Widening Middle East conflict adds to Biden’s woes 10 months before election

The U.S. president is coming up against Netanyahu’s refusal to recognize a Palestinian state, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and increasingly widespread criticism among Democratic ranks

A Houthi supporter steps on drawings of the U.S. and Israeli flags in Sana'a after Washington declared the Houthis a terrorist group.
A Houthi supporter steps on drawings of the U.S. and Israeli flags in Sana'a after Washington declared the Houthis a terrorist group.YAHYA ARHAB (EFE)

— Are the airstrikes in Yemen working?

— Well, when you say “working,” are they stopping the Houthis?  No.  Are they going to continue?  Yes.

This brief exchange between reporters and U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday summed up the position the United States finds itself in the Middle East. The White House did not, under any circumstances, want conflict in the region, let alone in an election year, but has been increasingly drawn into a widening crisis, as it deals with the opposing demands of its Arab allies and Israel. Domestically, Biden’s positions on the war continues to be criticized by Democrats with less than 10 months to go before the November 5 presidential election.

Washington supports Israel, arguing the country has a right to self-defense and to destroy the radical Palestinian militia Hamas. And it is providing Israel with weapons for this purpose. At the same time, the Biden administration has called on Israel to exercise restraint and protect civilian lives. But this position has left it between a rock and a hard place in the Middle East as the number of Palestinian civilian victims in Gaza continues to rise —the death toll is now close to 25,000.

As criticism from other nations mounts, and Washington’s credibility as a defender of human rights plummets — especially in the Global South — the United States desperately needs to prevent the war in Gaza from spreading. It must respond forcefully to is enemies but without escalating the conflict, and appease allies with disparate interests. On the one hand, Arab countries are calling on it to use its influence to pressure Israel and bring about an end to the war. At the same time, Israel is almost completely ignoring U.S. pressure and insisting on continuing the offensive until Hamas is eliminated.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues to spill over into other areas. On Saturday, several missiles launched by pro-Iranian militias hit the Al Asad air base of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, leaving several injured. In Israel, as tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv become increasingly evident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flatly refused to accept a Palestinian state, the pillar on which Washington bases its project for the Middle East after the end of the Gaza war. Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel must “maintain security control over all territory west of the Jordan River.” Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen continued to attack ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, despite five U.S. airstrikes aimed at neutralizing the group’s capabilities.

The White House insists that its strategy remains the same. In his four trips to the region since the conflict broke out in October, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has been working on a proposal that foresees in exchange for Israel’s “yes” to a Palestinian state, the collaboration of Saudi Arabia in the reconstruction of Gaza, and the normalization of relations between Israel and Riyadh — the main advantage for Netanyahu.

Demilitarized Palestine

In brief statements to the media shortly after speaking with the Israeli prime minister, Biden said that it is possible to achieve the two-state solution under Netanyahu. And that the Israeli leader is not ruling out all the possible forms of a future Palestinian state. Biden told reporters that one way to make the proposal more agreeable to Israel is to have a demilitarized Palestine. “There are a number of countries that are members of the U.N. that don’t have their own military, a number of states that have limitations,” said Biden. “I think there are ways in which this can work.”

“It really is the only path that provides peace and security for all. And what is more — it is not impractical.  It can be done,” argued U.S. National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.

But other experts are skeptical that Israel will suddenly accept Palestinian statehood, given its efforts over the last quarter of a century to thwart such a possibility. “The administration seems to believe that one of the ways it can get Israeli approval is through Saudi Arabia, basically promoting normalization and getting the Israelis to change their tactics in Gaza. But that is unlikely to happen. Right now, the Saudi demands and requirements on Israel are too high,” said Steve Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations by videoconference. Riyadh is demanding a ceasefire as a precondition condition for addressing its participation in the reconstruction of Gaza or the normalization of ties with Israel.

The difficulties facing the U.S. in the Middle East were also evident in the waters of the Red Sea, where Iranian-backed Houthi groups are targeting merchant ships with missiles and drones. In one week, the U.S. launched five strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, but this has not been enough to stop them.

To avoid an escalation that brings Iran directly into the conflict, Washington has opted for a moderate approach both in its use of both force — its attacks have been limited in scope — and its diplomatic tools. Last week, the U.S. listed the Houthi movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, an initiative that imposes economic sanctions on the militia, but does not involve as many restrictions as the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation. What’s more, the move will not take effect for 30 days. According to the White House, this delay is intended to minimize the impact on the entry of humanitarian aid to Yemen.

The designation will not have a major impact, says Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council think tank, “but it is important for the United States to demonstrate that it uses all its tools as a state, and not just military measures, to ensure that the international community clearly perceives that the country is acting responsibly and in the interest of the world.”

The U.S. military response has also been relatively moderate. Preliminary U.S. calculations estimate that their forces have destroyed a quarter of the Houthis’ attack capacity. The Biden administration insists that it does not want to enter into a confrontation with the Islamist militia or expand the war in Yemen. It argues that the group’s attacks on the Red Sea have forced them to respond, as between 12% and 15% of world trade passes through the sea route. “We remain committed to resolving the conflict in Yemen” and a lasting ceasefire between that group and Saudi Arabia, a senior official said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The U.S. could not afford to have its warnings of dire consequences if [Houthi] activities were to be perceived as hollow. Other hostile powers beyond Iran, such as Russia or China, might immediately try to capitalize on any sign of U.S. weakness,” explained Michael Nagata of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “But these airstrikes do not provide a strategic solution, even if they are necessary.” But, he added, as long as Iran is able to support its network of like-minded groups in the region, “vital points like the Red Sea will become more and more vulnerable. And the U.S. can’t defend everything.”

Voter rejection

Biden’s problems in the Middle East also extend to the home front, where unease over Israeli’s bloody offensive in Gaza is spreading among Democrats. On Friday, five senators from the Democrat Party supported a measure that would condition U.S. military assistance to Israel on Israel using the weaponry in accordance with international law

Another Democratic provision is calling on arms transfers to Israel to be approved by Congress — in December, Biden twice bypassed Congress to approve an emergency weapons sale. Earlier last week, 11 senators backed a resolution by Rep. Bernie Sanders that would have frozen security aid to Israel until the State Department produced a report on whether Israel has committed human rights violations.

According to Brian Katulis of the Middle East Institute, “the most worrisome source of turbulence” for the Biden administration “comes from the lack of progress in preventing a broader regional escalation.” “The events of the past week, including continued attacks in the Red Sea, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, in addition to the conflict in Gaza, point to the weakness of the posture set by the Biden team when this conflict began more than 100 days ago [...]. The turbulence of the last few weeks may point to new problems ahead,” he concluded.

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