U.S. response to weekend attack on Israel speaks to concerns of spiralling crisis
Americans are redeploying thousands of sailors, warplanes and the country's most advanced aircraft carrier in an effort to keep a powder keg from exploding across the Middle East.
That shift of resources toward the eastern Mediterranean is intended as a message of reassurance to Israel. It's also a warning to one country in particular: Iran.
Washington is nervously watching Israel's northern border for signs of a second front of attack, and evidence of a co-ordinated assault on the Jewish state by different Iran-backed militias.
The U.S. is strongly hinting that such a move could drag it into the conflict in defence of Israel. U.S. officials made clear Tuesday their aircraft carrier is there in case new parties join the war.
"To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: Don't," President Joe Biden said Tuesday at the White House.
"Let there be no doubt: the United States has Israel's back."
No sign of 'nightmare scenario' yet
There is no evidence yet, beyond isolated skirmishes in the north, of the U.S.'s nightmare scenario taking shape: An escalated war that creates pressure for it to become involved.
In the meantime, however, the U.S. is taking steps abroad and at home, where support for Israel has historically been strong, despite recent softening from younger, left-leaning Americans.
It is sending munitions to Israel and shifting the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier group closer to the conflict.
It's also co-ordinating intelligence with Israel in an effort to rescue dozens of hostages held by Palestinian militants. The White House believes U.S. citizens are among those captured by Hamas during weekend terrorist attacks; at least 14 Americans are dead, and up to 20 are unaccounted for.
The U.S. moves are intended to send two messages, said Thomas Juneau, an Iran expert at the University of Ottawa.
To Israel, he said, the message is: "We have your back." To Israel's enemies, notably the Hezbollah militia and its patron, Iran, it's a warning: "We [the U.S.] may join in the fight."
On the domestic front, the U.S. is weighing a series of actions — including by Congress, by the administration and by police — with the FBI increasing monitoring at Jewish sites amid bomb threats at Utah synagogues.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator, expressed optimism that a broader multinational war will be avoided. Iran, he said, likely has no interest in an escalating conflict that pits it directly against Israel, and risks pulling in the Americans.
Still, Miller predicted an extremely violent period for Israelis and Palestinians — and there's little the U.S. can do to change that.
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"This is going to get worse before it gets worse," the former State Department official told CBC News over the weekend.
"American leverage, frankly, is limited."
He said it takes three things to achieve diplomatic peace: two parties willing and able to negotiate, a real sense of shared urgency and an agreed-upon goal.
None of these conditions, Miller said, currently exist between an Israeli government he described as extreme right-wing, and the Palestinian organization Hamas, which he called "brutal" and "savage."
"I see no way the United States will be able to shape and affect that."
U.S. support for Israel from the start
The U.S. has been Israel's longest-standing and most important ally, becoming the first country to recognize the Jewish state a mere 11 minutes after its creation in 1948.
Americans already supply Israel with just under one-fifth of its military funding and have a longstanding policy of selling their best, newest military equipment to Israel first.
Congress is now weighing additional aid for Israel's military, possibly as part of a broader legislative package to help pass new Ukraine funding. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has proposed a series of new sanctions against Iran.
Political opinion in the U.S. will almost certainly back additional support for Israel.
Americans have long been, and still are, likelier to express pro-Israeli than views than pro-Palestinian ones in public opinion polls.
But that support is not monolithic, especially lately.
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Trend lines show a noticeable decline in support for Israel among Democrats. Young Democrats, in particular, are now more likely to express pro-Palestinian views and denounce the stalled statehood process under right-wing Israeli governments.
That tension within the Democratic Party was illustrated at a weekend rally in Boston. At the pro-Israel event, a progressive senator, Ed Markey, was booed for mentioning his hope of de-escalation in the conflict.
Another speaker, fellow Democrat Jake Auchincloss, was cheered at the same event for brushing off such talk: "Now is not the time for equivocation," he added in a written statement. "Calls for de-escalation, even if well-meaning, are premature."
Yet, in his speech, he referred to a potential drag on U.S. support, at least temporarily: paralysis in the U.S. Congress.
Turmoil in D.C.: No Congress, no ambassador
There won't be any legislation, of any kind, passing through Congress for at least a few days, whether it's military funding for Israel or anything else.
That's because the House of Representatives is currently leaderless, in the hands of a caretaker Speaker after a rebellion last week by Republicans.
And in the Senate, there's a backlog of diplomatic and military appointments waiting to be confirmed to their posts.
That includes the ambassador to Jerusalem.
The U.S. does not have an ambassador to Israel. Former treasury secretary Jack Lew was nominated to fill the vacant position and there's now talk about expediting his confirmation process, amid partisan gridlock in the Senate.
In addition to that, the U.S. is running low on artillery shells. It's working to ramp up production amid the war in Ukraine, which has depleted stocks.
The U.S. reportedly transferred 300,000 155-millimetre shells previously stored in Israel to Ukraine earlier this year.
This is unfolding as the U.S. is increasingly consumed by its rivalry with China, and planning scenarios for any potential future Chinese invasion in Taiwan.
In the midst of this, the U.S. has been trying to broker what would be a history-making pact to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Juneau sees Hamas's attack as an attempt to derail those Saudi-Israeli talks by triggering an Israeli counter-attack that inflames Mideast opinion.
He's not sure it will work. Juneau said current events could just as easily push the Saudis to build ties in the region with Iran's other rivals, namely Israel.
What's unquestionable, in his view and that of numerous U.S. officials, is that Iran has trained and funded a constellation of anti-Israeli militias in the region.
"Iran calls it the axis of resistance. Others call it the ring of fire," Juneau, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News. "It's a hub and spoke model, with Iran at the centre."
The 'really, really, really bad scenario'
What's less certain is whether Iran specifically planned the Hamas massacres in Israel. The Wall Street Journal reports that it was involved, but U.S. and Israeli officials said they're not certain the killings were directed from Tehran.
What Juneau is watching now is that northern Israeli border.
He's watching for whether the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia (with its 200,000 high-quality rockets) enters the fight alongside Gaza-based Hamas.
He was heartened by the limited activity from Hezbollah, through Monday: over the weekend it staged what appeared to be a symbolic firing of rockets into the sparsely populated Shebaa Farms contested area near the border.
Hezbollah would have to weigh the risk of political blowback at home for any actions: Lebanon is struggling with a calamitous economic collapse and can ill afford a certain and crushing military response from Israel.
Then there's the other scenario — the one Juneau fears most, and which those above-mentioned U.S. warnings are aimed at preventing.
In that scenario, Israel would come under sustained attack from different sides, attacks clearly sanctioned by Iran; direct fighting would break out between Israel and Iran and political pressure would mount for the U.S. to step in.
"At that point we're talking about a really, really, really bad scenario," he said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.
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