President Joe Biden’s decision to visit Israel caps a week of intense US diplomacy aimed at shoring up its closest Middle East ally and trying to prevent Israel’s war with Hamas from spreading to the region.
The Americans are worried that the audacity of the Hamas attack and the ferocity of the Israeli counter-offensive could spark violence in the West Bank and beyond.
The president will be joining his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who’s been on a frantic swing through the Middle East. Mr Blinken has stressed full US support for a forceful response to the deadly Hamas raid, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis.
But he is also trying to mitigate the civilian casualties in Gaza, the enclave that is governed by the Palestinian militant group. Israel has already killed nearly 3,000 Palestinians in relentless airstrikes, and blocked food, water and electricity to Gaza, plunging it into a humanitarian crisis.
“Blinken is trying to thread the needle,” says David Schenker, the state department’s former top diplomat for the Middle East. “So far, he seems to have managed it relatively well. But it becomes more and more challenging.”
Mr Blinken’s emphasis on protecting civilians grew during his whirlwind tour of America’s Arab allies at the end of last week, visiting six countries in three days.
He wanted them to clearly condemn Hamas for the unprecedented scale and brutality of the attack, and hoped to limit criticism of Israel’s military campaign.
Only two Arab governments – Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – denounced Hamas. Others may have done so privately, because most are hostile to Hamas in varying degrees.
In public, though, they focused on the humanitarian tragedy already unfolding in Gaza.
A lengthy Israeli ground operation could inflame their populations, who support the Palestinian cause, threatening stability in their countries and narrowing the diplomatic room that Arab heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have to calm the situation.
Egypt was the most outspoken. Its President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi told Mr Blinken that Israel’s military operations had already exceeded “the right of self-defence” and turned into collective punishment.
In this environment, some analysts questioned whether Mr Biden’s trip to show solidarity with Israel could be seen as provocative. Others suggested it might help to underline a private message of restraint, should the president choose to deliver one.
“He’s a very visceral politician,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It may be that he feels that if you’re going to push the Israelis, you can’t push them until you’ve already made clear that you care.”
Mr Biden will also be meeting the Egyptian leader along with Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman to discuss humanitarian issues.
This follows the administration’s announcement that the US and Israel have agreed to try to find ways to get humanitarian aid into Gaza and set up “safe zones” for civilians.
The initiative came after the secretary of state reported back to Washington the concerns of Arab leaders, says a senior state department official. The president instructed him to draw up a plan with the Israelis.
Where Mr Biden will not push the Israelis is on their assessment of Hamas.
US officials have adopted Israeli language that compares the Palestinian movement to the Islamic State group, saying it was an attack of “sheer evil” unrelated to legitimate frustrations about decades of Israeli occupation and the grinding misery of its 16-year blockade of Gaza.
Khaled Elgindy, the director of Israeli-Palestinian Affairs at the Middle East Institute, says this ignores a chorus of warnings in the year leading up to the unprecedented incursion about an impending “explosion” in the Palestinian territories.
He describes US policy as “strategic neglect”.
“They’ve been committed to keeping the issue low down on the list of priorities,” he says. “I think that’s one of the reasons we are where we are, is this neglect and allowing these wounds to fester. “The status quo was comfortable for Israel and for the United States. But it was certainly not comfortable for Palestinians.”
The Biden administration has focused its Middle East policy on integrating Israel into the region through a normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia, which it argues is crucial for stability, while trying to pivot its attention more to China and Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Now, though, it fears a regional conflict that could force it to plunge back into the Middle East.
The US is particularly concerned that Iran will capitalise on the situation through armed groups it supports, like Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement. Low-level clashes on Israel’s border with Lebanon intensified at the weekend, as Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian conducted his own tour of allies in the region.
That included a meeting with the Hamas representative in Qatar, where they discussed how to prevent Israel’s expected further assault on Gaza, according to Iran’s state news agency.
Still, so far Iran has shown relative restraint.
“They’re playing the long game,” says Mr Alterman, “and I’m not sure that this is the moment when they want to go all in.”
That could change depending on how Israel’s ground operation in Gaza unfolds. The Pentagon has now sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean as a clear warning.
Deterrence is a big part of the administration’s “rock solid” show of support for Israel, says Mr Schenker, noting that the extraordinary damage Hamas inflicted on Israel made America’s key partner in the Middle East look weak.
“If we don’t stand by Israel, we are further raising questions about our commitment to our regional allies,” he says. “Already for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this US commitment to their security was in question.”
There’s no question the US will stand by Israel. The question is at what cost, and how that will affect its ability to shape the new strategic realities to come.
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