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As Israel recovers from the trauma of Hamas’ savage attack and embarks on its military response, America’s political and military support for its closest and most important ally in the Middle East will be put to the test.
Israel’s “defeat Hamas” objective has yet to fully take shape, but it is prudent to assume that the conflict will last months, not weeks. Moreover, like the second Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 and the last extended Gaza conflict in 2014, Israel will be prepared to expend significant blood and treasure to restore deterrence on its borders, tempting others to unfairly lecture the country on aggression and proportionality.
We know how to help Israel win, but in the face of these realities will President Biden and Congress demonstrate the necessary resolve?
It is unquestionably in America’s national security interests for Israel to fully defeat Hamas. Decimating Hamas would cut off one of Iran’s most valuable proxy forces and a persistent source of instability in the Middle East. And it would chasten Tehran, which brazenly supported, perhaps even helped train and plan, Hamas’ attack.
Moreover, an Israeli win would reinforce Saudi Arabia’s calculus that the path to Arab prosperity runs through Israel – not Gaza.
Yet that does not ensure that President Biden will back Israel’s goals. As prior military operations in Gaza revealed, an Israeli ground incursion in the densely populated area will result in a major loss of life. In 2014, the last time Israel engaged in a protracted military operation in Gaza, 2,100 Palestianas were reported killed during the seven-week conflict.
The stakes are significantly higher this time. Hamas has executed a surprise, multi-domain military assault that already accounts for the murder of more than 1,000 – mostly civilian – Israelis leading to Israel’s first formal declaration of war in 50 years.
Even if Biden gives Israel the political cover to pursue its military objectives for the duration of the conflict, the United States may be constrained on delivering the military support Jerusalem will likely request, short of Congress passing an emergency appropriations measure.
The Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Israel’s air campaign sought to degrade Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon, exposed Israel’s dependence on U.S. precision guided munitions (PGMs) – a high value, limited quantity military capability. Sustaining its air campaign necessitated the U.S. to replenish Israeli stocks during the conflict.
As evidenced in the first hours of this conflict, Hamas’ rocket stockpile has grown in size and lethality. On the first day, Hamas fired more than 3,000 rockets, which is close to the 4,000 rockets terrorists fired from Gaza over the entire 11-day clash in 2021. That conflict led Israel to seek a pledge from Biden to restore its depleted stockpile of Iron Dome interceptors. It will likely seek the same pledge during this conflict too.
Two years later, though, the Pentagon is struggling to supply Ukraine with the critical munitions it needs to counter Russian aggression and has been slow to complete Taiwan’s orders for harpoon missiles and other coastal defense capabilities.
Earlier this year the Pentagon reportedly tapped into its prepositioned ammunition depot in Israel to help meet Ukraine’s urgent need for artillery shells. Some 300,000 155mm artillery shells were transferred to Kyiv from the U.S. Central Command’s War Reserve Stock Ammunition-Israel.
Now the Pentagon must prepare to shore up Israel’s critical military needs too. The deployment of a carrier strike group to the region and a Pentagon announcement of an aid package that includes munitions is an early indication that the U.S. will provide some material support.
Yet, to date Biden’s record in providing decisive military support to allies has been spotty. Tepid political support for Ukraine’s military objectives has translated into uneven and delayed military support. In Taiwan, Biden’s team has sent mixed messages on its willingness to defend the island in the event of a conflict with China, and it has been slow to break through the backlog holding up critical military capabilities.
And with the House of Representatives currently leaderless, in part due to one faction’s distrust of foreign military aid, Congress is not positioned to be the steadfast partner that the president needs.
As China, Russia and Iran wreak havoc on U.S. interests across Asia, Europe and now the Middle East, this axis is testing America. Will we continue to stand by our friends and unleash the arsenal of democracy? Or will we leave other democracies to defeat terrorists and authoritarians alone?
We know what is needed and we know how to deliver it. Like Russia and China, though, Hamas and Iran hope we no longer have the political will to do so. The American people would be wise to prove them wrong.