Biden’s vast diplomatic challenge in the Middle East

When Joe Biden embarked on his maiden trip to the Middle East as president last year, he lauded the fact that it was the first time since the September 11 2001 attacks that a US leader was visiting the region without American troops engaged in combat missions.

He also sought to reset Washington’s ties with traditional partners, promising Arab leaders at a summit in Saudi Arabia that his administration would rebuild trust and “deliver real results”. And, he added, “we will operate in the context of the Middle East as it is today: a region more united than it has been in years”.

If only. This week, Biden made his second presidential visit to a transformed Middle East. Israel, where he landed, is a traumatised nation at war, while its Arab neighbours are gripped by rage, angst and fear. The region is at its most combustible for years.

The US president has been sucked unwillingly into one of the world’s most intractable problems — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a diplomatic quagmire he sought to avoid, but which has become inescapable in the wake of Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack on southern Israel, and the Jewish state’s ferocious retaliatory offensive on Gaza.

Even as Biden prepared to travel to Tel Aviv, his task of dousing the flames of fury and preventing a broader regional conflict, became ever more complicated as a blast at a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday claimed scores of lives.

Two mean stand amid burnt out cars
The aftermath of the explosion at Al-Ahli Arab hospital earlier this week © Mohammad Abu Elsebah/dpa

It sparked counter claims between the Israelis and the Palestinians about who was responsible. Israel blamed the blast on a misfired rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller Islamist faction in Gaza; Palestinians on an Israeli air strike. Washington sided with Israel’s analysis of the blast, and its intelligence agencies reportedly estimated that up to 300 people were killed.

The incident quickly spread outrage. Arab states, including those hostile to Hamas’s militant, Islamist ideology and which will be crucial to Biden’s diplomatic efforts, put out statements strongly condemning Israel. Protests broke out across the occupied West Bank and the wider region.

Jordan — one of the most dependable and dependent of the US’s regional allies — cancelled a summit at which Biden was to meet the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

It all underlines Biden’s myriad challenges as he seeks to balance displaying solidarity with Israel; managing relations with Arab partners; and containing the war in Gaza to prevent a regional conflagration.

At its worst, an escalation could draw in Iran and its main proxy, Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant group, and other Iranian-backed militias — and ultimately drag US forces back into combat missions.

“This is probably America’s greatest diplomatic challenge since 1990 when the US had to put together the coalition against Saddam Hussein,” says Emile Hokayem, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Back then, it was a good challenge, as it was the dawn of US power [in the region]. In contrast, this looks like its sunset.”

Yet the war also reinforces the crucial role of the US, which despite China’s and Russia’s inroads into the Middle East, remains the only power with the diplomatic and military heft to attempt to contain such a crisis.

“You could say that the United States isn’t what it was in relative terms, 10, 15, 20 years ago,” says Jon Alterman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But in comparative terms, there’s no country or collection of countries that comes close to what it can do militarily, diplomatically, or even in terms of intelligence collection.”

Addressing his country from the Oval Office on Thursday night, Biden sought to defend billions of dollars in military funding not just for Israel, but also for Ukraine and Taiwan, and to position the United States as the ultimate guarantor of global security. “American leadership is what holds the world together,” he said.

Close up shot of a US marine’s face, with another marine standing further back and the smoke from the fire billowing in the background
Two US marines at the al-Ratka oilfield in Iraq in March 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq. Fleeing Iraqi soldiers had set fire to the facility © Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

‘The whole region has shifted’

In the three decades since the first Gulf war, the region’s dynamics — and perceptions of the US’s role — have radically altered, especially since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that spawned years of conflict in the Arab state, sowing the seeds for a failed state and the rise and fall of the jihadist group Isis.

Iran was able to exploit the turmoil as Iraq’s Shia majority, many with links to Tehran, rose to power in Baghdad. Even a US army review of the Iraq war concluded in 2019 that an “emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” of the invasion. The scars of the US’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan remain raw domestically, with wariness of costly, damaging foreign adventures across the political divide.

By 2011, as then US president Barack Obama was preparing to pull the last American combat troops out of Iraq, the Arab world was enduring another period of turmoil that would reshape the region — and its relations with the US. As a wave of popular uprisings against autocrats swept across the region, triggering conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Washington’s Arab partners were frustrated by a response to the unrest they felt was inconsistent and ignorant of their interests.

It was a sentiment exacerbated by his decision to sign the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.

All the while, Iran, the region’s Shia heavyweight, was able to capitalise opportunistically and strategically on the chaos. It moved forces and militias into Syria to support the Assad regime in its civil war, while Iranian-backed Shia militants have evolved into the dominant political and military forces in Iraq, in part because of their role fighting Isis.

The Islamic republic also backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war, who have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition for eight years, and openly supports Hamas as part of its “axis of resistance”.

An armed man stands amid the rubble of a still-smoking ruined town
Houthi rebels at the site of a Saudi-led air strike on Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, in December 2017 © Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

It is against this backdrop that Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have complained of what they view as US disengagement from the region and unpredictable policies driven by domestic political considerations. In an increasingly multipolar world, such perceptions have soured Washington’s image and relations with traditional partners.

Now, Arab states fear that if the Israel-Hamas war escalates, it will spill across their borders.

“The whole region has shifted; a shift towards the east and not necessarily in line with US perceptions or interest,” says an Arab diplomat. “But nevertheless this crisis shows if the US is in the driver’s seat, [that] is when we would be able to get something done. If the US is in the back seat, we won’t.”

In Israel, Biden has to temper the anger of a nation led by the most far-right government in its history that is bent on revenge and restoring its deterrent after suffering the deadliest attack on Israeli soil since the Jewish state’s foundation in 1948.

More than 1,400 people were killed, according to Israeli officials, as militants rampaged through kibbutzim after Hamas broke through the security barriers hemming in Gaza to launch its multi-faceted attack on southern Israel. Almost 200 civilians and soldiers were taken hostage.

Israel has retaliated with its deadliest ever offensive against the densely populated coastal strip, which is controlled by Hamas and home to 2.3mn people, with more than 4,100 killed in Israel’s bombardment, according to Palestinian health officials.

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu seated and leaning towards each other across a table
Joe Biden speaks to Benjamin Netanyahu at their meeting during the US president’s visit to Israel this week © Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Diplomatic manoeuvres

Biden, who took office seeking to de-escalate Middle East tensions after the tumult caused by Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, is cognisant of the risks.

Days after Hamas’s attack, he warned Iran “to be careful” and has since deployed two carrier strike groups to the east Mediterranean in a display of US muscle.

At the same time, after meeting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Biden told reporters there had also been a “long talk” with the Israelis about “alternatives” with respect to Israel’s expected ground invasion of Gaza.

He publicly urged Israel not to repeat the mistakes the US made after the September 11 attacks. “I caution this: while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” Biden said. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. When we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Four soldiers carry a body bag
Three days after the massacre in Kfar Aza, IDF soldiers remove the bodies of murdered civilians © Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

He returned to the US, with Israel agreeing to allow some aid into Gaza. The Jewish state has laid siege to the enclave, cutting off water, fuel and power and leading UN officials to warn of catastrophic humanitarian consequences. By Friday, no aid had crossed in from neighbouring Egypt.

But Biden also upset Arabs with his swift acceptance of Israel’s claim that a Palestinian militant rocket caused the blast at Gaza’s Al-Ahli Arab hospital, saying “it appears as though it was done by the other team”.

And some question whether Israel will heed US calls for restraint.

“To be honest I don’t know if any of the diplomacy is going to shift the dial,” says a western official. In previous wars, “Israel was going to do what it was going to do, and the diplomacy [only] kicked in to end things”.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas and warned of a long war, fuelling fears of a broader conflagration stretching from the West Bank — where more than 70 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, most in clashes with Israeli security forces, others by settlers — to Lebanon.

In the background, Iran and Hizbollah — which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006 across the Lebanese-Israeli border — have been sabre-rattling. On Monday, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian warned that militant groups in its so-called axis of resistance could resort to “pre-emptive” attacks against Israel in “the coming hours”, saying Israel would not be allowed to act in any way it likes in Gaza.

Over the past week, there has been an uptick of exchanges of artillery fire between Hizbollah and Israel — on Thursday the militant group fired 20 rockets into northern Israel, according to the Israeli military.

So far, the clashes have stayed within so-called red lines to prevent either side escalating to a full-blown conflict. But the UK, US and others have warned their citizens to leave Lebanon amid fears those lines will be crossed, deliberately or inadvertently.

Separately, American officials and diplomats said this week that the US military had thwarted drone attacks on its forces in Iraq and Syria — the US has an estimated 2,500 troops in the former; 900 in the latter.

On Thursday, a US warship shot down three land attack cruise missiles and several drones fired by Houthi forces in Yemen, the Pentagon said, adding that it was not clear what the intended target was, but that they were heading towards Israel.

Still, western officials hope the Israel-Hamas war can be contained, with some arguing that they do not believe Hizbollah or Iran want to be drawn into a direct conflict with Israel that would risk US intervention.

Hizbollah has managed to generate pressure on Israel’s northern front, “creating some commitment in the sense of its so-called axis of resistance,” says Aaron David Miller, a former US official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But why would Hizbollah want to waste its assets to get into a major conflict with Israel, when Hamas is doing its work?”

Mehdi Hosseini Matin, charge d’affaires at Iran’s UK embassy, says the Islamic republic’s priorities are pushing for a ceasefire on Gaza and for humanitarian aid to be delivered into the strip. But he called the situation “very volatile and very dangerous”.

In the event of a ground invasion of Gaza, “nobody can predict what happens next after that,” he says. “In that situation . . . nobody can confront the Islamic resistance groups . . . [to tell them] what to do, or not to do.”

If the situation does escalate into full-scale war, drawing in Hizbollah and Iran, “it’s hard to imagine . . . the US would stay out of it,” says Miller. “But we are a ways away from that.”

A large protest in support of the Palestinian people
A demonstration in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday. Jordanians fear that Israel will seek to push Palestinians over the border © Annie Sakkab/Bloomberg

Frozen progress

Even if the conflict is contained, Biden’s plans for the region have been upended. His main Middle East policy on entering the White House was to revive the nuclear deal with Iran to contain that crisis and ease tensions with the Islamic republic.

After almost two years of tortuous, indirect talks, the US finally made a small breakthrough last month that led to Washington unfreezing $6bn of Iran’s oil money as part of a prisoner exchange deal. But any hopes of building on that now appear increasingly remote.

Biden has also been pushing a three-way deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel that would lead to the kingdom normalising relations with the Jewish state in return for a security pact and nuclear agreement with the US. At best that is now on hold.

For many Arabs, the conflict is a brutal reminder that the recent transactional normalisation deals between Arab states and Israel, pushed first by Trump and then Biden, would not bring regional peace as long as the Palestinian cause was ignored.

“All these myths are being shattered and the US finds itself in a position [where] it doesn’t have the clout it used to,” says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister.

View looking up at a protester waving a Palestinian flag
A protest in Casablanca, Morocco, one of scores held across the Arab world and in cities around the world © Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

It is not just the US that was blindsided by Hamas’s attack. Arab states that normalised relations, such as the UAE, are being forced to “rethink and readjust”, says Hokayem, and rather than condemn Hamas, go “with the Arab flow” in condemning Israel.

“It shows you how much potency the Palestinian cause still has, despite western and Israeli insistence to the contrary,” he says. “Arab countries that normalised with Israel feel that they have little to no leverage over Israel, and that even if you normalise or roll out the red carpet, the Israelis will never be responsive to your demands.”

As in the west, the fate of the Palestinians long ago slipped down the list of Arab priorities, particularly among oil-rich Gulf states determined to focus on their own ambitious development plans.

Those closest to the conflict — Egypt and Jordan — have long warned of the risks of ignoring the plight of the Palestinians. Now they fear that Israel will seek to push Palestinians across their borders.

A day after Biden left the region, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi released a forceful statement warning against the collective punishment or forced displacement of Palestinians.

Whether they meant it to be or not, it was a warning to Biden about the level of anger in the Arab world — and that the US cannot ignore the Palestinian cause, another Arab official says.

The official acknowledges that Biden has to take a “balanced line that gives the Israelis what they want”. But he adds that the president also has to be aware that it is the one issue Arab leaders will “push back hard on” when public opinion is so inflamed.

“It’s the one topic people will go to the street for,” the official says. “Until the Palestinian conflict is resolved in a fair manner you will always have conflict and instability in the Middle East.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz

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