An Enduring U.S. Middle East Strategy?
February 18, 2023 | Expert Insights
Over two administrations- first Trump’s and now Biden’s- the U.S. has invested considerable political and diplomatic capital to cut the Gordian Knot of the intractable Palestinian issue in recent times. With major geopolitical upheavals in Europe grabbing most of the international attention last year, the Middle East has been fading from public consciousness. The Palestinians accuse Israel of quietly exploiting the situation to implement a right-wing strategy, further marginalising Palestinian interests and entrenching the Israeli stranglehold on the occupied territories.
However, there are signals now emanating from the White House indicating that two years into his administration, President Biden may be adopting a more pragmatic approach for a constructive influence in the region. Mr Biden’s 2022 visits to Riyadh and Tel Aviv had raised speculations of an imminent normalisation between two of his staunchest allies. This was considered a geopolitical necessity by a U.S. confronting a growing China -Russia nexus in the Middle East.
The ultra-right-wing supported coalition led by Prime Minister Netanyahu may have created a fresh set of problems for Washington, forcing the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to rush to the region for firefighting, reiterating U.S. commitments to the two-state solution for Palestine.
The Middle East has been an area of vital interest to the United States since World War II. Oil investments, ensuring the survival and maintaining the special friendship with Israel and limiting the Soviet Union's presence in the region have been the pillars of U.S. policy in this part of the world.
Rehabilitating Israel with its hostile Arab neighbours has been a cornerstone of American policy to secure Israel's nationhood, thus positioning a reliable ally in the Arab heartland. After the conflict-ridden decades from the 1950s to 1970s, the success of the Camp David peace talks in 1978 under the Carter Administration was the first major success in dousing the flames of conflict in the region. American influence ensured that both protagonists-Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin- got the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. President Jimmy Carter had to wait till 2002 to receive his Nobel Prize for the same feat.
Frameworks were agreed upon at Camp David for the future of the Middle East, the foundation of which was the two-state solution promising an independent Palestine state. For the last 44 years, this promise has remained in limbo even though successive U.S. administrations have come out with their own 'Road Maps to Peace' with little success. Therefore, can the Palestinians be blamed if they look at President Biden's overtures as yet another illusion with little promise of achieving their goal of an independent nation?
During his visit to the middle east last year, President Biden reflected on how the United States continued to have major interests in the Middle East and promised to reconstitute its level of engagement by realigning strategies and resources.
The emergence of a strong right-wing government under Prime Minister Netanyahu threatens to make this task even more difficult. The U.S. government is a realist enough to rule out any flexibility in proceeding towards a two-state solution under the new illiberal regime in Israel. The domestic pro-Israel lobby is too deeply entrenched and influential to be provoked by pressuring Israel to agree to a solution that deeply divides the Zionist nation. Therefore, while keeping the two-nation solution alive through messaging, Washington is unlikely to precipitate any major movement towards that goal in the near future.
While it is preoccupied with Russia in Europe, Washington would not allow a new geopolitical situation to arise in the Middle East, especially with Iran, whose domestic turmoil may tempt it to create mischief outside its borders. Despite his best efforts, the European situation has inhibited President Biden from generating the requisite momentum amidst his European allies to give a push start to the nuclear deal with Teheran. In the interim, Israel must secure American interests in the region. If Tel Aviv can be brought closer to other important players in the Middle East, especially Riyadh, then so much the better for American interests. And this is clearly the direction in which President Biden's Middle East policy is headed for the time being.
Human rights have taken a backstage as the U.S. courts Saudi Arabia again under its dynamic de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Riyadh's inclusion in the Abraham Accord would be a worthwhile objective for President Biden. The U.S. is also aware of the deepening of relationships between the Gulf states, China, and Russia. This was marked by the ambivalent attitude of prominent Gulf States towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine and their refusal to join the sanctions regime. Long-term energy contracts like the one signed by Qatar with China are another sign of America's dwindling influence in a region once considered its backyard.
India is also watching the American moves in the Middle East carefully as its strong strategic partnership with Israel's normalisation of relations with the other Arab powers stands to benefit. That leaves out Iran, another important cog in India's strategic calculus but one India may have to deal with bilaterally with tact and diplomatic finesse. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has been keen to involve India in Middle East realignments, as indicated by the formation of the Israel-India-US-UAE (I2U2) Group, whose first summit was was held last year with much fanfare.
- While the Israeli right wing may have enabled a strong government after years of political stability, it is incumbent upon the Israeli polity and its beleaguered Judiciary to ensure a quantum of political balance. History has proved time and again that extremist political ideologies have never led nations anywhere but death and destruction. The world, and a large constituency within Israel itself, recognise the Palestinian right to an independent homeland, and this must be ensured sooner than later.
- Towards this end, the U.S. administration's reiteration of Palestinian rights at the highest levels is an encouraging step. However, to really make a difference, the world is watching President Biden come out with more tangible proposals with timelines and milestones.