Israel's attack on Iran reflects badly on Biden after president's public message for Netanyahu

By John Mercury April 21, 2024

The overnight events do not reflect well on President Biden.

He had signalled so emphatically just days ago for Israel not to retaliate.

“Take the win,” the American president told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the early hours of Sunday morning.

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Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened an invasion of Rafah. Pic: Reuters
Benjamin Netanyahu has ignored Biden’s pleas. Pic: Reuters

It was a message made public and combined with back-channel briefings we were getting from the White House and the State Department.

Washington’s message to the Israeli government was that the spectacular failure of the Iranian attack, combined with the diplomatic first of having the Jordanians and the Saudis defending Israel, was a victory.

“Take it, don’t retaliate,” was the message they hoped would land. Uncontrolled escalation is just too much of a risk.

But Israel has been ignoring America for a few months now. Biden has frequently found the limits of his influence over Gaza.

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As this week progressed, it became clear that on this issue too Netanyahu wasn’t going to be bent by Washington, London or anywhere else.

And there were plenty who questioned the wisdom of Biden’s diplomatic directive.

Israel had just faced the biggest aerial assault in its history by a nation committed to its destruction.

“Take the win”?! Really? To many, it sounded like an astonishing appeasement of Iran.

And so, as it dawned on diplomatic visitors to Israel this week that Netanyahu and his war cabinet were going to ignore Biden and hit back, the language began to shift.

“Don’t retaliate” became “minimise escalation”.

“We hope they do so in a way that does as little to escalate this as possible,” UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said after meeting Netanyahu on Tuesday.

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Cameron: Israel’s response ‘should be smart’

My understanding is that Western diplomats were given a heads-up by Israel that it was hitting back overnight and with some detail on the type and location of the targets.

But this past week raises questions about the Biden administration’s influence and its strategy.

Biden’s call for no retaliation was very public and echoed by allies. It was driven by the real fear of uncontrolled escalation.

But was it diplomatically smart to make the call so public? Some are asking if that didn’t just undermine Israel’s ability to reestablish deterrence.

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Privately call for restraint, maybe. But why publicly?

But more than that, did the public “don’t do it” messaging just expose President Biden to failure and weakness when his directive was simply ignored by Israel?

Read more:
Israel appears to have carefully chosen response
How Biden watched Iranian attack – and what he told Netanyahu

Brace now for the next move.

Perhaps a steady de-escalation through a series of strikes on targets each less significant than the one before it – both sides saving face, both claiming deterrence.

Such is the madness of conflict.


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