At this point in its term of office, the Biden Administration had hoped for a markedly different Middle East.
Under American tutelage, the Trump-era Abraham Accords would have ideally widened the circle of peace among Arab states and Israel, effectively ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and purportedly bringing stability and prosperity to a region sorely in need of it. As regional rivals reconciled their differences, Washington could refocus its attention on the Indo-Pacific region, shifting military and diplomatic assets to counter China.
In this new, more united Middle East, the threat of Iran would be contained by a formidable array of Arab and Israeli military power, and the Palestinian issue (regrettably resistant to any lasting solution, in the jaded view of government officials and pundits alike) would be safely contained. The Palestinians themselves would be mollified by new aid and investments from the wealthy Arab countries, an ample consolation prize in place of their own state. The threat of terrorism and conflict would have been reduced to manageable terms.
The war in Gaza has changed the entire diplomatic and military landscape into the one that Washington had hoped to avoid. Current conditions present daunting new challenges for the Biden administration, including the fearsome threat of wider regional confrontation.
Of course, the reality today is depressingly different. The war in Gaza has changed the entire diplomatic and military landscape into the one that Washington had hoped to avoid. Current conditions present daunting new challenges for the Biden administration, including the fearsome threat of wider regional confrontation.
As they say in the Pentagon, “No plan ever survived first contact with the enemy,” a wise maxim the Biden administration is currently relearning.
Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold
In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack in southern Israel on October 7, President Joe Biden took a safe, traditional position, completely within a longstanding Washington consensus —full support of Israel’s “right to defend itself,’ bolstered by pledges of substantial military aid, and backed in this instance by the dispatch of two aircraft carrier strike groups, the USS Gerald R. Ford and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, to positions off Israel’s Mediterranean coast and in the Red Sea, respectively. But this supposedly safe position rapidly deteriorated into domestic and international political controversy as Biden discovered that fully backing Israel came with substantial political costs he hadn’t, apparently, anticipated.
With Biden’s poll standing eroding, due in no small part to his stance on the conflict, Washington’s diplomatic position has been evolving rapidly. During his tour of the region in early November, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for “humanitarian pauses”—not to be confused with a “ceasefire”—to allow humanitarian aid shipments to arrive in Gaza. In Tokyo a few days later for a meeting of G-7 foreign ministers, Blinken went significantly further, specifying American terms for an immediate post-war future. He said that there must be “no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. Not now, not after the war…No use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks. No reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends. No attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza. No reduction in the territory of Gaza…It is imperative that the Palestinian people be central to governance in Gaza and in the West Bank as well, and that, again, we don’t see a reoccupation.”
With Biden’s poll standing eroding, due in no small part to his stance on the conflict, Washington’s diplomatic position has been evolving rapidly.
This is not only aimed at discouraging Israel’s possible imposition of a security zone in Gaza such as that enforced by Tel Aviv in southern Lebanon for 15 years, but also to suggest a new political horizon going forward. In Tokyo, Blinken hinted at that horizon, albeit in vague terms, saying that “it’s vitally important that Palestinian aspirations for governing themselves, for being the ones to decide their own futures, are realized.” This may fall short of a commitment to doing the long, hard work of bringing about a two-state solution, but it may be a start.
US Politics and Rising Pressure on Israel
Meanwhile, domestic political pressures almost unheard of in Washington are continuing to build: popular opinion in the United States, particularly among Democrats, is breaking sharply against Israel. On November 8, 26 Senate Democrats and Independents signed a letter to President Biden asking pointedly whether his administration can ensure that Israeli military operations in Gaza are being “carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law.” While the pro-Israel foundation in Congress remains generally solid, it seems cracks have begun to appear.
The administration is also faced with almost unprecedented dissent in the ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Foreign Service officers have in recent days signed onto three different dissent channel cables, a mechanism established during the Vietnam War to enable the rank-and-file to speak their minds without going messily public. The cables proposed some form of ceasefire to end the Israeli onslaught. Blinken himself felt compelled to meet with at least some of the signatories. And just this week, around 500 career officials and political appointees from about 40 government agencies signed a letter to President Biden also endorsing a ceasefire, citing polling data showing about two-thirds of Americans in favor of it and a de-escalation of violence.
The increasingly desperate situation in Gaza, including 1.5 million internally displaced persons as well as a death toll now exceeding 11,000, has fueled this rising controversy. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, for one, has taken notice, worrying that Israel has limited time to achieve its stated objective of eliminating Hamas in the Gaza Strip before it is forced to bow to pressure, primarily from the United States, to halt its military operations. It is a message that has been re-enforced this month by senior administration officials in contacts with their Israeli counterparts.
To complicate matters, the Israeli government does not necessarily seem to share the same playbook from which the United States is currently working. On November 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will maintain “overall security responsibility” in Gaza for an indefinite period, with no apparent plans for a transition to a diplomatic process to follow. While this falls a bit short of reoccupation, and certainly of the re-establishment of settlements of which some on the far Israeli right dream, it nevertheless opens the door to an untenable political situation that Washington clearly finds undesirable.
Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate. November 10 brought news that Israel has besieged several hospitals in Gaza, alleging that they are being used as storage facilities by Hamas, and demanding they be evacuated. A particular focus of Israel’s ire is Gaza’s largest medical complex, Al-Shifa Hospital, under which Israel claims Hamas maintains a system of military bunkers. Early on November 15, Israeli troops entered the complex and alleged that weapons were found inside; but Hamas denied the claim. The increasing number of casualties, ongoing military strikes, and lack of fuel has brought the medical system in Gaza to the point of total collapse.
Israel has agreed to White House demands for short operational pauses in northern Gaza to permit humanitarian aid to enter, but these will not substantially alleviate the suffering of Palestinians throughout the Gaza Strip, and do not necessarily betoken any willingness to consider a broader ceasefire.
Israel has agreed to White House demands for short operational pauses in northern Gaza to permit humanitarian aid to enter, but these will not substantially alleviate the suffering of Palestinians throughout the Gaza Strip, and do not necessarily betoken any willingness to consider a broader ceasefire. Netanyahu has in fact resisted American requests for a longer pause, even to facilitate the release of hostages. Intensive US diplomacy to persuade Israel to commit to more on the humanitarian front continues.
For the future, Netanyahu has steadfastly refused to consider a meaningful peace process after the conflict ends. Indeed, violent West Bank settlers seemingly backed by the Israeli Army have embarked on what can only be described as a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the occupied West Bank, a development that may prove even more incendiary than the ongoing violence in Gaza.
Regional Context Evolving
The Biden administration is now reduced to trying to stave off a slow-motion wreck of a once hopeful Middle East policy. A formal diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia may still take place—despite the Gaza war, both countries have an interest it making it happen—but it is by no means certain and in any case has suffered a real setback. Saudi Arabia has increased its criticism of Israel and reportedly paused any consideration of a deal to normalize relations. Instead, Riyadh hosted an Arab-Islamic summit meeting that included President Ibrahim Raisi of Iran, a diplomatic breakthrough of a very different kind that may not have been possible absent the Gaza crisis. The assembled leaders called for UN Security Council action to adopt a resolution under its binding Chapter 7 authority to halt Israel’s “aggression,” essentially a call for an indefinite ceasefire, cutting against American policy and adding to the international pressure on Washington.
Other Arab states are likewise backing away from Israel. Egypt, which has only ever enjoyed a cold peace with Israel, has made clear that it will not accept a mass transfer of refugees from Gaza to northern Sinai, for fear that they will not be allowed to return, a worry that is by no means unfounded. Cairo has also indicated that it will not participate in defeating Hamas, as it needs the group to help enforce border security. Jordan has declared Israel’s ambassador persona non grata and announced that “all options are on the table” in terms of a response. The United Arab Emirates has adopted a somewhat more measured response, favoring a ceasefire and warning that the United States will lose influence if a solution is not reached soon. Worried about their own domestic politics, several Arab states have individually importuned Washington to do more to pressure Israel to end its military campaign.
The one regional power that seems comfortable with Biden’s policy so far is Iran, apparently seeing it as an opportunity to rally popular and regional leadership opinion to its anti-US and Israel stance.
The one regional power that seems comfortable with Biden’s policy so far is Iran, apparently seeing it as an opportunity to rally popular and regional leadership opinion to its anti-US and Israel stance. The immediate danger of a broader conflict involving Iran and its allies versus the United States and Israel seems not to be imminent, but that does not mean it has gone away. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has escalated significantly in recent days, and the party’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned in separate speeches earlier this month that while the group did not intend to enter the war as a full combatant, it would respond in kind to Israeli attacks on Gaza or Lebanon.
For an administration that staked its regional policy on an expansion of the Abraham Accords, these developments are concerning. They do not necessarily mean an end to the administration’s hopes for further regional integration once the Gaza conflict ends, but they do illustrate the many difficulties and fresh complications ahead—probably quite a few more than US officials anticipated just a few weeks ago. And if a broader conflict should erupt, possibly with the direct involvement of US forces, all bets are off.
Is There an Endgame?
As with any crisis in the Middle East, there is an undeniable but limited opportunity to effect fundamental change in the region’s dynamics. Previous conflagrations have led to major, if incomplete, peacemaking efforts spearheaded by Washington. This moment may be no different. Blinken spoke in Tokyo of “setting the conditions for durable peace and security and to frame our diplomatic efforts now with that in mind.” To be sure, there is, reportedly, discussion of the details of a future peace process at lower levels in the State Department.
But still, at the moment there is little obvious appetite in the White House for either a ceasefire, a peace process, or the political heavy lifting involved in bringing about either. Biden himself has talked in general terms about the need for a two-state solution “when this crisis is over,” but if he’s serious, much more needs to be done, and now.
The Biden administration must act quickly and offer specific plans and timelines to shape post-conflict expectations and establish its priorities with the parties. If it doesn’t, the most radical elements on all sides will set the agenda. Above all, Biden himself has to be willing to recommit his presidency to a major diplomatic push, probably one that will involve both pressure and inducements to raise the stakes for all parties if they fail to cooperate. This seems unlikely at the moment, but intense crises have made potent peacemakers of presidents before.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Twitter/Antony Blinken