The US did not want to get more involved in the Middle East, the Biden Administration would like to focus on the rivalry with China and the unexpected and costly defense of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. Facing a challenging re-election campaign, Biden certainly didn’t need another international crisis, requiring an additional major commitment of his time and the country’s resources.
But in reaction to the horrendous attack by Hamas on innocent Israelis, President Biden has come out in full and unequivocal support of Israel. Two-thirds of Americans agree that the US should publicly support Israel. And now Biden is going to Israel to reaffirm his and his country’s commitment.
But as is always the case in the Middle East, things are more complicated than they appear. What does the US really want? Obviously, to show solidarity with its closest and only democratic ally in the Region, and equally obviously to seek to avoid that the conflict spread beyond Gaza, possibly involving the US directly in a war with Iran or its proxies – the two US carrier forces in the Eastern Mediterranean are meant to serve as military deterrent to keep Hezbollah or other actors from getting involved. A broader war poses a real threat to Israel, it diverts resources from the huge US effort in Ukraine and it dilutes US focus on China. China and Russia would like nothing better than to see the US involved in a broader Middle East conflict, they will do nothing to prevent it and may even quietly seek to promote such a development.
But Biden, the most knowledgeable US President on the Middle East and also the most pro-Israel, would like to take the opportunity of the current crisis to prepare for a lasting solution to the more than 70 year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that means striking a difficult balance:
– Recognizing Israel’s right to destroy Hamas
– While pushing Israel to limit Palestinian civilian victims from the necessary ferocity of their revengeful strike against Hamas
– At the same time seeking to maintain dialogue and relative neutrality from Arab regimes, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and particularly Saudi Arabia, who have to deal with broad support for the Palestinian cause in each of their countries, and
– Preparing all parties for some form of Palestinian statehood, revitalizing the two-state solution.
Such a difficult path means a fundamental change in US policy from the last two Administrations. Beginning in 2020, the Abraham Accords promoted by the Trump Administration brought partial or total normalization in relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sudan and Bahrain, with the US providing major financial, military and/or political incentives to the Arab country involved. The Biden Administration continued on the same path, making normalization with Israel among Arab states the principal thrust of its approach in the Middle East, with the huge prize of an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia appearing within reach. But this approach also meant totally abandoning any serious defense of the rights of Palestinians, leaving Netanyahu free to successful pursue his goal to totally marginalize the Palestinian cause.
The vicious and unforgivable horror of Hamas against innocent Israelis is the logical sequence in this typically Middle Eastern process: excessive violence is the only alternative the weaker party has to change the direction of their increasingly narrow path. Hamas has been successful in their suicidal action, no one can ignore the Palestinians today, even though they are likely to suffer untold additional hardship and violence before any resolution of this crisis.
It is difficult to be optimistic that Biden can be successful. It appears unlikely he will be able to prevent Israel from launching a ground attack against Hamas in Gaza, and even if the US is able to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza, innocent Palestinians have nowhere to go to hide from forthcoming violence. Egypt will not accept them, they cannot be packed like sardines into a southern corner of already overcrowded Gaza to escape the hostilities, the reality is that many will be victims of Israeli attacks, be they from the air or on the ground. How many Palestinian victims are necessary before Arab public opinion forces other Arab governments to intervene, or before US public opinion forces the Biden Administration to adjust its all-out support of Israel?
And all of this with the US House of Representatives incapable of election a Speaker to carry on the minimal business of government, and ex-President and almost certain future opponent Trump attacking Biden’s every move, the prospects for success appear limited.