The Middle East crisis Joe Biden hoped he would avoid

The Israel-Gaza war comes at a tough time for the US president, already dealing with Ukraine and other geopolitical crises

US President Joe Biden confers with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday. Reuters
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In the tumultuous arena of Middle Eastern geopolitics, US President Joe Biden's entire approach to the region has been brutally upended, with critics claiming his policies helped precipitate the unfolding Israel-Gaza war.

The murderous rampage by Hamas in Israel and the ongoing Israeli military strikes on and siege of Gaza are the antithesis of the image of steady progress that until recently the administration had been depicting.

In fateful comments just a fortnight ago, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan touted the apparent successes of the Biden administration's measured approach to the Middle East.

“Iranian attacks on US forces have stopped. Our presence in Iraq for now is stable,” Mr Sullivan said. “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been for two decades.”

Now, Mr Biden is dealing with a geopolitical crisis that risks spreading beyond Israel's and Palestine’s borders.

His administration's prior focus for the region, pushing a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, has seemingly been put on the back-burner while it rushes military aid to Israel for its expected invasion of the Gaza Strip.

“All of our attention … has been focused squarely on this conflict, on this heinous brutal attack and on helping Israel be able to defend itself,” Mr Sullivan said on Tuesday.

It's a huge mess for the Biden administration, which had steered its foreign policy towards countering China, helping Ukraine to fight Russia's invasion, and nudging Iran back into some sort of deal to slow its progress towards potentially obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The plight of Palestinians and the extent to which they should be factored into a Saudi-Israeli deal received little attention under the Biden administration, arguably a significant flaw in the whole endeavour. Now, a little more than a year before he is up for re-election, Mr Biden has a Middle East crisis squarely on his lap.

For the moment, the US Congress is united in its support for Israel. But Republicans are already trying to capitalise on the crisis, and Democrats are voicing concerns about the toll on Palestinian civilians as Israel attacks the Gaza Strip.

Former president Donald Trump, who in all likelihood will run against Mr Biden, said the Hamas attacks were the result of the US being “weak and ineffective” and claimed there would somehow have been “zero chance” of the assault happening if he were in the White House.

“When we get back in, I will immediately reimpose the Trump Travel Ban on entry from terrorist countries,” Mr Trump said at a rally on Wednesday, referring to what became known as his 2017 “Muslim ban” and appealing to his xenophobic base. Of course, any sort of travel ban in the US would have done nothing to protect Israelis from this attack.

Will Wechsler, the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Centre and Middle East Programmes at the Atlantic Council, said that whatever happens next, it probably won't factor into the November 2024 elections.

“It's always painful for international audiences to realise exactly how little foreign policy matters in most presidential elections in the United States,” Mr Wechsler told The National.

When pollsters ask voters their top concerns, “you usually have to scroll very far down the list before you get to foreign policy issues”.

Mr Biden has often professed his “love” for Israel. Over the decades, the 80-year-old president has visited the country more than 10 times, including as a young senator in 1973, when he met then-prime minister Golda Meir. The visit came shortly before the October war, the last time Israel mobilised on a scale similar to now.

“I do not think that what is motivating President Biden is the domestic political environment. I think he made his decisions about Israel many decades ago,” Mr Wechsler said, referring to Mr Biden's affinity and support for Israel.

The Democrat has had disagreements over the rightward political direction Israel has taken, most recently this year when he refused to grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an audience at the White House and met him on the sidelines of the UN instead.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks, Mr Biden put any political differences aside and repeatedly pledged unflinching support for Israel without referencing the civilian deaths in Gaza, where more than 1,000 people have been killed in Israeli strikes.

On Wednesday, though, he signalled his support had some limitations, saying Israel should follow “the rules of war”. Israel has already flattened large parts of Gaza and has cut off food and water to the territory's 2.3 million people.

Have Mr Biden's policies actually contributed to this crisis?

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said the Biden administration's Middle East policy has been a “strategic failure”, with too much emphasis on trying to reach a new nuclear deal with Iran even as the latter has funded Hamas and other anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

He was particularly critical of the recent prisoner swap with Tehran that saw five Americans walk free while Iran was to be given access to $6 billion in previously frozen funds – although the Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes.

“Israeli officials are on edge, believing, based on their own intelligence, that Iran is trying to get Hezbollah into the fight,” Mr Goldberg said.

The Israel-Gaza war is a conflict Mr Biden wanted to avoid. Whatever happens next could define his legacy.

Published: October 12, 2023, 9:33 AM
Updated: November 05, 2023, 11:10 PM