On October 18, President Biden arrived in Tel Aviv on what many called “a high-stakes trip”. Mentioned in that context were standing resolutely behind Israel, preventing a wider regional conflict, and saving hostages. One may also add Mr. Biden’s legacy to the list.
After sharing hugs with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Herzog, “We will continue to have Israel’s back as you work to defend your people,” he said at the airport.
Before his departure, he made remarks to the media. He again underlined Wahington’s strong commitment to Israel’s security. Addressing Israel’s enemies, “And my message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago: Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.” he warned.
His words of caution to Israel were the following:
“But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes…”
As for the future, he said:
“Nations of conscience like the United States and Israel are not measured solely by the example of their power. We’re measured by the power of our example. That’s why, as hard as it is, we must keep pursuing peace. We must keep pursuing a path so that Israel and the Palestinian people can both live safely, in security, in dignity, and in peace. For me, that means a two-state solution.”
During his remarks, President Biden also said that he was immediately going to ask Congress for an unprecedented support package for Israel’s and Ukraine’s defense which reportedly will be around 100 billion dollars. And he announced 100 million dollars in new US funding for humanitarian assistance in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Had the Al-Ahli hospital blast not occurred and President Biden’s Amman meeting with Arab leaders not been canceled, his words of caution to Israel might have resonated with moderate Palestinians. Unfortunately for him, the loss of hundreds of lives at the hospital completely changed the picture triggering protests across the Middle East. Mr. Biden’s endorsement of the Israeli rebuttal of the accusations that it had attacked Al-Ahli added to anger. Regardless of the subtle messages he publicly conveyed to the Israeli government, the mainstream Arab would only remember his repeatedly declaring that America has Israel’s back, his pictures sharing hugs with Israeli leaders, talking to Mr. Netanyahu with an arm over the latter’s shoulder. Whatever evidence Israel may put on the table to deny responsibility for the hospital blast is unlikely to change their minds.
As Mr. Biden was in Tel Aviv, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning all violence against civilians in the Israel-Hamas war. The resolution sponsored by Brazil had wide support and would have condemned all violence against civilians, including “the heinous terrorist attacks by Hamas” against Israel. The vote in the 15-member Security Council was 12 votes in favor and the U.S. against, with Russia and Britain abstaining. The US permanent representative to the UN said the resolution was unacceptable because it made no mention of Israel’s right to self-defense.
President Biden’s mention of mistakes made after 9/11 was interesting. What he must have meant was the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that not only caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people but also created fertile ground for the emergence of ISIS and its likes, thus leading to new security risks across continents. Were the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq fully learned by following US administrations and President Biden? No. Otherwise, Washington would have refrained from participating in the Sarkozy-led intervention in Libya. At the time Mr. Biden was the Vice President. Moreover, President Obama maintained a respectable relationship with him and allowed him to engage in diplomatic missions in stark contrast with today’s White House.
President Biden is now back in Washington but questions are still on the table.
The first is what happens with the hostages in the hands of Hamas. The release of an American mother and daughter on Friday was more than anything a message by Hamas that it has to be taken as an interlocutor. Some news outlets appear to have pinned their hopes on countries with links to Hamas, namely Qatar and Türkiye as “Qatar played a decisive role in securing the release of two American hostages,” said President Macron on Twitter. At the end of such endeavors, more hostages may be released but all of them being safely set free is, unfortunately, a chimera as most of them appear to be still in Gaza, a war zone.
Interestingly, the day President Biden was in Tel Aviv, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on ten key Hamas terrorist group members, operatives, and financial facilitators in Gaza and elsewhere including Sudan, Türkiye, Algeria, and Qatar.[i]
The second is the humanitarian aid to Gaza. Today, the first group of 20 trucks carrying humanitarian aid passed through the Rafah crossing from Egypt toward Gaza. However, both Israel and the US have said that continued aid depends on Hamas not diverting or stealing the shipments. Easier said than done. What is clear is that irregular drops of humanitarian aid will not resolve the Gaza Strip’s pressing problems.
The third is the IDF’s long-anticipated invasion of Gaza. Everybody knows that Israel will take military action but its timing, scope, cost, and regional and international implications remain big questions. It is clear that northern Gaza, in particular Gaza City, will never be fully evacuated by Hamas as ordered by Israel and the battle for complete control of the area will not be a swift operation and will cost many lives. Moreover, it will pose a threat to the hostages. The alternative for the IDF is to raze the city to the ground with artillery fire and air attacks. In that case, Hamas while fighting the IDF, will do its utmost to bring civilian casualties to the world’s attention. The hostages will not survive. And even if northern Gaza were to be cleared of Hamas, their presence in the south would continue to be a problem. In brief, there are no easy choices for Israel.
The fourth is the imperative to prevent a wider regional conflict. President Biden, vocal in his support for Ukraine and Israel, has consistently ruled out putting Americans directly into the fight. The Hamas-Israel war could test him. Lately, Israel’s regional arch-enemy Iran’s foreign minister made some threatening remarks directed at Israel. Would Iran turn its threats into action and trigger a war with Israel and consequently with the US? Would Iran plunge into such an adventure? No. But Iran would be delighted to see the US military getting even minimally involved in the Middle East, like the US bombing of an anti-Israel group or the deployment of troops in Israel. The determinant here would be the amount of support Iran would extend to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other anti-Israel groups. Tehran would continue to support them, but not to the brink. In the past Iraq and Syria also stood up to Washington. This no longer is the case, but the US military presence in these two countries is a potential target. Last Thursday, a US warship in the northern Red Sea shot down three cruise missiles and several drones launched by Houthi forces in Yemen that the Pentagon said might have been headed toward Israel.
And the fifth is finding a path to “Israeli-Palestinian peace”. With the Hamas’s incursion into Gaza and Israel’s military reaction, the nearly forgotten “two-state solution” is once again on the agenda. The past offers little optimism for the future, but the precondition for any meaningful revival of the process is for the Palestinian Authority to renew itself and thus gain the confidence of the followers of militant groups. As the protests in the West Bank have shown, the 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas is no longer the person to represent his people as a whole. For a smooth Palestinian transition and lasting Middle East peace, the serious involvement of leading Arab countries is a must. The recent speech by the respected Saudi statesman, Prince Turki al-Faisal, contains important messages for the region’s future.[ii]
What made the headlines in the past week was President Biden’s visit to Israel. Chancellor Scholz also visited Tel Aviv the day before and then went to Cairo but his trip was barely noticed. On Thursday Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was there and his vowing to stand with Israel against the “evil Hamas” surprised no one. He might soon be followed by others or one of the EU Trio. The problem is the EU/Europe is no longer an actor in the Middle East. The colonial past of its leading members and the contradictions between its haughty talk about the noble principles of the rules-based international order and democracy and the actual policies it follows have turned Europe into a non-actor. As President Biden admitted, the US has also made mistakes, but it has the kind of power that Europe does not and will not have. Do Europeans see their declining global status as a problem? It does not seem so.
As the US is getting entangled once again in the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed two dozen world leaders and more than a hundred delegations mostly from the Global South to an event marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative. “Over the past decade, from 2013 to the present, I have had 42 meetings with Mr. President, establishing a strong working relationship and deep friendship,” Xi told his guest of honor, President Putin. The bilateral trade between the two countries has reached nearly 200 billion dollars. And it seems that China’s gross domestic product grew 4.9 % year on year in the third quarter of 2023.
Until now Beijing has carefully refrained from getting involved in Middle East issues. Engaging Riyad and Tehran in their exchange of ambassadors was seen as a beginning. But China too may soon learn that one can never be sure how long the Middle East deals last.
Today, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who has enhanced his position as a regional leader in the past two weeks will host a peace summit with leaders of a dozen countries, including top officials from Turkey, Qatar, and Europe.
It is high time for Ankara to avoid empty rhetoric and engage in constructive diplomacy.