From its first months in office, the Biden administration made a distinctive decision on its Middle East policy: It would deprioritize a half-century of high-profile efforts by past U.S. presidents, particularly Democratic ones, to broker a broad and lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Since Richard Nixon, successive U.S. administrations have tried their hands at Camp David summits, shuttle diplomacy and other big-picture tries at coaxing Israeli and Palestinian leaders into talks to settle the disputes that underlie 75 years of Middle East tensions. More than other recent presidents, Joe Biden notably has not.
Instead, administration officials early on sketched out what they called Biden’s policy of quiet diplomacy. They advocated for more modest improvements in Palestinian freedoms and living conditions under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government, which has encouraged settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and which includes coalition partners that oppose the U.S.-backed two-state solution. The less-ambitious approach fit with Biden’s determination to pivot his foreign-policy focus from Middle East hotspots to China.
But the long-term risks of sidelining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exploded back into view with the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza in response. The United States’ angry Arab partners are pointing to America’s failure to actively engage as Israeli-Palestinian violence roars back to center stage.
Hamas militants’ bloody breakout from Gaza and Israel’s military escalating response have killed thousands of civilians in Israel and Gaza, prompted Biden to deploy carrier strike groups to the region, and threatens to spill conflict and flows of Palestinian refugees across borders.
In Cairo this weekend, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was one of a succession of Arab leaders to warn Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is scrambling through Middle East capitals to try to contain the conflict, that the Israel-Gaza war threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. Biden is likely to hear the same as he meets with leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in Jordan on Wednesday, after he travels to Israel.
Sissi, who fears the Israeli military offensive will push Gaza’s 2.3 million people across the border into Egypt, cast blame on the near-disappearance of any international pressure on Netanyahu’s government and Palestinians to return to negotiations.
Sissi cited “a buildup of outrage and hatred for more than 40 years” and the lack of any “horizon to solve the Palestinian cause; one that gives hope to the Palestinians” for a state with a capital in East Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, pointed to Saudis’ “repeated warnings of the danger of the explosion.”
Arab leaders “are very aware this is going to keep blowing up. And they might ride it out this time, they might ride it out next time, as they have in the past,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.
“But it’s not actually a comfortable position for them to be endlessly living in,” with endless cycles of Israeli and Palestinian wars that threaten the region’s peace and economies, said Sayigh, who accused the U.S. of encouraging Netanyahu to think there was no need to address Palestinian concerns.
Underscoring his administration’s diminished emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden’s call to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this past weekend amid the building Gaza war was the American leader’s first since taking office.
In 1973, Arab nations’ surprise attack on Israel, and Arabs’ devastating oil embargo on the U.S. and other countries for their support of Israel in that fight, convinced U.S. leaders that a lasting resolution to Palestinian demands for statehood was in America’s strategic interest.
But after some early successes, recurring violence, the disappointments of past failed mediation efforts, and the scale of the disputes helped derail the U.S. push. By the time Biden, a strong supporter of the state of Israel, took office, any support for major negotiations among Israelis was faint.
To be sure, there’s little to suggest ambitious engagement by Biden on Israeli-Palestinian issues would have made immediate progress, or done anything to discourage the attack by Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
Even after a 2021 burst of fighting between Hamas and Israel, administration figures argued that a big push on peace efforts would undermine more easily won goals, like cease-fires with Hamas.
Instead, Biden has enthusiastically followed the new path that predecessor Donald Trump had laid out on Middle East peacemaking: lobbying for so-called normalization deals with Arab countries, absent any Israeli-Palestinian accord.
Under Trump, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco all signed normalization deals establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Up until Oct. 7, Biden appeared to be fast closing in on brokering a normalization deal with the biggest prize of all, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
Then, Hamas’s breakout from Gaza shattered what National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had hailed as a period of Middle East calm. The violence has been the deadliest of five wars between Hamas and Israel, killing more than 1,400 people in Israel and nearly 2,800 in Gaza.
It’s not clear what happens to Biden’s normalization push now. Despite their angry comments and varying degrees of popular support among their public for the Palestinian cause, America’s Arab partners are pragmatists, and like the U.S. and Israel, adversaries of Hamas and other Iran-backed groups.
Additionally, the Biden administration’s immediate and all-in rallying to Israel’s mounting defense after Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacres may only heighten Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to lock in that kind of security alliance with the U.S. for the kingdom, many analysts are arguing.
“I think Gulf partners are looking at the quick, decisive response that the U.S. has provided Israel, and are incredibly jealous,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
Brokering those alliances would stabilize the Middle East in themselves, no Israeli-Palestinian peace accord needed, supporters have argued. The nightmare unfolding now for Israeli and Palestinian civilians argues differently, when it comes to Biden’s approach, critics say.
“As long as the core issues stay unresolved, ignoring them does not make them go away,” said Yousef Munayyer, who heads the Palestine-Israel program at the Arab Center, a Washington think tank. “And I think that’s a lesson for everybody.”
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