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The United States, caught between supporting Israel and stopping the conflict from spreading

Biden has said the occupation of Gaza would be a ‘big mistake,’ and according to some media, is considering traveling to Israel

President Biden, during an interview on CBS's '60 Minutes.'
President Biden, during an interview on CBS's '60 Minutes.'
Macarena Vidal Liy

Just before Hamas’ surprise assault on Israel on October 7, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” Less than two weeks later, the United States is mixed up in a region that threatens to burst into flames. The U.S. has had to put on hold its goal of gradually shifting the focus from the Middle East to Asia and the war in Ukraine. As Israel prepares for what is feared to be a bloody ground invasion of Gaza and the situation in the territory further deteriorates, Washington — which has closed ranks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — is concentrating its efforts on containing the Israeli response and preventing the conflict from spreading.

U.S. President Joe Biden — who immediately expressed his support for Israel after the Hamas attack — said on Sunday that he was against an Israeli occupation of Gaza. “I think it’d be a big mistake,” he said in an interview broadcast on the CBS program 60 Minutes, in his clearest attempt to contain Israel since the beginning of the crisis. Biden has said he supports Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas, but clarified that this must be achieved with “a path to a Palestinian state.” According to Axios and other U.S. media, which cite senior officials in the administration, Biden is considering traveling to Israel after receiving an invitation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But nothing has been confirmed: a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said “we have no new travel to announce.”

The position of the United States, Israel’s main ally, has shifted slightly since the October 7 attack. While support for Israel remains unwavering — it has not criticized, at least publicly, Israel’s impossible evacuation order for 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza. But, as conditions in Gaza worsen and opposition grows, the United States has argued that Hamas does not “represent all the Palestinian people,” that Israel’s response to the radical militants should not entail the suffering of the civilian population and that humanitarian aid into Gaza needs to be facilitated. U.S. sources maintain that, behind the scenes, the pressure on Israel has increased. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated on CNN that his counterparts in Israel said that the water supply to southern Gaza — which was cut off, along with electricity, in response to the Hamas attack — had been restored.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is on a tour of the U.S.’ main allies in the region, has extended his trip and will return to Israel on Monday — his second visit in less than a week. In Washington, Biden pointed out: “We must not lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas’ appalling attacks, and are suffering as a result of them.” On Saturday, the U.S. president spoke by phone with Netanyahu — for the fifth time in eight days — and he also talked with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the first time since the crisis broke out.

While Blinken completed his tour of Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, he also spoke by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, calling on Beijing to use its influence to prevent other countries from becoming involved in the conflict. Yi, in turn, warned him that the situation could get out of control. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who also made a lightning visit to Israel, has been speaking daily with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant.

The events of last week have upturned U.S. foreign policy, just as the country is about to enter the 2024 presidential campaign. “An administration that upon arrival did not prioritize the Middle East, and believed that the United States should reduce its presence [in the region], finds itself with a crisis that forces it to confront these issues,” noted Brian Katulis, from the Middle East Institute in a talk in Washington.

Over the past two and a half years, the Biden administration has prioritized the rivalry with China and the war in Ukraine. In the Middle East, it tried to reach agreements that would resolve, or stabilize, regional conflicts. On the one hand, it mediated for Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations. And on the other hand, it was trying to smooth relations with Iran, its great nemesis in the region. Last month, it reached a prison swap agreement with Iran.

Now, the United States’ priority is to prevent an escalation that could leave the region in flames. It is seeking to dissuade other entities in the area — such as Iran, and its protégé, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah — from getting involved in a bid to take advantage of the situation. Dispatching the aircraft carriers Eisenhower and Gerald Ford was intended to send a strong warning. Blinken’s tour was also aimed at this goal: one of its objectives was for allies such as Qatar, which have good relations with Tehran, to make it clear to the Islamic regime that it should not take any steps that could aggravate the crisis.

Meanwhile, despite having aligned itself with Netanyahu’s government, Washington is trying to ensure that the predictably virulent Israeli campaign is contained with measures to protect civilians in Gaza. In Qatar, a visibly haggard Blinken maintained that the goal is to establish “safe zones” in Gaza and ensure that civilians can receive humanitarian aid.

Normalization with Saudi Arabia on hold

The new reality has already claimed what should have been the crown jewel of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Coinciding with Blinken’s visit, sources close to the Saudi government indicated to the AFP agency on Saturday that Riyadh “has decided to pause discussion on possible normalization and has informed U.S. officials.” Washington had hoped that the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would help stabilize the region and create a pincer over Iran.

But that agreement definitively condemned the two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to the trash bin by removing the last remaining incentive for the Netanyahu government to engage in talks with the Palestinians. Indeed, some analysts believe that Hamas launched its attack precisely to disrupt negotiations between Riyadh and Israel.

“A consequence of the crisis is the reminder that the unresolved issues surrounding the Palestinian people cannot be ignored. They need to consider and prioritize greater U.S. participation in the region,” Katulis noted.

Although the pause in negotiations may only be temporary, “Arab governments absolutely share Israel’s assessment of Hamas, seeing it as an armed group with a political vision of Islam that emanates from the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Institute. “They also see him as a puppet of Iran, their other great nemesis. From the governments’ point of view, they have a great interest in helping to create a situation in Gaza where Hamas is removed from power.”

This may lead to new rounds of negotiations in the future, which could include some type of solution for the Palestinians, according to Alterman. “The time for diplomacy will come, and what Secretary Blinken is doing right now in the Middle East is planting the seeds for that diplomacy,” he said.

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