Can regional diplomacy succeed on Gaza where Biden is failing?

Israel seems intent on no ceasefire, and it's putting the White House in an increasingly awkward bind

A Black Hawk military transport helicopter flying near the border with the Palestinian territory. AFP
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The main drawback of transitional arrangements for a situation as complex and tragic as Gaza is that they are subject to terrifying and amoral calculations, which could undermine any hope for peace. A permanent ceasefire remains unlikely at this time: Israel has informed mediators, including the US, that it needs until mid-December to complete its objective of eliminating or destroying Hamas’s leadership in the Gaza Strip.

Analysts say Israel is less interested in reviving the truce achieved through American, Egyptian and Qatari efforts, while Hamas preferred to prolong it to continue negotiations for the release of prisoners and hostages. Of course, Hamas also sees truces as an opportunity to regroup and regain the initiative, while Israel claims to be on the verge of achieving its goals – releasing all hostages before ending Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip. This is why Israel opted to resume hostilities.

US President Joe Biden has found himself forced to tacitly approve the continuation of Israel's offensive, especially since its justification was a Hamas rocket launch in alleged violation of the ceasefire. But his administration expressed hope that Israel would take extra measures to limit civilian casualties with a more cautious approach if it expanded its attack in south Gaza.

Developments in the West Bank are also a source of concern for the Biden administration, which is working with the concerned parties, away from the spotlight, to reach a plan for political stability in Gaza. This necessarily would require the co-operation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), based in the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a third visit to Israel and the West Bank this week, seeking to reduce tension, including urging Israel to take immediate steps to hold extremist settlers accountable for violence in the occupied territory.

The challenge facing Mr Biden is the potential for Congress to turn the public against the White House if the administration appears less sympathetic to Israel, still a favoured ally that remains largely shielded from scrutiny. This poses a complex dilemma, especially in a heated election year.

But the Gaza war has also shifted the spotlight on to Mr Biden's leadership, denying former president Donald Trump some of the spotlight. Some argue Mr Biden's handling of the conflict could earn him a healthy dose of electoral points, particularly if he succeeds in preventing its escalation into a regional or international crisis. However, there is another perspective, which holds that Mr Trump gains by avoiding entanglement in the Gaza issue, as any political point scoring from the Gaza war is likely to be short-lived. Mr Biden may thus struggle to replicate the significant successes achieved by previous presidents, such as the Camp David Accords.

Congress could turn the public against the White House if the administration appears less sympathetic to Israel

The Biden administration is banking on a qualitative leap that secures a historic achievement for the president. The administration, therefore, is not satisfied with temporary arrangements and is actively working towards a permanent settlement. They are engaging with influential countries in the Middle East to ensure the success of a lasting solution.

Critical partners include Arab and Islamic countries, represented by the ministerial committee formed at the recent Riyadh Summit; and Arab nations that have normalised relations with Israel, like the UAE. Additionally, those with influence over Hamas, such as Qatar, Egypt, Turkey and Iran are involved, alongside Israel and the PA.

The ministerial committee, led by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, has been approaching the permanent member states of the UN Security Council, and addressed the Security Council in New York with credibility. Qatar's Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, participated in a Security Council session, reflecting Qatar's pivotal role in the Hamas-Israel ceasefire negotiations.

The committee members convened an official meeting this month with the President of the Security Council, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in New York. This meeting was attended by the Prime Minister of Qatar and committee members, along with foreign ministers from Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and Indonesia. The Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, was also present, along with the Foreign Minister of Malaysia Zambry Abdul Kadir and the UAE's Minister of State Khalifa Almarar representing the Arab group in the Security Council.

Some may say committees, meetings, and speeches alone will not suffice, as long as Arab and Islamic nations withhold using leverage and sanctions against Israel for its ongoing violation of international laws and rules of war, particularly regarding the protection of civilians, and as long as the forced displacement from Gaza is being actively implemented.

Perhaps these measures will become necessary if Israel continues to resist American and international pressures. For now, however, the ministerial committee is only using political and economic influence — both Arab and Islamic — to persuade Israel to accept a ceasefire and then the two-state solution in return for co-existence and possibly normalisation. The goal of the ministerial committee, appointed by the Riyadh Summit, is to ensure the maximum national rights for Palestinians and to find a permanent and just settlement, rather than beating the drums of war.

All of this leaves the Biden administration in a delicate position amid divided public opinion within the US and Israel. Indeed, Israeli public opinion is leaning towards revenge rather than co-existence and settlement. In addition, intra-Palestinian divisions hinder a historic breakthrough towards a comprehensive settlement.

The new element that could benefit aspirations for a comprehensive and permanent settlement is the Arab and Islamic engagement through the ministerial committee and its challenging – but not impossible or futile – mission. Also noteworthy is Iran’s participation in the Arab-Islamic Riyadh Summit without objection to the final statement affirming the two-state solution – the state of Palestine and the state of Israel.

October 7 was a history-altering event, and subsequent events presented Israel to the world in a manner it had not been known before. Global public condemnation extended to Hamas and Israel alike, due to their violations of the rules of war, the holding of children as hostages and detainees and their disregard for civilians.

We are still in a precarious transitional phase, but the opportunity to reach a historic settlement has not been lost. The road ahead is, however, still fraught with difficulties and obstacles.

Published: December 03, 2023, 2:00 PM
Updated: December 07, 2023, 6:24 AM