The writer is a former US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and author of the forthcoming book “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy.”
US presidents have been trying to pivot away from the Middle East since Barack Obama’s first term. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis that erupted unexpectedly this week and escalated quickly to a Gaza-Israel conflict presents Joe Biden with the first test of whether he can succeed where Obama and Donald Trump failed.
President Biden has certainly made clear that his foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere. Countering the rise of an assertive China, standing up to Putin’s Russia, combating global warming, halting Iran’s nuclear programme and treating the global pandemic are the focus of his administration’s attention.
In the Middle East, Biden announced an end to the war in Afghanistan and of US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. He abandoned Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and offered to lift most sanctions if Tehran would come back into compliance with the JCPOA nuclear agreement. Unlike his predecessors, he did not appoint a special envoy for Middle East peace, and he has yet to nominate an ambassador to Israel or assign a consul general to the Palestinian Authority.
His basic objective in the region is to maintain calm so he can deal with more important issues elsewhere. Any heavy lifting will need to be handled by America’s regional partners and allies. Under Biden, the US is shifting from leading to supporting in the Middle East.
Events have a habit of blowing the best-intentioned statesman off course. But one week into the Gaza-Israel crisis, with violence dominating the headlines, and the progressive base of the Democratic party demanding that he intervene to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden seems determined to avoid being diverted. He has had only a brief call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His national security team has been working the phones, but he sent only a mid-level State Department official to the region to work on a ceasefire. And he is holding off any attempt by the UN Security Council to intervene.
Essentially, he is leaving Israel to deal with the crisis on its own. Contrast this with the last Gaza war in 2014, when secretary of state John Kerry rushed to the region and worked on a ceasefire with Turkey and Qatar, only to have it rejected by Israel. 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.
As with any new strategy, implementation is imperfect. In this case viability depends on America’s regional allies doing the right thing. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have understood this, proposing a ceasefire in Yemen and reaching out to Iran to defuse tensions. But Netanyahu was distracted by court proceedings and coalition negotiations, and Israel stoked the fires in Jerusalem, the most sensitive place in the region.
Because Biden’s team was not paying sufficient attention, he was slow to pick up the signals that Israel had crossed the guard rails. His advisers did eventually intervene with Netanyahu, persuading him to suspend the Palestinian evictions in East Jerusalem, curb police excesses at al-Aqsa mosque, and reroute a provocative march away from the Old City. But it was too little too late. Hamas seized the opportunity to become “the sword of Jerusalem” by launching rockets towards the Holy City.
Biden is now depending on Netanyahu to bring the war to a quick conclusion. Despite the braggadocio, the prime minister’s objectives appear limited to setting back Hamas’s war-making capabilities and re-establishing Israel’s deterrent power. He has long since abandoned any notion of ending Hamas rule in Gaza.
Besides, he now has to deal with an unexpected Arab-Jewish conflict surging in Israel’s cities. After three nights of rampaging and no end in sight, Netanyahu needs to find a way to calm things down. That is especially true if Israel is heading into a fifth election, which now seems likely. He does not want to go to the polls with a war raging on the borders and inside the country as well.
Of course, a ceasefire depends on Hamas too, but it has been signalling for several days that it is ready. It has succeeded in firing on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, disrupting air traffic, igniting an Arab-Jewish conflict inside Israel, and posing as defender of Muslim honour in Jerusalem. There’s not much more it can hope to achieve. That is why Egypt’s envoys have now arrived in Israel to broker the deal.
If a ceasefire can take hold, Biden will have barely had to lift a finger. But if he is to stay focused on his priorities elsewhere, he will still have to resist the siren song of Israeli-Palestinian peace, a hopeless challenge with the current leaderships. He will also be dependent on Netanyahu to avoid provocations. And his aides will have to help restore Palestinian hope in the two-state solution Biden espouses. But he can do that in small, incremental steps.
Biden’s pivot appears to have survived its first Middle Eastern test. But the volatility of the place ensures there will be more to come. 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.