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Will Biden Do it?

Will Biden Do it?

Monday, 31 May, 2021 - 11:45

To fortify Hady Amr’s behind the scenes diplomatic efforts, which had run their course, Washington sent its secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to the region to contain the ramifications of the war in Gaza. The step - though late - indicates that Washington is aware of the dangers of the conflict extending to other fronts, which would force it to get involved, a scenario it is trying its best to avoid.

While Democrat administrations, from Obama’s to Joe Biden’s, have seemed to want to distance themselves from the Middle East and its intractable wars, a New York Times article published last week argued that the region is pulling the United States back to its swamp.

Blinken’s visit carried many promises, at the forefront of which was a return to Washington’s traditional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Donald Trump had deviated from; that is, the two-state solution (and this was an electoral pledge), reopening the its consulate in East Jerusalem and sending humanitarian aid to Gaza. The last promise raises concerns about the new American move, as it is known that humanitarian aid is not reconstruction, which requires a clear political vision for resolving the question of Gaza and, by extension, the Palestinian conflict as a whole.

The fear is that the furthest that Washington is willing to go at this stage is attempting to manage the conflict, not solve it, which would be a continuation of previous interventions, the most prominent of which took place in Gaza itself in 2014, when international donors pledged 5 billion dollars that didn’t reach Gaza because of political intractability. At the time, Hamas’ control over the strip was at the heart of the problem, as the Palestinian Authority refused to take responsibility so long as matters were in the movement’s hands.

The situation today is no better, given the euphoria that Hamas and its allies in the Gaza Strip and Palestine are feeling after the latest round of violence, a euphoria that extends to its allies in the “axis of resistance” throughout the region. This ecstasy was best articulated by Hassan Nasrallah in his speech commemorating the liberation of Lebanon in 2000 last week when he considered that Israel’s end and downfall had become “a matter of time, nothing more.”

It would be naive to believe that a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible today, especially since its two camps are run by violent religious extremists: the hard right in Israel, which seems to have the upper hand over the secular liberals and a third, weak, centrist camp, is satisfied with the status quo and wants to avoid wars and violence. And on the other side is a militant, ideological, Islamic faction whose concerns don’t stop at Jerusalem or Palestine but go beyond them, as they seek to spread their extremist ideology in the region.

Here, the US role sticks out, as only it can change this equation, especially if its intervention opens horizons based on an awareness of three truths.

The first truth is that the last Gaza war was merely not a spontaneous reaction to Israel’s barbaric and racist actions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem and other places. It was the result of, and an explicit response to, accumulations and changes linked to the region, and this should not be ignored or put aside. The most prominent of these developments is the Muslim Brotherhood’s decline after Mohammad Morsi’s downfall and the moderate Sunni axis’ strides throughout the region - from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and others - and the re-launch of the process of normalizing ties with Israel, with four weighty Arab countries adding their names to the list.

To all that we can add what Iran is being subjected to and has been subjected to for over two years, whether it is the assassination of prominent political, military and scientific figures, the harsh sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, or the strikes it and its allies are on the receiving end of in Syria. As with every political issue, new factors emerge and incentivize. The latest development was Israel’s mistakes in Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, which Hamas pounced and built on.

The second truth is that it is a mistake to rush to ensure that the negotiations for a return to the nuclear deal with Iran in Vienna are successful, with a very low bar set for removing some of the sanctions imposed on Tehran. The US negotiator wants to conclude the agreement before the next Iranian presidential elections, as he thinks that this would give reformists a push despite that the race’s result is practically a forgone conclusion, with Ebrahim Raisi the likely winner after the less hardline candidate, Ali Larijani, and reformist Eshaq Jahangiri were ruled out.

As for the third truth, it is that the aspirations at the back of the US negotiator’s mind are flawed. He sees - whether it is out of conviction or a desire to go along with the status quo and the balance of power - that success with Iran will push it to rein in Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. This corresponds to the French position on Iran’s allies, the most prominent of which is Hezbollah, as Paris is convinced that there is a need to contain it and cooperate with it to form a government in Lebanon and tackle the country’s suffocating crisis. This way of thinking in the US and the West generally affirms that they are repeating their bitter experiences with the Assad regime in Syria, which went on for decades, during which the regime would ignite fires and offer to put them out at a price. This is what Iran is doing in Gaza and other areas in the region, in accordance with its interests.

The Biden administration’s awareness of these truths could turn pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies to stop their unilateral actions and move along the path of the two-state solution into a matter of diplomatic urgency. The same is true for supporting the Palestinian Authority despite the weakness that afflicted it, as well as launching urgent political and economic initiatives for the West Bank that start with a swift reestablishment of the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the appointment of a US ambassador to Israel who can play the role of a fair arbiter, monitor the humanitarian aid arriving in Gaza to ensure that it reaches its intended destinations and push for an international initiative backed by the US conditioned on sustainable calm, as well as security and military measures that prevent the recurrence of war on the whims of Hamas and its domestic and foreign supporters.

Without breathing life back into the two-state solution, any attempt at a settlement is pointless. The opportunity is there today, as Israeli society has become more prepared for such a solution than it had been after it learned the lessons of the latest Gaza war and the unrest in mixed cities within Israel. It is also more willing because of its internal political instability, which has come to correspond with that of some of its neighbors, as the Israelis, having failed to form a government, are edging closer to their fifth election in less than two years.

Despite the Middle East’s muddy waters, the contours of a historic opportunity are rising to the surface. These contours are embodied in a series of positive developments in Washington that point to seizing the opportunity. Good US intervention that is founded on a clear strategy and goes beyond merely reiterating pre-Trump policies would benefit three parties. One is the United States itself, amid the early shift to more critical positions towards Israel seen inside the Democratic Party, with all the implications that this has for the party and the Biden administration. A second is Israel, as it would save it from itself. A third is Palestine, as it is in urgent need of a savior to free it from its captors, those hoping to profit from its pain, and the weakness of its national decisions. Will Biden do it?

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