is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.
As conflict rages in Gaza, it’s clear President Biden would much rather focus elsewhere. But the uncomfortable truth is the Middle East will always be a problem for the US until it completely rethinks its strategy on Israel.
The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, despite the fact it has refused to condemn Tel Aviv in any circumstances.
However, the president’s priorities are clearly elsewhere. He is concentrating on America’s recovery from Covid-19, implementing his vision for the US economy, and continuing the recalibration of foreign policy away from the Middle East towards China and the Indo-Pacific.
As analyst David Miller told CNN, “I think the president frankly wants this thing to go away.” Put simply, he doesn’t want to invest too much political and diplomatic capital in turning the screws on Israel – something that would be extremely costly for any US president to do.
But is this not wishful thinking? Can the Israel issue truly just fade away and become irrelevant? Even after this specific conflict ends, the answer is clearly no. Israel – and by extension, the Middle East – will continue to be a major problem and distraction for the US until the issue is permanently resolved. And that is an impossibility as long as there is unconditional American support for Israel.
This continues to be the wedge issue for the Middle East as a whole – the longstanding grievance that has been a catalyst for radicalisation and Anti-American sentiment for decades. And attempting to ignore it will mean it will never go away.
The preceding Trump administration recalibrated America’s strategic focus towards geopolitical competition with Beijing after a near-30 year period in which that focus was centred around the Middle East and terrorism. This period was one defined by unilateral US hegemony, beginning with the collapse of the USSR and the Gulf War, escalating with the events of 9/11, and coming to a close in 2018 with the national security strategy.
During that time, the US and its allies made an unprecedented number of interventions geared towards regime change in the Middle East and Afghanistan, believing that the articulation of liberal democracy was the answer to defeating terrorist threats and building a new stability.
A key sign that the era defined by the “war on terror” is over is Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Although it is a central Asian country, the idea of a longstanding war against the Taliban to prevent terrorism is an extension of the Middle East logic that has driven US foreign policy. The White House no longer cares if the Taliban subsequently conquers the country, because its priorities are now elsewhere. This is not America’s burden to carry anymore.
However, what the US and its allies have failed to acknowledge is that the continuing strife in the Middle East has refused to go away precisely because they have ignored the elephant in the room: Israel. It has been a catalyst to much of the conflict and ideological division within the region. The unresolved Israeli-Arab conflict – with Israel being continually backed by the US – has fuelled varying ideologies of resistance, promoted terrorism and upended regional stability.
All across the region, Islamist movements such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and Hezbollah, and Arab socialist leaders such as Syria’s Assad, Libya’s Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein in Iraq have been driven by a common antagonism to Israel, which is, by extension, associated with the legacy of Western Imperialism in the Middle East dividing, oppressing and subjugating the Muslim world.
This has created a vicious cycle of escalatory conflict that has been amplified by social and economic instability and made worse by the various US regime changes and interventions across multiple countries. One might call this a quagmire, with each crisis creating the circumstances that lead to the next conflict.
Consider, for example, how the aftermath of the Iraq war led to the rise of Islamic State and more US military involvement, delaying regional disengagement.
What this means is that the current Israel-Palestine conflict is likely to have lasting consequences, especially if it drags on. The war on Gaza, and America’s backing of it, will radicalise more Muslims, empower more extremist groups and ultimately create more chaos, which, at some point, will have implications for the US.
This creates a dilemma for Biden, because if he strives to simply ignore it and gives Israel an open hand, it’s likely to cause even more problems. And so there’s a risk he’ll get sucked into it anyway, especially if there’s a crisis that emerges which is so consequential that America can no longer ignore it.
While the Trump administration tried to address the issue with the Abraham Accords – which attempted to normalise relationships between Israel and neighbouring Muslim countries – this wasn’t truly resolving the problem at all.
Rather, America simply unconditionally rewarded Israel for its behaviour and didn’t push for concessions to deliver peace. There was also the strategic blunder of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and the failure to challenge Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, which, as I’ve noted before, led to this very conflict.
The consequences of the Abraham Accords will also prove even more damaging, as the people of the countries that have recognized Israel, such as the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco, will be angry and alienated by such a short-sighted move, given what is happening now. That anger may translate into political dissent.
In this case, if Biden wants out of the Middle East forever, then the only way is for America to completely bin its current policy. This is asking a lot, but there is no other way. He first needs to sacrifice looking for short-term gains against China in the pursuit of long-term credible peace in the Middle East, which must consist of ending one-sided US favouritism in favour of Israel and demanding a two-state solution. This would permanently render the Arab-Israeli conflict to the history books and nullify the core of radical, revisionist ideology within the region – and, by extension, terrorism and conflict.
If there is no change, then it’s simply a case of waiting for the next crisis to happen.