The West Asian region narrowly averted a full-blown regional crisis by securing a fragile peace through a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip on May 20. The latest bout of escalation went on for 11 days and was even deadlier in its impact than the Israel-Palestine war of 2014. After temporarily ignoring international calls for a ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza strip, Israel’s cabinet approved a ceasefire with Hamas. At least four sides, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US were frantically trying to negotiate an immediate ceasefire,[i] even as Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas continued to exchange fire. While Israel carried out aerial bombardments and artillery fire across its border with Gaza killing as many as 233 people including 65 children and more than 33 women, Hamas had fired over 3500 rockets into Israel killing 12 civilians and injuring more than 500.[ii] Many of these crudely made rockets fell within Gaza causing self-damage. Hamas’ rockets however have hit major cities in Israel including Tel Aviv, Beerhseba, Ashkelon and Ashdod, depicting significant capability enhancement in their arsenal. However, what made the situation graver this time was the breaking out of sectarian violence in parts of West Bank and other cities with religiously mixed ethnicity. Sporadic events of violence and protests continue in some Israeli cities.
Biden’s Efforts to Control Escalation
As the situation threatened to precipitate into a larger humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the global community led by the United Nations (UN) rallied for ending the war immediately. Multiple meetings led by the UN, both at the levels of the General Assembly and Security Council took place. Contrary to the US’ traditional stand on the Israel-Palestine issue, the Biden administration’s Democratic party and his administration’s championing of human rights came with expectations of tilt towards Palestine. Instead, the US, as the most influential extra-regional player, blocked three attempts by the UNSC to bring out a statement calling for immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas[iii] and depended on personal outreach to Israeli Prime Minister (PM). President Biden called Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu six times urging immediate and significant de-escalation, since the situation flared up.[iv]
While Biden withheld the temptation to jump in the regional crisis to carve out a solution and relied on regional mediation mechanisms, he used the US’ proximity with Israel in facilitating talks. However, his apparent defence of Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’ and his assurance to Israel that the US will replenish the depleted Iron Dome systems that were used against Hamas in the recent conflict, have run against altered global expectations after Trump, whose policies significantly changed the US’ Middle East policy. For now, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit[v] to the region and his separate meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have only resulted in US’ monetary aid in rebuilding efforts in Gaza. It remains to be seen if the Biden administration will commit to a deeper political involvement in the Israel-Palestine peace process like some of his predecessors.
During the recent Israel-Palestine conflict, amidst fear that the war between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli Defense Forces is held together by a fragile and temporary ceasefire agreement, the role of the US is being looked at carefully - especially because the US has long tried to negotiate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. While the Oslo Accord of 1993 and the Israel-Palestine Talks of 2013 under Obama administration did signal deep US resolve and commitment to find a solution, the Biden administration’s deliberate nuance may be signalling strategic fatigue and declining US interest in solving the issue.
America under Biden appears to be deliberately ham-fisted in its approach to solve the current round of escalation between Israel and Palestine. Although President Biden is said to have asked Israel for an immediate end to the escalation, the US approach is guided by a mix of factors. Despite Joe Biden serving as Vice President under the Obama administration, his administration has shown nuanced difference in handling West Asia’s most complicated and oldest dispute. In contrast to Biden’s initial hesitancy, the Obama administration delved into the peace process early in his term and secured a ten-month freeze in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, as part of the process to revive the stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestine.[vi] Under President Obama, the US was involved in at least two serious attempts to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute, the first one started in 2010[vii] and the second in 2013.[viii] Joe Biden as the Vice President under the Obama administration, admonished Israel for continuing settlements during his visit to the region in 2010.[ix] However, in his avatar as the President of the US, Biden may not be ready to do the same just yet.
President Biden, despite its recent stern telephone calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging ‘significant de-escalation’,[x] is torn between international expectations from his administration that champions human rights and the compulsions of alliance that include substantive military sales to Israel, a country that the US considers as its ‘only ally’ in the Middle East. Domestically, the Biden administration was being cornered by House Democrats on his tacit support to Israel or at least in the lack of necessary pressure on Israel to stop bombing parts of Gaza in response and most of all for selling arms to Israel. Democratic legislators, led by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan and Rashida Tlaib sponsored a legislative resolution aimed to block a $735 million sale of precision-guided weapons to Israel. Earlier, the Biden administration had approved the potential sale of weapons worth $735 million to Israel.[xi]
Biden’s conundrum over the latest round of Israel-Palestine conflict and his apparent hesitancy in bringing an end to the escalation by all means is also tied to the larger regional geopolitics of the Middle East that concerns one-upmanship between Iran and Israel. The US officially recognizes Iran’s support to Hamas, Hezbollah and other Palestinian ‘terrorist organizations’, the extent of which is clearly mentioned in a 2019 U.S. State Department report on Iran.[xii] All of these organization do not recognize Israel’s existence. It is no wonder then, that Israel opposes Biden administration’s efforts[xiii] to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which would mean lifting of international sanctions on Iran by the US, facilitating the flow of billions of dollars that are currently stalled – some of which could go to Hamas. A related concern that the US faces now is to provide aid to Gaza without helping Hamas. As international aids flow into Gaza for reconstruction, it will be difficult to keep it away from Hamas in Gaza which it totally controls.
The ongoing crisis between Israel and Palestine has complicated the US’ Middle East strategy in many ways. While the pulls emanating from an emergent Indo-Pacific policy weighs heavy on the US pull out from Afghanistan, persistent regional complexities would likely ensure that the US’ interests remain tethered to the region. The Biden administration’s recent announcement of the target of completing the US ongoing troop pullout from Afghanistan by September 11 this year bears fresh marks of the inexorable links between US domestic politics and its external policies. The last thing that the Biden administration would want is to be intensively sucked into one of the most intractable conflicts in the region, just when it is trying to leave Afghanistan. It is precisely for this region that Biden has so far relied on regional diplomacy aided by the US, and not any direct involvement. This is despite the presence of John Kerry in Biden’s cabinet (although in a different role now), who has served as the principal negotiator appointed by the Obama administration in the previous 2013-2014 Israel-Palestine talks.[xiv] Additionally, the current regional geopolitics in the Middle East has aided Biden’s long-term goal of de-militarising the US foreign policy in the broader region. Personally, Biden had voted against the first Iraq War in 1991. He has also officially regretted supporting the congressional resolution authorising President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003 as chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[xv]
President Biden has also inherited the legacy of his predecessor Donald Trump, whose Middle East policy is not considered either a success or entirely a failure. Even so, Trump is said to have handed over a relatively calmer Middle East to Biden.[xvi] Practically, Trump’s final offensive against ISIS in Syria and the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,[xvii] the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani,[xviii] and the normalisation of ties[xix] between Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Israel known as the Abraham Accords collectively pointed to potential peace in the region. Despite criticisms, the Abraham Accords was hailed by many as a critical foundation to peace between Israel and the Arab world. The ongoing Israel-Palestine escalation has proved that for the Abraham Accords to hold, peace may not be an absolute prerequisite, even as regional Arab world countries like UAE and Bahrain have not scrambled to make peace conditional for sustaining normalisation of ties with Israel under the Accord. To the extent that the Abraham Accords blunt regional polarisation between the Arab world and Israel, the political spectrum for the Biden administration widens to allow regional peace processes to emanate from within the region.
In the context of the Israel-Palestine issue particularly, a series of steps by the Trump administration favouring Israel certainly has put the US on the backfoot under Biden. First, a carte blanche by the Trump administration to the Netanyahu government on increasing settlements in West Bank; second, shift of US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem[xx]; third, cutting US funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees; and fourth, Executive Order 13899 on Combating Anti-Semitism[xxi] have collectively weighed on shaping Trump’s pro-Israel policy. Although in a major step early in his term, the Biden administration restored the assistance to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and announced an aid of$235 million to the Palestinians,[xxii] Trump’s other steps will be hard to undo. The other question is, whether the Biden administration wants to roll back all the steps by Trump administration and does he have the political mandate to do so? As such, in many ways, the Biden administration seems to be at the same juncture as Obama administration on his way out in 2016, when despite his administration’s criticism of increasing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the US abstained from a UNSC Resolution against Israel. Drawing a parallel, the Biden administration has blocked a UNSC statement condemning Israeli action on Gaza thrice already. His reaffirmation of US’ strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself[xxiii] has only earned the US global ire.
The Biden administration is torn between its support to Israel and a shift in domestic debates and politics on the Israel-Palestine issue. For a long time, politically, the Democrats and the Republicans were not too far from each other on the issue and supported the ‘Two-State’ solution. However, President Trump’s priority in favouring Israel may have sharpened the division between the Democrats and the Republicans. Widening political gap on the issue is likely to make the Congressional discussions on the issue under Biden more difficult. Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first woman of Palestinian descent to serve in the US Congress, has held a separate meeting with Biden to convey that, "Palestinian human rights are not a bargaining chip and must be protected, not negotiated," and that the US’ unconditional support to Israel is killing more Palestinians. Furthermore, the Democratic Party is itself divided on the Israel-Palestine issue with centrists favouring Israel and liberal Democrats urging to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations in Gaza. Over 500 Democrats have written to Biden to do more to help the Palestinians and hold Israel accountable for its recent actions in Gaza.[xxiv] As a fragile peace has been negotiated with Egypt as the mediator between Israel and Hamas, it remains to be seen whether President Biden would delve deeper in the regional peace process between Israel and Palestine, especially as his diplomacy has facilitated a ceasefire.
*Dr. Vivek Mishra, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[iii] Majid, J (2021). “UN General Assembly to meet on Gaza as US blocks 3rd Security Council statement”. Times of Israel. May 17. URL: https://www.timesofisrael.com/un-general-assembly-to-meet-on-gaza-as-us-blocks-3rd-security-council-resolution/ (Accessed May 18, 2021).
[v] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/26/blinken-arrives-in-egypt-to-support-of-israel-gaza-ceasefire. AlJazeera. 26 May, 2021. URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/26/blinken-arrives-in-egypt-to-support-of-israel-gaza-ceasefire (Accessed May 26, 2021).
[vi] Bronner, E and Landler, M (2009). “Israel offers a Pause in Building New Settlements”. The New York Times. November 25. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/world/middleeast/26israel.html (Accessed May 26, 2020).
[viii] Ravid, B (2013). “Obama Welcomes Renewal of Israeli-Palestinian Talks, but Says 'Hard Choices' Lie Ahead”. Haaretz. URL: https://www.haaretz.com/obama-applauds-mideast-peace-talks-1.5314243 (Accessed May 26, 2021).
[x]“Readout of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel”. The White House. May 19, 2021. URL: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/19/readout-of-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-call-with-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-of-israel-5/ (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xiv] Booth, W and R. Iglash (2014). “Kerry’s Nine-Month Quest for Middle-East Peace End in Failure”. The Washington Post. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/kerrys-nine-month-quest-for-middle-east-peace-ends-in-failure/2014/04/29/56521cd6-cfd7-11e3-a714-be7e7f142085_story.html (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xv] Bertrand, N. and Seligman, L (2021). “Biden Deprioritizes the Middle East”. Politico. 22 February. URLL: https://www.politico.com/news/2021/02/22/biden-middle-east-foreign-policy-470589 (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xviii]Cohen, Z (2020). “Skepticism mounts over evidence of 'imminent' threat that Trump says justified Soleimani killing”. CNN. January 06, 2021. URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/04/politics/trump-iran-soleimani-strike-concerns/index.html (Accessed May 18, 2021).
[xix]Liebermann, O (2020). “Two Gulf nations recognized Israel at the White House. Here's what's in it for all sides”. CNN. September 16. URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/15/politics/israel-uae-bahrain-white-house-analysis-intl/index.html (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xx]Dumper, M. (2019). The U.S. Embassy Move to Jerusalem: Mixed Messages and Mixed Blessings for Israel? Review of Middle East Studies, 53(1), 34-45. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26731399 (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xxi] Combating Anti-Semitism: A Presidential Document by on . Federal Register. National Archives. URL: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/12/16/2019-27217/combating-anti-semitism (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xxiii]“Readout of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel”. The White House. May 15, 2021. URL: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/15/readout-of-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-call-with-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-of-israel-3/ (Accessed May 20, 2021).
[xxiv] Pengelly, M (2021). “Over 500 Democratic staffers urge Joe Biden to ‘hold Israel accountable’”. The Guardian. May 24. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/24/joe-biden-israel-palestine-letter-democratic-staffers (Accessed May 28, 2021).