Since behind-the-scenes diplomacy is no longer effective, and in an effort to bolster the role of diplomat Hady Amr, the US sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region to contain the consequences of the war in Gaza. Albeit late, this step indicates Washington’s awareness of the danger of the conflict spreading to other fronts, which will force it to intervene, a probability that the US is striving to avoid. Indeed, from Obama to Biden, US democratic administrations were determined to distance themselves from the Middle East and its intractable wars. However, a New York Times article mentioned last week that the region is pulling the US against its will to the regional swamp.
During his visit, Blinken made several promises, notably returning to the two-state solution (which is an electoral pledge) - one of the foundations of Washington’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Trump diverted from; reopening a US consulate in East Jerusalem; and sending humanitarian aid to Gaza. Aid is particularly worrisome for the US, because such a humanitarian gesture is not aimed at reconstruction, which requires a clear political vision to solve the Gaza issue and the Palestinian conflict as a whole.
There is fear that the US efforts at this stage will be restricted to conflict management, and not its resolution, mirroring its previous interventions, notably in Gaza after the 2014 violence round. Back then, the Donors’ Conference pledged around $5 billion to Gaza, which the city never received because of political impasse. The core of the matter at the time was that Hamas was controlling the Gaza Strip, so the Palestinian Authority refused to assume responsibility as long as Hamas is in control. The situation is no better today. Hamas and its supporters in the Gaza Strip and Palestine are ecstatic about the outcomes of the latest round of violence. This euphoria extended to allies in the “axis of resistance” in the entire region. An example of that is Hassan Nasrallah who, in his speech last week on the 21st anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, said that the end and fall of Israel are “only a matter of time.”
It is naive to believe that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easy, particularly because it involves two violent and extremist religious groups. On one side, the Israeli hard right that has the upper hand and is superior to both secular liberals and weak centrists who are satisfied with the status quo and avoidant of wars and violence. On the other side, there is a hard, ideological, political, Islamist group that is not only concerned with Jerusalem and Palestine, but also wants to spread an extremist ideology in the entire region.
This is where the US can play a role, as it is the only party that can act as a game-changer, especially if its intervention is based on political insight and awareness about three key facts.
The first is that the recent Gaza war was not only a spontaneous reaction to Israel's barbaric and racist practices in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. Recent events were rather an explicit response to clear and irrefutable accumulations, changes, and tensions in the region. Some of the most prominent of these developments are the withdrawal of the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt; the progress of the moderate Sunni movement in the region from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, and others; and the re-emergence of normalization with Israel which included four prominent Arab countries. Add to all this what Iran has been enduring for over two years, from the assassination of key military and scientific figures and maximum sanctions imposed by the Trump administration to the strikes targeting it along with its allies in Syria. As is the case in any political issue, new factors only add insult to injury, and that is what happened in recent weeks with Israel's mistakes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, which Hamas acted upon.
The second is the mistake of US eagerness to make the Vienna negotiations successful and revive, with the bar set very low, the nuclear deal with Iran to relieve it of some sanctions. The US wants to finalize the deal before the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, believing that this will give a push to the reformists. In fact, the Iranian presidential race has probably already been decided in favor of the conservative Ebrahim Raisi after the dismissal of the less hard-line candidate Ali Larijani and reformist Eshaq Jahangiri.
The third is Washington’s wrong assumption, either out of conviction or just to go with the flow, that success with Iran will push it to curb Hamas in Gaza, the Houthi militia in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. This is similar to the French position towards Iran's allies, notably Hezbollah. Paris is convinced of the need to work with Hezbollah to form a Lebanese government and get Lebanon out of its suffocating crisis. This thinking pattern in the US and the West in general indicates that they are repeating their decades-long failed experiences with the Assad family in Syria, with Assad creating problems and attempting to sell them solutions. This is exactly what Iran is doing in Gaza and the region in general for its own interests.
The Biden administration’s awareness about these facts may accelerate the urgent diplomatic need to pressure Netanyahu and his allies to end unilateral practices, advance the two-state solution, support the weak Palestinian National Authority, launch urgent political and economic initiatives in the West Bank starting with the reopening of the US Consulate in East Jerusalem and appointing an ambassador to Israel to act as an honest mediator, control humanitarian aid delivery to Gaza to ensure reaching the needy, and push for an international US-supported reconstruction project conditional on sustainable calm and security and military measures that prevent a new war initiated by Hamas and its local and foreign supporters.
Without reviving the two-state solution, all conflict resolution efforts will be in vain. There is a good opportunity today, because the Israeli community is more prepared for it than ever, especially after the recent Gaza war and its consequent disturbances in mixed cities, in addition to the internal political instability that starts to resemble some neighboring countries failing to form a government and the imminent fifth general elections in less than two years.
Despite the Middle East’s shifting sands, historical opportunities are emerging today for Washington. A wise US intervention based on a clear strategy and goals beyond a mere reaffirmation of pre-Trump US policies is in the interest of three parties: The US itself, given the apparent changes within the Democratic Party and its new critical position towards Israel, and the repercussions of that on the party and on Biden administration; Israel, because an intervention may help save it from itself; and Palestine, which is desperately in need of a savior from those that use its cause and from its weak national leadership. So, will Biden do it?
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.