch, which will outlive Iran’s direct hit on Israel. Noble as it is, the two-state solution has been stillborn since the fabled Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993. It is deader than dead in the wake of the Hamas massacre on October 7, followed by Israel’s all-out campaign to crush this death cult. The leftish Israeli historian Benny Morris puts it tout court: “The Arabs don’t want it [a two-state solution], and the Jews don’t want it.” Pace Biden’s re-election worries, Americans are not cheering the Palestinians. According to Pew Research, almost six out of ten think that Israel has “valid” reasons to fight Hamas; “not valid” gets only 15 percent. 

Now the Big Picture. Not a single war since Israel’s violent birth in 1948 had anything to do with Palestinian independence. When five Arab armies invaded, they did not fight for Palestine, but possession. Who would get which chunk once the Jews had been driven into the sea? The three Egypt-Israel wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973 were likewise not about Palestinian statehood, but classic power struggles between states: Who would best whom and achieve dominance? Nor were Israel’s various incursions into Lebanon about Palestine. Israel sought to secure its northern border against whoever posed a deadly threat to its north. First, Syria waded in, then Jordan expelled Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in an orgy of bloodshed (“Black September”), and, finally, Hezbollah emerged as Iranian surrogate.

Set aside Palestine as mother of all conflicts, which might be resolved by statehood. Tehran’s grasping theocracy is the key driver of the region’s troubles, as dramatized most recently by its stymied aerial strike—and has been since the Khomeinists fought Saddam’s Iraq to a draw in the Eighties. Joe Biden and the West’s bien pensants might consult history to grasp that “Palestine” is but a chiffre. The apropos analogy is the “Great Game” of the 19th century that pitted Britain against Russia. It was classic geopolitics. Transcending the immediate battlefield of Afghanistan, the question was: Who will dominate Central and South Asia—including Persia—from the Caspian Sea to the Himalaya, and the road to India?

Fast forward. Now, it is the Great Game 2.0 , and the stakes are the old ones: Who will prevail, who tuck tail? The second installment has expanded way beyond the theater where Israel must continue to slug it out with Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel’s retaliation against the mullocracy cannot change. Tehran’s game plan.

In the theater audience, the back rows belong to the Global South, a motley bunch united only by their resentment of the West. They cheer whoever weakens it. China and Russia occupy the front rows. They are delighted to see the United States stumble. They even climb onstage as not-so-honest brokers. In fact, they are out to score against America, still the lead actor. They care not a whit about Palestine, nor about Gaza’s suffering, but about their aggrandizement in the global rivalry with the United States. Erdoğan’s Turkey, nominally a NATO member, pops in regularly, dreaming of the Ottoman Empire that had oppressed Arabs for four hundred years. 

If Joe Biden and his point men Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan saw through the game, they didn’t show it. At this juncture, they worry about being sucked into an Iran-Israel conflagration. In the run-up to the Iranian offensive, which broke the long-standing rule of “no direct attack,” the Bidenistas seemed oblivious to the high stakes of the Great Game 2.0, perhaps unwittingly greenlighting Iran’s attack on the “Little Satan.” Eying this year’s contest against Donald Trump, they had widened the distance to Israel while bestriding the stage as “honest broker.” 

Priorities suffer when all those who beleaguer the Jewish state—America’s only reliable ally in the Middle East—are also out to weaken if not extrude the United States from the region, the strategic locale that links Europe, Asia, and Africa. Iran’s game? First kick Israel off the chessboard.

As the Bidenistas oscillated between punching and protecting Israel (by promising 2,300 high-power bombs and another batch of fifth-generation F-35s before Iran struck), they ignored the real malfeasant. It is Tehran, the off-stage director-cum-scriptwriter and Washington’s savviest as well as fiercest foe. It pulls the strings throughout the region, but does not dare go after Mr. Big directly. 

Out to grab the theater, Tehran does not have to bestride center stage. In the aftermath of its failed aerial onslaught, proxy war still remains less risky and more economical. So, let the Three H bleed. Iran has trained and equipped them all. Who, us? May Allah smite the infidels for their anti-Islamic smears. The sanctimonious revolutionaries and their proxies have deliberately sacrificed thousands of Gazans for their own glory.

Hamas must have known full well that annihilating 1,200 Israelis would unleash ghastly retaliation. So why would it provoke the Middle East’s mightiest army?

It might have been sheer miscalculation. Hamas and its Iranian enabler must have thought they could inflict insufferable damage on the IDF by luring it into the deadly trap of urban warfare that favors the locals. How so? A short list: a labyrinth of tunnels below, mined streets above, gunmen popping up and vanishing. Add hand-held missiles like the top-of-the-line Russian Kornet, which would decimate Israel’s vaunted Merkava tanks caught in the urban warren. Soon, the “Zionist entity” would pull back as always. Largely intact, Hamas would rise from the ruins, restoring Gaza and its own power with billions in foreign gifts.

The Qassam Brigades were in good company with a Western punditocracy also predicting the IDF’s humiliation. Yet it achieved tactical dominance because it came well prepared. The army had practiced house-to-house combat in Gaza-type mock-ups at home. It had acquired all but impenetrable tank shields. On the offense, the IDF deployed sophisticated new hardware like tunnel robots and quickly sealing chemicals to make the underground impassable. Electricity and Internet were cut off, striking Hamas deaf and blind. So, after October 7, tactical surprise was on Israel’s side.

But for all its prowess, the IDF lost the decisive political battle in the global arena where Hamas’ and Tehran’s calculus worked like clockwork. In their horrid logic, Gazan dead were exponentially more valuable on the world’s screens than slain Israelis. Soon, the world’s wrath would obliterate the memory of 1,200 murdered Israelis. And it did, not the least because the body count was predictably manipulated by the Gaza Ministry of Health, an arm of Hamas.

“We are proud to sacrifice martyrs,” crowed Hamas politburo member Ghazi Hamad early on, and the profits piled up. Israel soon stood alone while the United States, its only ally with real clout, was moving to and fro. The Abraham Accords began to wobble; these had promised peace with various Gulf states and a tightening containment ring around Iran. Riyadh has pulled back. The International Criminal Court has indicted Israel for “genocide,” never mind the intentional devastation Russia has been inflicting on Ukraine since 2022. 

On all counts, Iran was piling up its winnings. Note also how Washington’s soi-disant ally Riyadh had been playing footsie with Tehran. If the United States could cold-shoulder Israel over Gaza, why would it go to bat for the Emirates and the Saudis? So, buy some insurance from Tehran.

Let’s not discount the tortuous moral issues dramatized by leveled housing tracts from Gaza City to Khan Younis, nor ignore a million civilians beset by food shortages while trekking from north to south—and back again. That said, the IDF opened escape routes, which is preferable to reducing the multitudes to “collateral damage.” Still, do not ignore that Hamas had purposely placed its own wards in harm’s way by hiding in and under civilian structures. This is outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, which define buildings used in such a way as legitimate targets. To invoke “Yes, but,” smacks of whataboutism and does not dispatch the moral dilemmas of warfare since Stone Age man took up his cudgel.

Consult Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra on the icy world of power politics: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters.” Which monster was benefiting from Gaza’s human tragedy? Not Israel, which (briefly) had righteous anger on its side after October 7. Not the United States, oscillating between bullying and arming Israel without scoring in the global arena. Washington was looking at a D grade in grand strategy.

In the seventh month of the war, there are thus far only two winners. The little one is Hamas, whom the United States has been saving from final defeat by warning the IDF to stay away from Rafah, Hamas’ last stronghold. The big profiteer is Iran, and it does not take a Ph.D. in war studies to grasp the point. Sacrificing hecatombs of Gazans, these pious mullahs masterminded the October 7 murder spree to humiliate the United States and Israel in the Great Game 2.0. And why not, when Biden’s Washington has avoided punishing Iran since day one? 

Nor should it have been so hard to look through Iran’s game. Its stand-ins will continue to target the “Little Satan” in order to hit the “Great Satan” U.S.A.—two birds with one stone, and all while America’s global rivals China and Russia savor their schadenfreude.

The media now depict Iran’s failure to damage Israel as abject failure. So far, so correct. Give credit where credit is due: Long before Iranian escalation, the Biden Administration had started to lay down two tracks. While offering to do business with Tehran and pressing it only softly on its advancing nuclear program, the United States was, as April 13 demonstrated, organizing an informal, but effective alliance against the regime.

In the West, the United States, Britain, and France helped to down Iranian drones and missiles. In the Arab world, Jordan opened its air space to Western craft, and surely to the Israeli air force, as well. Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies pitched in by contributing time-critical intelligence. Jordanian planes assisted with the interception of missiles and drones. In Qatar, the United States coordinated this complex operation, which claimed only one civilian casualty in Israel.

When the administration publicly counseled Israel to stay cool, it could count on Jerusalem’s debt of gratitude to its tacit Arab allies. How to convert short-term into long-term gain? Self-interest advises against boundless retaliation, which would unravel the strategic interests shared with the Arab participants. Israel must neither embarrass nor alienate them—nor, of course, Washington, which is following a twin track against Israel, as well. On the one hand, it guarantees Israel’s survival. On the other, it is back to pressure. “Take the win” and don’t flail, Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. 

Too bad that the basics of the Middle East have not changed. Though outflanked in mid-April, Iran will continue to seek hegemony against America and Israel, it will not end its proxy wars against them. Nor will Iran shelve its nuclear project. Having masterminded the (temporary?) anti-Khamenei alliance, the United States will not stop chastising Israel. But in truth, it is what Prussia was to Britain in the 18th century: its “continental sword.” America should not issue a blank check to the most right-wing government ever. But as distasteful as the Netanyahu coalition may be, neither should America stiff its only worthy confederate in the world’s most deadly arena. Hold your nose, but don’t shrug off strategic necessity. 

What about Michigan, with its well-organized Arab minority and fifteen electoral votes? Let’s hope for his sake that Honest Abe Biden can outflank Trump in November and strengthen the alliance against the neo-imperial heirs of Persia. Cold strategic logic à la Nietzsche would bid Biden to ignore his tertiary target Binyamin Netanyahu. Let his own people dispatch him in due time as they did the far more simpatico premier Golda Meir after the near-disaster of the Yom Kippur War. 

“Give peace a chance,” by all means. Except, goodness is the rarest commodity in the Middle East, this unblessed plot where war and vice have ruled for thousands of years.

Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, covered the Middle East as a journalist. He has taught American foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is a Distinguished Fellow, as well as at Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.

Image: A member of the IDF's Yahalom Unit in a tunnel simulation training exercise, January 2023. (Flickr: Israel Defense Forces)

Middle EastU.S. Foreign Policy