How the Gaza War Is Upending US Middle East Policy

As the Israel-Hamas war threatens to pull the United States into a broader conflict that would potentially upend US standing and policy, peace and stability in the region may inevitably need to go through Gaza. Trade-strangling attacks by Iran-backed Houthis against Red Sea shipping lanes in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, in a show of support to Gaza, have already prompted the United States to conduct retaliatory strikes against the militants, causing alarm. The Red Sea route is one of the largest shipping lanes between Europe and Asia, through which around 15 percent of the world’s maritime traffic passes. At the same time, the United States has exerted little pressure on Israel to scale back its war on Gaza, which threatens to disrupt American regional objectives.

Paradoxically, the strikes against the Houthis may symbolize the weakness of US policy and its waning power in the Middle East and be a harbinger of things to come. Iran is flexing its muscle with the Houthis’ undaunted escalation, and the more recent drone attack by Iran-backed Iraqi militias that killed three US army soldiers in Jordan has perhaps prompted the Biden administration to prepare for a military response on multiple fronts. The Iranians have reportedly been heavily implicated in overseeing operations against Red Sea ships, supplying weapons to the Houthis, and providing intelligence and support in identifying commercial targets.

The Iranians have been heavily implicated in overseeing operations against Red Sea ships.

Meanwhile, the enduring Israeli offensive in Gaza is far from reaching its goal, as Palestinian militants continue to resist and the death toll surpasses 26,000. It is, indeed, not easy to talk about winners and losers of this war considering how every Palestinian casualty reinforces Iran’s standing, with its allies in the region conducting some 160 attacks on US troops and facilities in Iraq and Syria, and as fighting between Israel and Hezbollah intensifies along the Lebanon-Israel border. It is thus quite possible to state that an expansion of the conflict in this climate seems inevitable.

Caught off guard by the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent reverberations in the region, the United States has used an outdated playbook: it has surged military support to Israel while pledging hundreds of millions in humanitarian aid to a Gaza that is facing widespread destruction, all the while remaining in unwavering support of Israel’s actions—and even more steadfast about Saudi-Israeli normalization—without very assertively trying to end the violence. Faced with having to broker a deal between opposing parties, the United States immediately continues to resort to familiar talking points and behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

The US Approach to the Israel-Hamas War

The tone was set by US President Joe Biden’s October 10 address following the attack on Israel, which communicated that the Israelis would be given the latitude to deal with Hamas as they saw fit—followed by $2 billion that turned into $14 billion requested in security assistance for Israel, all in addition to the $3.8 billion it receives from the United States annually. Despite efforts to mitigate the immediate risks associated with the Gaza conflict and prevent regional escalation, the United States’ unwavering support of Israel has led to the global perception of Biden’s ownership of this war. Besides negatively affecting American credibility across the region and the Global South, long-united over the plight of the Palestinians and critical of the lack of constraints placed on Israel, Biden’s position has robbed the United States of the moral superiority proffered by the Ukraine war, potentially alienating remaining allies in a region where big power rivals and unrelenting foes like Russia and China are making inroads.

In Arab capitals where popular solidarity with the Palestinian cause is paramount, protesters have marched and vented their anger at civilian deaths in Gaza—often attributed indirectly to the United States given its military support of Israel—by burning US flags and boycotting US brands and products. The anti-American sentiments elicited have played directly into the hands of Iran and Iran-backed militant groups that have taken advantage of the fury by situating themselves as the only ones willing to confront Israel. This has also further fueled Tehran’s anti-West resistance narrative that is finding appeal even beyond Axis of Resistance members.

The United States has also remained intent on mediating a US-Saudi-Israel peace deal to help restore equilibrium in the region, part of which would in theory be an agreement on a framework to end the Israel-Hamas war. But the Saudis, who have unequivocally opposed the war, have been under intense pressure to secure rights for Palestinians before any accord is signed. If negotiated, a normalization that paves the way for some form of Palestinian self-governance in the Gaza Strip and stabilization in the region in the process could, in fact, provide Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a political victory, and even a way out of the conflict, but the subject of a Palestinian state is, in the words of an Israeli official, “too hot to touch in Israel right now.” Netanyahu himself has repeatedly indicated—as has the rightwing coalition of his government—that he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state postwar and is seeking total victory in Gaza.

Netanyahu himself has repeatedly indicated that he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state postwar and is seeking total victory in Gaza.

Meanwhile China has sought to capitalize on pro-Palestinian sentiment and distrust of the United States to try to win the battle of narratives, positioning itself as neutral peacemaker (in contrast to the United States whose staunch support of Israel is viewed and portrayed by China as hypocritical). Beijing even invited Arab and Muslim foreign ministers for talks on ending the Gaza war in an apparent attempt to displace Washington as the sole mediator of the conflict. Russia, in turn, that had purportedly long cozied up to Hamas, is also on the sidelines, standing to gain from protracted conflict and to boost its standing in the context of continued regional disarray and reduced attention on Ukraine.

Washington’s Increasing Isolation over Gaza Policy

The Biden administration recognizes the blow to its standing because of its Gaza policy and the limits, as a result, of its influence. But why is the Biden administration willing to take the hit? The current politics in the region and fissures even within Biden’s Democratic party regarding support for Israel are certainly putting to test the president’s own deep personal convictions and commitment to Israel. But though calls for a ceasefire have proliferated, Biden’s support to Israel’s military offensive remains unchanged. One interpretation sees this plain dismissal of a regional outrage as something fleeting and likely to dissipate fast. The reasoning goes as follows: popular indignation will pass, governments will be apathetic, and strategic allies will eventually align again with the United States, irrespective of what will be considered a temporary “glitch” in US-MENA relations. What this reading blithely ignores though is the balancing act of China, Russia, and Iran, which are dangerously poised to take advantage as the United States’ reputation and commitment to peace and security in the region is put into question.

The alternative reading is that the United States needs a stunning Israeli victory in Gaza to project that it backs winners—and is thus willing to tolerate a loss in credibility to show that it is ultimately capable of creating victories and not just stalemates. If the United States is unable to win in both Ukraine and Gaza, why would it be able to win, for example, in Taiwan? The course of the Gaza-Israel war then is certain to have a global impact, especially if China, which has increased military drills around Taiwan before elections there, capitalizes on the turmoil and the single-minded focus on Israel/Gaza to invade Taiwan. Nothing is certain but China could garner the support of the Global South whose opinion Beijing has mirrored on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Moreover, if the Ukraine conflict intensifies and the Gaza war expands regionally, the security of Taiwan and the Korean peninsula will be impacted as the US military will be hard-pressed to deal with two conflagrations at the same time.

US prestige in the Middle East is undeniably and probably irreversibly in the balance.

US prestige in the Middle East is undeniably and probably irreversibly in the balance. But ironically, while the United States might be seeking a return to the status quo ante for Israel, the latter is insisting on absolute victory. Israel’s leaders—and not just Netanyahu—simply cannot see a secure future for the Israeli state with a Palestinian one alongside it, which is why calls to revive a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have remained unheeded. Netanyahu himself has stated over and over “that after Hamas is destroyed, Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel,” which contradicts any demand for Palestinian sovereignty. He repeatedly vowed to continue the fight to the end. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, similarly declared, as have others, that “there is a broad consensus in Israel against a Palestinian state… Israel’s friends need to understand that the push to establish a Palestinian state is a push for the next massacre.”

But almost four months since launching its ground offensive, Israel is stuck: its army—significantly more powerful than Hamas—is still facing renewed and fierce resistance across the Gaza Strip and has been unable to ensure complete victory over Hamas. Its own body count is increasing (almost 200 dead by its own admission), it is making little progress with hostage negotiations, and skirmishes with Iran-backed Hezbollah continue to prod and irk, with no sign that the party will withdraw from the Lebanon-Israel border. The real prospect of open war with Hezbollah—which the Israelis are threatening to launch and for which there is significant support within the defense establishment—could be much worse than the war against Hamas.

The Implications of US Policy in Gaza

While the United States appears to be in agreement with Israel, their interests may be increasingly diverging. Yet, and despite being in a high stakes rush to prevent the war from spreading, the United States has neither been very assertive in curbing Israel, nor very vocal about the need to address Palestinian statehood—at least not yet. The Biden administration has only used behind-the-scenes diplomacy to pressure Israel to scale back its campaign against Hamas by encouraging hostage negotiations and allowing humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.

But the United States has not used all the leverage it has at its disposal, perhaps because it knows that it may have none and that the Israelis, who have declared that they are fighting an existential battle, are unlikely to take heed. In reality, Israel is more likely than ever to act in ways that damage US interests by triggering a regionwide confrontation that Iran and other powers like China and Russia can exploit to increase disillusionment with the West.

There thus is a certain intractability to the Israel-Hamas conflict that may not only remain unchanged but also irreversibly alter the character of US-Arab relations—and perhaps even drive the US out of the Middle East. No matter the outcome, as disappointment with US actions and positions deepen, the US administration will be hard-pressed to reshape and reform its policies in the region, even if the space and opportunity still exist. More broadly, the United States may also find it hard to change its policies in the rest of the Global South, which is similarly distressed over the course of the Gaza conflict and Washington’s role in it.

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: US DoS