The struggle to find the middle ground in the Middle East

Internal political divisions in countries such as Israel and Iran are pushing the region to the brink

Supporters of pro-Iran factions gesture in front of a poster bearing an image of killed top Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani, right, and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, in Baghdad's Tahrir square last week. AFP
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There are serious societal and political divisions of varying degrees in the US, Iran, Israel and among the Palestinian people, but ideological rigidity seems to be the common denominator – particularly in Israel and Iran.

Israel is sinking deeper into the hole that the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dug for it, having rejected the two-state solution even if this runs counter to what Washington has called for. Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to grapple with internal fragmentations between its Islamist and nationalist movements.

The Iranian regime is hawkish as ever. But since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, it has sought a delicate balance, being neither prepared nor willing to have a direct war with Israel. Consequently, it is attempting to realign its proxies across the Middle East with its priorities, reclaiming decisive control over them to contain chaos.

In the US, President Joe Biden’s administration is navigating through all this, particularly with regard to dealing with Israel and Iran, amid a fateful election campaign for the governing Democratic Party.

Mr Biden’s presumptive rival, former president Donald Trump, is squarely focused on domestic affairs and purportedly rejects any involvement in perilous foreign matters. He appears content on letting Mr Biden stumble into foreign policy pitfalls in the run-up to the November vote.

Mr Trump proudly claims that no wars erupted during his presidency. He sees himself as a man of unwavering resolve and one who refuses to succumb to Iranian blackmail. He says he places faith in the efficacy of sanctions over getting embroiled in wars. He also claims to be a master of the “art of the deal”.

Netanyahu’s position on the two-state solution amounts to a direct confrontation on his part with Washington

As president in 2020, he presented his vision for a two-state solution, which essentially gave Mr Netanyahu everything he wanted, leaving the Palestinians with only a vague promise of a constrained “state”. That said, he takes pride in brokering the Abraham Accords.

His team opposes engaging with Hamas and is critical of the current administration’s policy of negotiating with Iran and its proxies, even if it is being done through third-party countries.

He does not view restraining Iran from entering a war as a diplomatic achievement for Mr Biden or the region. Instead, he sees danger in backdoor agreements while Tehran buys time to advance its nuclear weapons programme and return to a policy of hegemony, extending its influence through proxies. For the Trump camp, the Biden administration’s reversal by redesignating the Houthis is just one glaring example of the mistakes it has made vis-a-vis the region.

Iran, naturally, views Mr Trump’s return to the White House as a catastrophe. Consequently, it will attempt to collaborate with the Biden team to contain the war in Gaza, prevent its escalation, and not hinder the two-state solution that Washington is working on with the Arab world.

The Israeli government will bide its time, hoping to see Mr Trump back in the White House. But what Mr Netanyahu might not be grasping is that Mr Trump probably recognises the importance of the current phase, with its historical risks and opportunities. The former president isn’t likely to undermine the positive relations he built with America’s Arab allies for the sake of the Israeli Prime Minister’s misguided notions.

Mr Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution, unanimously endorsed and supported by the world and the US, demands a response.

Even as the US and its European allies need to keep the pressure on the Iranian regime over the actions of its proxies, including the Houthis in the Red Sea, they face several choices to rescue Israel from the Netanyahu government and prevent it from dragging the Middle East into a war involving the West.

The Biden administration has succeeded, so far, in pressuring Israel to not open a war front with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But it is a temporary and transitional measure.

Mr Netanyahu’s position on the two-state solution amounts to a direct confrontation on his part with Washington. This development alters the equation as he steps into the US presidential election arena, convinced that the Jewish vote and financial support will align with Israel’s interests rather than with those of the Democratic Party.

The Prime Minister has gone to the extent of saying that the current conflict is not about the existence of a Palestinian state but that of a Jewish state.

The Biden administration is still attempting to negotiate a transitional agreement with Israel, beginning with reducing the intensity of its operation inside Gaza and the killing of civilians. During this transitional period, arrangements would be made for a deal involving security guarantees in exchange for Israel’s acceptance of a flexible equation for the two-state solution. Some refer to this as the start of yet another “process”, while others see it as wordplay, as required by diplomacy.

The crucial point is that we are still in the dangerous zone of escalations and provocations. It is evident that there are divisions inside both Israel and Iran, with the latter having conducted direct strikes against Iraq, Pakistan and Syria this week.

Both nations are stumbling. Both are searching for a face-saving formula. Both are constrained by their ruling ideologies. But what is noteworthy, and perhaps a saving grace, is that even though both claim to desire the demise of the other, at their core, they cannot, or rather do not, want to make it happen.

There is, of course, no exit from this circle of anxiety just yet. But equally, there is no shift into a terrifying military resolution either.

Published: January 21, 2024, 2:00 PM