Biden administration meets Middle East eruption with muddled policies

Arab mediators have delivered an American message to Hamas: Rocket attacks must stop.
Monday 17/05/2021
US President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington. (REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington. (REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – During the short period since its arrival at the White House, the new US administration has learned that it cannot leave matters on their own in the Middle East and then expect them to sort themselves out.

In terms of years served in Washington as vice-president during the Obama administration, Biden is a veteran. So are many officials in his administration who are seasoned foreign policy experts. Nonetheless, the first few months of the Biden presidency have betrayed dangerous naiveté in believing that inadequate US policies can somehow work out in a very turbulent region. Biden’s team cannot evade the conclusion that everyone has to go back to the drawing board.

There is no dispute that domestic issues in the age of the pandemic were legitimately bound to be on top of the administration’s agenda.  But experts  believe there is probably a need now to reexamine Washington’s foreign policy directions.

The Biden administration began its political moves in the Middle East by delving straight away into the relationship with Saudi Arabia and devoting much attention to the war in Yemen. But its main focus was on returning to the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Biden administration sought to give the impression that the Middle East was not a priority, at least for now, and that the real challenge facing the United States was that posed by its strategic competitor, China.

But supposedly marginal frictions in a Jerusalem neighbourhood were sufficient to spark a rapidly-escalating war between the Palestinians and Israelis akin to the 2006 showdown between Hezbollah and Israel, with a conspicuous Iranian role.

The US administration finds itself in a confused situation where it cannot ignore the escalation of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, as the Israeli army seems determined to destroy what it can of the Palestinian infrastructure in Gaza, especially the military infrastructure, including Hamas’s arsenal of missiles and tunnels.

A call between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, showed that the United States is still groping for a way to communicate and pressure Hamas, but has no clear strategy.

Some Western analysts believe the scope of the strikes by Hamas against Israel, even if a large number of the rockets were blocked by the “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, will ratchet up pressure from the Israeli public for the army to carry out a large-scale operation that could include out a ground offensive inside the Strip to prevent the reoccurrence of Hamas rocket barrages.

Political analyst Peter Beaumont wrote in The Guardian: “The relative success – from Hamas’s point of view – of its recent tactics, which have the appearance of having long been in preparation, are certain to challenge the Israeli political and security establishment to deal with a threat made suddenly very real”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that the military operation in Gaza is still in its early stages, which puts the US administration in a delicate position: Either to keep silent and let the Israelis “complete their mission” or intervene to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.

Although the Biden administration politically benefitted from the peace agreements between Israel and non-frontline Arab countries, as part of what became known as the “Abraham Accords”, these Arab countries have levelled vehement criticism at Israeli reactions to rocket attacks even if they also criticised the attitude of Hamas.

.The developments have taken the US administration by surprise. Washington was betting that the Arab-Israeli conflict will stay dormant while it  moved ahead on the Iran nuclear track and readied its strategy to thwart the mounting Chinese threat.

Former Palestinian ambassador, Barakat Al-Farra, said that “the American position regarding what is happening in the Palestinian territories is so far quite ambiguous, even  if Washington is the only party that can exert pressure on Israel.”

Shifting posture

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Farra added, that “US contacts are continuing to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, with the first objective to convince Tel Aviv that the cease-fire is in its interest more than that of the Palestinians, in light of the wariness about repercussions of a prolonged war on the Israeli internal front.”

He pointed out that current events could help push the US two-state option adopted by the Biden administration and reiterated recently, as Washington is convinced that peace will not be achieved unless the Palestinians achieve their rights. This is all-the-more true considering Israel’s heightened fears about the stance of Arab Israelis who could be a ticking time bomb.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through downtown protesting Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on May 16, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (AFP)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march through downtown protesting Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on May 16, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (AFP)

Martin Indyk, the former US envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, believes that “Under Biden, the US is shifting from leading to supporting in the Middle East.”

Indyk, author of ” “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy” said, ” Biden is not “leading from behind”, as Obama did in Libya. He’s supporting Israel, and leading elsewhere. And it’s the only way the US will be able to maintain its pivot away from the region.”

Indyk, in an overly optimistic political reading, expressed his belief that Biden’s pivot appears to have survived its first Middle Eastern test, adding that, “Hopefully by then, his local partners will have come to understand their roles in an America-supported, rather than American-led, regional order and that will make it easier for Biden to avoid being sucked back into the Middle East morass”.

The White House said Biden spoke with both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas late on Saturday and briefed them on the US diplomatic efforts.

These are complicated by the absence of contacts between the United States along with most Western powers with Hamas, as these parties consider the militant Palestinian group a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, President Abbas, whose power base is mainly in the West Bank, has no influence over Hamas in Gaza.

The United States sent a strongly-worded message to Hamas through Arab parties, explaining that the rocket attacks must stop.

“There is no negotiating game here,” said a Western official familiar with the events.

Patrick Coburn, a British political analyst specialising in Middle East affairs, pointed out that the grossly disproportionate military force being used to try to solve political problems will only exacerbate them.

He said that “Holding back any such compromise between Israel and the Palestinians is that the balance of power appears to be overwhelmingly in favour of Israelis. They do not feel the need to compromise because they have total military superiority and the support of the United States and other powerful nations.”

US leftist Jewish Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) exhorted the administration to play a major role in helping Israelis and Palestinians build the future, if it wanted to be a credible human rights voice on the world stage.

The head of the Palestinian and Israeli Studies Unit at the National Centre for Middle East Studies in Cairo, Tariq Fahmy, said that the US administration deals with the Palestinian situation as a regional issue, adding, “Its talk about the two-state solution is still a theoretical idea that does not include clear and specific foundations or frameworks considering the many Israeli reservations about it”.

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Fahmy explained that, “the Biden administration is moving towards a halt in the Israeli operations on Gaza, but it did not exert real pressure on the ground that would enable it to reach a tangible result, as Washington is dealing in accordance with Israel’s interests and its position reflects a degree of complicity.”

He added that the US administration dispatched its envoy, Hadi Amr to the region where he held talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah. US proposals seemed to reflect a desire to mitigate the crisis, not solve it.  While Washington asserts its commitment to partnership with the Palestinian Authority it rejects escalation by militant Palestinian factions and it does not want to stop the Israeli operations.