The danger of leaving things be: how the world ‘failed miserably’ in the Middle East

, by  Patrick Wintour

Joe Biden’s high-stakes visit to the Middle East to avert an all-out war raises serious questions about the level and nature of the president’s previous engagement in the region.

Just as Israel suffered a total intelligence breakdown over the horrific Hamas attacks, diplomats stand charged with their own collective system failure, at the heart of which was treating the Palestinian issue as best managed, not solved.

While the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said “the world has failed miserably” in the Middle East, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was forced to deny the Biden team took its eye off the ball, when asked about his claim three weeks ago that the region was “quieter” than it had been in two decades.

The case for the diplomats’ defence will be that their hands were tied once the dominance of the Hamas military wing in Gaza came to be mirrored by the election of Israel’s most rightwing government in history.

Coupled with that was Donald Trump’s focus on bribing Arab states to make peace with Israel while ignoring the political crisis, which only further sidelined Palestinians while emboldening their occupiers.

With hardliners in Tehran pulling the strings of myriad proxy militias, notably Hamas, the diplomats simply had no partners for peace, save the ineffectual 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the unpopular and under-funded Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.

Nor it is argued that everyone in the Biden administration regarded the Middle East with such nonchalance as Sullivan. For instance, an alarmed assessment was given by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in June when Richard Haass, the departing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it to him that, based on his 40-plus years of experience, he feared the region “was not that far from blowing”.

Haass continued: “You’re seeing now the considerable expansion of settlements, considerable expansion of violence, a real absence of centralised Palestinian authority, the most rightwing government we’ve seen in Israeli history.”

Blinken, to the surprise of Haass, entirely agreed: “It’s a conversation I’ve had with the [Israeli] prime minister on a number of occasions.”

Brian Katulis, the author of a study of Biden’s approach to the Palestinian issue and a Middle East Institute policy scholar said it was “wrong to say that no effort was made, but they looked for ways to displace the issue”.

Nor was the Biden team alone in its failure. The EU, crippled by internal divisions on the Middle East, had also lost traction and trust, so much so that last week’s meeting of the EU Gulf Cooperation Council was the first in eight years.

Meanwhile, the UK, its influence weakened by the overhang of Iraq and Brexit, had also checked out, symbolised by the elimination and subsequent restoration of the post of Middle East minister.

Alistair Burt, the former minister in that role, for instance, said: “The Palestinian issue began to slip and I noticed it in my conversations over 10 years that it didn’t have the prominence it had.

“That was because of weariness, everyone had tried everything before and nothing ever happened and there was the issue of the Palestinian leadership. People fell into the pattern of thought that it can be managed. I used to say from the dispatch box that it cannot be managed.”

More recently, out of government, Burt took to warning those in power that an explosion was imminent: “I had been worried for some time that something bad was about to happen. It simply could not be left on the shelf any more. We now know the dangers of leaving things be.”

Hugh Lovatt, Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “In the last two years there has been an increasingly hardline Israeli settlement policy, radicalisation of the settler movement, the weakening of the Palestinian Authority and the resurgence of armed groups; but they are themselves symptoms of a collapse of the diplomatic architecture that had framed the peace process. The violence today is the ultimate expression of this.”

Yet it was understandable that the incoming Biden administration, determined to focus on the geopolitics of China, deprioritised the Middle East. As vice-president, Biden had watched Barack Obama engage with optimism – and then fail after his relationship with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, broke down.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (left), with Joe Biden ; October 2023. The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘The risks of inaction’

John Kerry, the last Democrat diplomat to expend serious capital on pursuing a two-state solution, expended all his diplomatic muscle to approach the issue from every angle, back channel and hotel room. From 2013, he talked with Netanyahu 375 times, made 40 visits to Israel and 34 to speak to Abbas.

In his autobiography, Kerry warned, “in foreign policy, whilst it is very easy to speculate about the risks of acting there is rarely enough focus on the risks of inaction. That is especially true about peace in the Middle East.”

But in the end, he concluded: “The mistrust and the narratives of victimisation ran so deep on both sides that neither would compromise.”

So the Biden administration’s initial stance was to conclude there had to be a better way to spend diplomatic air miles. In Biden’s March 2021 interim national security guidance, the Middle East was downgraded in favour of China.

Instinctively pro-Israel, Biden did not entirely ignore the Middle East, said Katulis. “They wanted to do the bare minimum, to a large extent, apart from a few things on Iran such as try to re-enter the nuclear deal, or address the Yemen war.

“But they did not see it as helpful to their overall global agenda, and in terms of political capital saw it as a waste of time. They were too damned busy. As a result they did not staff up. They left the diplomatic bench half full.”

Biden’s attention was briefly forced back to the Middle East by the May 2021 hostilities between Israel and Hamas but did not feel the need afterwards to launch a policy initiative. For instance, the US consulate in Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization embassy in Washington, both of which had been shut by the Trump administration, remained closed.

And months after the flare-up in Gaza, Biden found himself consumed by the chaotic completion of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, a move regarded across the Middle East as confirming a wider American foreign policy disengagement.

It was not until March 2022 that a plan of sorts, building surprisingly on the thinking of the Trump administration, started to emerge. Blinken participated in the Negev summit, a meeting that brought together the Israeli foreign minister with foreign ministers from the four Arab states that had signed Trump’s “Abraham accords” – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

They discussed ways to build on the regional normalisation and integration, promising to meet annually. The Palestinians remained outside of the process. Netanyahu liked to describe this as an “outside-in” solution to the Palestine question, one in which Israel strikes deals with Arab states in order to pressure the Palestinians to accept whatever terms are on offer, however unpalatable they are.

Washington thought Saudi Arabia might also be persuaded to make peace with Israel, which would be a diplomatic and domestic political win for Biden.

The US president became more and more convinced by the state department’s view that the Saudis could, perhaps ahead of the US presidential campaign in 2024, sign an accord.

‘They had to change the ink on the printer’

But the relatively leisurely timetable was disrupted in November 2022 when Washington was required to look up from the Ukraine crisis and accept Israel required much more urgent attention. At the beginning of the month, in its fourth election in five years, Israelis voted in the most rightwing government in its history.

The sensitive national security ministry was given to ultra-nationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man with a criminal record so long one judge told the New Yorker: “They had to change the ink on the printer.”

In the US, Daniel C Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, took to the pages of the Washington Post to urge Biden to recognise that Israel had never before set itself on such a dangerous course, and Biden would have to consider making US aid to Israel more conditional.

Netanyahu immediately launched his move to neuter the supreme court, knowing it would create divisions that might embolden Israel’s enemies, a message his defence minister Yoav Gallant conveyed to him personally and for which he was fired.

Within days of being appointed, Ben-Gvir started a campaign of disruption, visiting the most sensitive location of the Israel-Palestine conflict – what Muslims call al-Aqsa mosque compound, also known as al-Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem, and what the Jews call the Temple Mount, the holiest site of Judaism.

Israel has controlled all of Jerusalem since the occupation began but the small compound in the Old City had been in part administered by neighbouring Jordan to avoid further bloodshed. Yet for years, Ben-Givr had advocated an extreme change to the status quo on the Temple Mount and called for a synagogue to be built.

His visit to the third most sacred site in Islam was designed to have echoes in history. In 2000, the opposition Likud leader Ariel Sharon had sought permission to visit the site. Dennis Ross, then Bill Clinton’s Middle East coordinator, said: “I can think of a lot of bad ideas, but I cannot think of a worse one.”

He was right. Sharon pressed ahead, leading directly to the second intifada – the al-Aqsa intifada that continued until 2006. With Ben-Gvir determined to exercise what he saw as inalienable Jewish rights, the American administration privately feared a third intifada.

It led to a belated mini-American diplomatic offensive. In the opening weeks of 2023, Sullivan, Blinken and the CIA director and former near-east bureau chief William Burns, all separately travelled to Israel.

Days before Burns arrived in late January 2023, the Israeli military killed 10 Palestinians, including an elderly woman, during a raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.

Within less than a month of the visit, the cycle of violence returned and in late February the Israeli government announced plans for thousands of new homes in Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Days earlier at the UN security council, the US had blocked a legally binding resolution demanding Israel stop such settlements. Once the 7,000 homes were announced – in direct contradiction to the private assurances the US diplomats believed they had been given – more violence erupted. The Palestinian Authority was weakened further, as Netanyahu arguably intended.

By then the US was concerned less that Hamas would explode out of Gaza than the authority might implode after such an abysmal failure in the eyes of Palestinians. Under the impossibility of self-rule while under occupation, the authority had already lost control inside Gaza in 2007 and now the fear was that it could lose the West Bank.

‘There are no Palestinians, there are just Arabs’

At the US behest, the Israelis came to the Red Sea port of Aqaba in Jordan on 26 February 2023 to meet Arab leaders and pledge a four-month moratorium on settlements. It was the first negotiation between the two sides in 10 years.

But before the ink was dry on the communique, it was repudiated. Netanyahu simply denied that Israel had committed to halting new settlement projects during the summit.

A second summit at Sharm el-Sheikh on 19 March repeated the same pledges, and this time spoke of developing “a mechanism” to curb and counter violence, incitement, and inflammatory statements and actions.

Regardless, Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, was openly denying the existence of the Palestinian ethnic group.

“The Palestinian people are an invention of less than a hundred years. Do they have a history, a culture? No, they do not. There are no Palestinians, there are just Arabs.”

Far from punishing Smotrich, Netanyahu in June rewarded him by handing all control over planning approval for construction in West Bank settlements to him. Could Biden have done more to constrain the actions of the Israeli government?

The Democratic left says Biden should have recognised the de facto annexation of the West Bank was under way, intervened, and imposed a bigger punishment than a withheld invitation to the White House.

Bernie Sanders, for instance, in February had argued that Biden had to recognise this was a qualitatively different Israeli government to anything that preceded it.

He said: “If a government is acting in a racist way and they want billions of dollars from [US taxpayers], I think you say: ‘Sorry but it’s not acceptable. You want our money? Fine. This is what you got to do to get it.’”

Aaron David Miller, a state department Middle East negotiator for 25 years, described the Biden approach to Israel at this point as “largely passive-aggressive. The administration was not prepared to impose any significant or meaningful costs on this government for its actions. They are trying to manage this and hoping this will not turn into a major crisis for the region.”

Katulis said: “Israeli politics had taken on a life of its own. The bigger problem is so obvious – that like many previous administrations, they did not prioritise the US-Palestinian relationship.”

That failure meant the US administration was relieved when Abbas found an excuse not to go ahead with the parliamentary and presidential elections promised for May 2021. The US, Egypt and Jordan feared Hamas was likely to win.

The postponement, by cutting off a political route to power, is believed to have strengthened the military wing of Hamas, so much so that even its political wing has now been effectively sidelined.

Meanwhile, inside the administration and in Congress, the energy, and creativity, was evolving elsewhere – towards the initiative launched by Trump but to include Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia, the one-time pariah state, could be offered enough to join the peace accords, Iran could be isolated.

For Israel, normalising relations with the keeper of the two holy mosques would presage an opening of relations between Israel and the entire Muslim world.

This ambition from the White House’s perspective became even more urgent when China played such a visible role in the shock March announcement that Iran and Saudi Arabia were restoring diplomatic relations.

Sullivan rushed to Riyadh in May and July to check on Saudi policy. Blinken visited in June.

The Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, has been clear on their position: “Any peace with Israel must include the Palestinians because without addressing the issue of a Palestinian state, we will not have a true and real peace in the region.”

The difficulty was that Netanyahu had an entirely different take on normalisation, and the role of Palestine as he set out in his address to the UN general assembly in September. “The Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader peace. They should be part of that process, but they should not have a veto over the process.”

But as Israeli bombs fall on Gaza, Saudi criticism of Israel and its defence of the Palestinian cause has inevitably become more vocal. Saudis acknowledge that any normalisation deal is for now on ice.

In their diplomatic exchanges, the Saudis do not defend the Hamas carnage, but it has become clear that talks about Palestine’s future, not normalisation, is now the priority. In that sense, Hamas has managed to kill the new Middle East at birth.

Indeed Lovatt, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued: “The attack in their eyes was an attempt to assert the Palestinian cause on the regional stage, and to push back against Israeli-Arab normalisation.”

If anything, the crisis has ended what Lovatt described as a “collective addiction to a set of illusions” – most of all that the status quo and the impossible situation in Gaza can be managed.

“Some ideas are over.”

Patrick Wintour, via The Guardian

View online : The danger of leaving things be: how the world ‘failed miserably’ in the Middle East



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