By Vivek Mishra and Kabir Taneja
A perfect storm awaited United States (US) President Joe Biden as he hurtled to one of his most challenging diplomacy tests in the Middle East (West Asia) in Israel. Just before he departed the US for Israel, a humanitarian crisis, ensuing from a deadly missile attack on the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, threatened to not just derail his diplomatic bid but also engulf the entire West Asian region in a politico-security turmoil. In a grandstanding for its most staunch ally in the region, Biden decided to go ahead with his visit to Israel despite the cancellation of a planned meeting between Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The attempt at regional diplomacy amidst seething tensions across the region was a double-edged sword to begin with. On the one hand, it came as a promise to contain the fallout from Israel’s likely ground invasion of Gaza and to prevent it from enraging its Arab neighbours. On the other hand, the US’s embrace of Israel at this moment came as an inflection point for its broader regional policies—one that prioritised Israel’s immediate security interests over its other ongoing regional efforts, such as the Saudi-Israel normalisation and a renewed economic and diplomatic reorientation in the region through the I2U2 and the Abraham Accords.
Despite the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy in the region laying the ground for President Biden, the latter’s visit could not prevent a policy reversal for broader US interests in the region. The immediate US interests were bound to get mired in regional complications led by the sheer historical depth of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nevertheless, the US’s focus on its interests included getting aid to Gaza, preventing more civilian casualties, impeding Iranian proxy Hezbollah from opening a second combat front with Israel in the north, and, above all, staving off an all-out regional war. A far more fraught US interest in the region is to find a long-term and stable political structure in Palestine, which recognises as well as upholds the political, historical, and cultural legitimacy of the state of Israel and ceases the call for its annihilation.
Amidst a classic whodunnit over the Gaza hospital destruction, which has threatened to derail regional peace, posed threats to the US and Israeli embassies across the region, and reaffirmed regional solidarity through protests in a host of regional countries, Biden may have secured a deal with Israel to let supplies enter Gaza via Egypt. But his subsequent confirmation that the Gaza hospital attack was likely caused by Hamas has had little effect in arresting regional conflagrations. His caution to Israel not to enter Gaza in a post-attack rage has also come with an implied admission of guilt about the US’s own not-so-thought-through response in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Biden’s advice to Benjamin Netanyahu of not allowing “primal feelings” to take over in his response may well have been wise, but it leaves Israel in a bind.
Biden in a divided Arab world
There is no doubt that Israel’s military reactions in Gaza have invoked a latent yet prevailing sympathy wave for the Palestinian cause. This, in itself, has divided the response both within Arab states and the wider geopolitics of the Middle East.
The two prevailing powers within the Arab region, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, had different public postures. The UAE maintained levelheadedness, giving some support to the Palestinian position but still criticising the actions of Hamas, while also balancing its criticism of Israel, a country it normalised relations with in 2020 as part of the breakthrough Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia, home to the Two Holy Mosques, allowed a level of pressure release within its society, allowing mosques to support Palestinians during Friday prayers, and prioritising humanitarian aid for Gaza in its public statement when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The US statement, from the same meeting, primarily highlighted Hamas’ terror strike and its impact on Israel.
Others, such as Jordan and Egypt, sharing borders with Israel, have refused refugee inflows from Gaza or the West Bank. While the political reasoning behind this would be to make sure the Palestinian people do not give away their land and become stateless, the taking in of hundreds of thousands of refugees is seen as both a security risk and an economic liability by Cairo and Amman. Both the Egyptian and Jordanian economies have been suffering from low levels of growth for years. Finally, there is the ‘other’ block, that of Iran, Qatar, and Türkiyé. Tehran is seen as a major supporter of the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, while Doha and Ankara are known to host the political offices of the likes of Hamas. Qatar’s hosting of Hamas is one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia and the UAE employed a blockade against the small island nation between 2017 and 2021. However, now, the US is once again looking towards Doha to mediate with Hamas as around 199 hostages, including Americans, remain captive in Gaza.
Repercussions back home
As the US heads for an election next year, the domestic political scene remains divided. For one of the longest times in history, the US House is without a Speaker and the inability to choose a new one reflects the political impasse in the American domestic political landscape. The Israel-Hamas conflict cuts both ways for the Biden administration amidst a tense political tussle between the Republicans and Democrats. It comes at a time when the House Republicans have shown restraint and even frustration with funding the war in Ukraine. With Israel dragged into a limited war, Biden senses the opportunity to combine Ukraine with Israel in seeking Congress funding approvals. Expectedly, financial and military support to Tel Aviv could resonate with US lawmakers in different ways, what with Israel being a strong US ally in the Middle East, a strong Jewish caucus at home influencing Congressional decisions, and US resolve against counterterrorism.
Biden is trailing behind his potential Republican counterpart Donald Trump for the presidential elections in 2024. Strong military support to Israel could perhaps reverse these trends and change his image of an ageing President. By ordering two aircraft carriers in the Middle East, Biden has signalled strong intent. However, long-term US policy towards the Middle East will be contingent on both external and internal factors. Externally, Biden has little control over the region’s policy, which is now further out of the US’ orbit. The causes for this are many—the Palestinian cause is now at the helm; there is a strengthening terror axis between non-state and state actors across the region; the dwindling US ability and interest to get Iran back into the JCPOA; and now the impending necessity to assist Israel with all its might. Internally, a Republican candidate in the White House, and especially Donald Trump, will jettison Biden’s Middle East policy without batting an eyelid. After all, Trump has already blamed Netanyahu for the current problem and called Hamas ‘smart’.
The regional instability stemming from Hamas’ attack on Israel has dragged the US back to the Middle East in ways that Washington perhaps may not have desired. This presents the Biden administration with another foreign policy test after Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. And it comes at a time when his own citizens may have their own fatigue with America’s self-determined responsibility of trying to put out fires the world over.
About the authors:
- Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
- Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation.