Until the Israel-Hamas war, President Joe Biden’s foreign policy goals in the Middle East were to further integrate Israel with its Arab neighbors and to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Both of those goals may now be in jeopardy as he focuses on keeping the conflict from spiraling into a regional war involving Iran-backed combatants in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria.
Biden has spoken nine times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the conflict broke out, said a senior administration official briefing reporters Friday. The official said Biden has also spoken to regional leaders — including those of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — while national security adviser Jake Sullivan has engaged “almost daily” with partners in the region.
As Arab capitals erupt in anti-Israel demonstrations, U.S. officials believe the provision of humanitarian relief for Palestinian civilians in Gaza is a key to containing the war.
On Friday and Saturday, Biden’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was back in the region for the second time in less than a month to push for humanitarian pauses to allow for increased aid deliveries into the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of civilians.
“We need to do more to protect Palestinian civilians,” Blinken declared in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu, however, ordered thousands of Palestinian migrant workers back to Gaza and said Israel will neither allow fuel into the territory nor agree to a temporary stop in fighting that does not include a hostage release. More than 200 people were captured by Hamas during its October 7 attack on Israel and at least 1,400 were killed.
Blinken will be met with opposing demands in a meeting with his Arab counterparts in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday. Washington’s Arab partners are pushing for a more sustained cease-fire in Gaza, where Israeli attacks have killed more than 9,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.
Observers say that even if the U.S. can navigate the diplomatic stand-off in the short term, it must also keep an eye on the political horizon — laying the groundwork for decisions about who will govern post-war Gaza and how to achieve a two-state solution.
Containing the conflict
The United States is “determined that there not be a second or third front opened in this conflict,” Blinken said. It has deployed military assets to the region as a deterrent.
On Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Hezbollah, a powerful militia and Hamas ally, has been engaged in cross-border fighting with Israeli soldiers. On Friday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah stopped short of announcing his militia would fully enter the conflict but warned the U.S. that if Israel did not stop its assault on Gaza, the conflict could widen.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Tuesday claimed responsibility for missile and drone strikes targeting Israel, following the group’s attacks last month that were intercepted by U.S. ships in the Red Sea.
American troops in Iraq and Syria have also been under attack from Iran-allied groups, prompting concerns about strikes on other U.S. bases across the region.
Violence is also escalating in the West Bank, where more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in fights with Israeli soldiers and armed Israeli settlers.
Barbara Slavin, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, said the longer Israel’s offensive on Gaza goes on, the more militancy brews in the region, the higher the risk of miscalculation and the harder it will be to contain the war.
“Arab public opinion is inflamed by these terrible scenes [in Gaza],” she told VOA. Even countries that have recently normalized relations with Israel, including United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, are under growing public pressure to sever those ties.
Biden has repeatedly warned Iran and its proxies not to escalate the conflict. Tehran officials have also declared they do not want to widen the war.
Iran likes “to be on the brink of a conflict without crossing that brink,” said Elisheva Machlis, senior lecturer of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University. She told VOA that Iran is likely instructing its proxies not to create another front in the war but to cause just enough problems to draw the Israeli military’s attention away from Gaza.
With the potential for miscalculation, that strategy could backfire even if Tehran has no desire to get directly involved.
What happens next?
Both Israel and the U.S. have ruled out a return to a Hamas-controlled Gaza and largely agree that Israel will not govern the territory post-war. The allies differ on what happens next, with Washington insisting that the goal of the war cannot be only to defeat Hamas but must also be to work toward a two-state solution.
“At some point, what would make the most sense is for an effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority to have governance and ultimately security responsibility for Gaza,” Blinken told the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this week.
Netanyahu’s office has released a statement saying the goal of the war is the elimination of Hamas and that “talk of decisions to hand over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority or any other party is a lie.”
Unlike Hamas, the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel and supports a two-state solution. Plagued by corruption and deeply unpopular with its own people in the West Bank, it has declared no interest in assuming power in Gaza on the back of an Israeli military victory.
Blinken promised to talk to partners about “what will happen once Hamas is defeated,” beginning with the Saturday summit in Amman. At his Senate hearing, Blinken said if a permanent solution to Gaza cannot be achieved in one step, there are “other temporary arrangements” involving countries in the region and international agencies to provide security and governance.
In Amman, Blinken will discuss the “critical importance” of having a unified governance in Gaza and the West Bank and putting the foundation in place for a “very serious” process that will lead to a two-state solution, the senior administration official said.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, said there is also a need to ensure there is no further radicalization and empowerment of extremists across the region.
“There will be a need for Arab states to take the lead in trying to devise some sort of policy response which can tackle the underlying issues as well as the most immediate ones which prompted this attack on October 7,” he told VOA.
Hamas has cited Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank, Israeli police raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the detention of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails as motivation for its attack.
Securing a pause in fighting will be the first challenge to both the administration’s short-term goal of protecting Palestinian civilians and the longer-term aim of working toward a lasting peace in the region.
In what may be the clearest signal on the U.S. position on Arab demands for an indefinite cease-fire, the senior administration official said it “depends on the Israelis feeling secure” that something like Hamas’ October 7 massacre cannot happen again.
Source : VOA