After Gaza, resentment against the US has sharpened in the Middle East

Biden has no realistic political endgame for the war and little regional backing for anything he proposes

Biden faces the biggest test yet of his ability to avert a wider war in the Middle East. Bloomberg
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Many believe that among those who stand to lose from the war in Gaza is the Biden administration and the US in general. For months, Washington has covered for Israel’s bloody military campaign, blocking calls for a ceasefire and rearming the Israeli armed forces without any restrictions on how their weapons should be used.

Moreover, this approach has harmed US interests. The continuation of the Gaza conflict has only increased the possibility that it might spread regionally and draw in the Americans. The continuing attacks against the Houthis are a case in point. As President Joe Biden faces a more isolationist electorate in an election year, he cannot afford that US forces be trapped in another Middle Eastern war.

But there is another issue that Americans will soon have to deal with. Gaza has exacerbated a growing rift over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the societies of the region, who continue to respond to the Palestinians’ fate with profound emotion.

This emotion, in turn, has injected a moralistic dimension into the debate that has only sharpened resentment against the US. At the societal level, Gaza has underlined for many Arabs that the US does not consider Palestinian lives, or Arab lives in general, equal to those it perceives as western, such as Israeli lives. Many Arabs cannot understand how one can explain away the killing of at least 24,000 people by pointing to the, admittedly vicious, killing of around 1,200 Israelis on October 7.

Arab societies increasingly alienated from the US may have major consequences for US power in the region

In The Washington Post, Egyptian writer Abdelrahman ElGendy expressed this sense of disillusionment, writing: “This world was never built to accommodate us. Even in the most progressive circles, we are a disruption to be tolerated only if we remain model, tokenised Arabs: palatable and coy, offering the prerequisite condemnations before demanding our humanity.”

Therefore, the Arab world’s new divide with Washington, thanks to Gaza, has become a much more fundamental, almost passionate, one. It is built on a perception that America’s promise does not extend to peoples of the region, from whom the past three US administrations, whatever their myriad other differences, sought to break free.

And this rift is being replicated inside the US. It has been increasingly noticeable that Palestine, hitherto a marginal issue in US political discourse, has surprising power to mobilise Americans, especially young Americans. That is not to say Israeli influence has dwindled, but whereas there was a broad consensus among American elites on the centrality of the relationship with Israel, today this is much more contested.

All that comes on top of a new attitude among regional leaders, one focused on pursuing national interests and no longer accepting US priorities as their own. These dynamics – Arab nations less willing to do Washington’s bidding, Arab societies increasingly alienated from the US because of issues such as Gaza, and domestic US discord over Palestine – may have major consequences for US power in the region.

For starters, it will negatively affect Washington’s ability to define a peaceful aftermath. With the US vulnerable on so many levels, the Biden administration has proposed a return to a formula on Palestine in which no one believes, and which its Israeli ally rejects. And it has done this even as Washington continues to oppose steps to end the carnage in Gaza, therefore no longer enjoys any credibility as a mediator.

In other words, Mr Biden has no realistic political endgame for the war, little regional backing for anything he proposes, and a deeply divided electorate at home, with many supporters, even in his own Democratic Party, having turned against him.

As Palestine becomes another divisive issue within the US, and as Washington's policies push its Arab allies to take their own population’s misgivings about the Americans seriously, US administrations will find it much more difficult to enlist the countries of the region, or even western countries with stakes in the region, in efforts to support its global political agendas.

Pro-Israeli conservatives in the US for a long time claimed that the Palestinian issue was dead. October 7 proved them wrong. Not only does Palestine still preoccupy the peoples of the Middle East, it is being used by US rivals to weaken American regional influence. At the same time, Washington’s controversial policies are buying leaders in the region the latitude to manoeuvre more freely in an increasingly multipolar world.

When all regions of the world have become potential places of competition between the US and China, America's missteps in the Middle East will affect power relationships with Beijing and even Russia, who gain by doing nothing at all. For the US not to be blindsided by the Palestinian issue again, it must therefore pay more attention to resolving a conflict that it has spent two decades ignoring – negligence that effectively favoured the stronger side.

Short of that, Washington will have to accept that its position in the Middle East is destined to erode, as societies in the Arab world encourage their leaders to distance themselves from a global power that is unresponsive to what matters to them. Given their mood today, these leaders may be much more inclined to agree than they were previously.

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Published: January 17, 2024, 7:00 AM