The Israel-Gaza war is quickly becoming a US electoral issue

A ceasefire in the Palestinian territory has become central to the makings of a regional settlement

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The US’s focus on securing a humanitarian pause in Gaza carries implications for America’s domestic political front, particularly for President Joe Biden’s re-election bid this year.

The state of Michigan could play a pivotal role, underscoring the significance of the Arab vote, despite its modest size. On a strategic level, the Biden administration’s investment in transitional arrangements is accompanied by diligent efforts towards fostering a US-Iran detente and US-Arab co-ordination. The administration hopes these efforts will culminate in a grand settlement in the Middle East.

Former president Donald Trump, who will almost certainly be Mr Biden’s opponent in the November election, is banking on the incumbent’s struggle to retain the Arab vote in Michigan in the hope that this would open a pathway for his return to the White House. Mr Trump also expects Mr Biden to fail to secure a grand bargain, because its core foundation involves appeasing Iran, as opposed to imposing a deal on American terms (which Mr Trump believes is the best way to resolve conflicts).

The coming weeks hold critical importance for both candidates. Securing a ceasefire in Gaza will become a key issue for both campaigns, alongside the dynamics of the US-Iran relationship and the Israel-Hezbollah equation.

It may appear simplistic to argue that Michigan could be a key gateway to the White House and that the Arab vote within the state holds this key. But this is becoming increasingly plausible, with Mr Biden having appeared to have lost at least some of the support of the traditionally Democratic-leaning Arab and Muslim base in the state, owing mostly to his stance on the Israel-Gaza war.

The “Abandon Biden” campaign is uninterested in the administration’s strikes on Houthi targets, aimed at safeguarding international navigation, or its response against the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in retaliation to the targeting of American soldiers last week. The campaign’s primary concern lies in Mr Biden’s support to Israel, including the provision of weaponry that has played a role in the killing of more than 27,000 Palestinians, and his rejection of calls for a permanent ceasefire.

Biden finds himself in what could be termed the 'Obama moment'

The Michigan Arab community’s dissatisfaction with Mr Biden has emerged at a time when he needs their support, which was pivotal in securing his 2020 victory. This will be music to Mr Trump’s ears.

The former president’s political messaging centres on his supposed ability to find solutions through the application of coercive tools. According to his campaign team, he is a man of peace, while Mr Biden has demonstrated a proclivity for war during his tenure.

The man who co-authored the book The Art of the Dealdoesn’t conceal his readiness for reaching difficult agreements.

Mr Trump suggests he has a roadmap for resolving the conflict in Ukraine, which could anger his opponents at home and Nato allies abroad, as it would be seen as the alliance abandoning Ukraine against Russia. But Mr Trump’s pragmatism puts him in a position to propose a deal to Moscow that would include halting the war in exchange for a re-evaluation of Nato’s supposed commitment to bring Kyiv into the alliance. In the eyes of the Trump team, this doesn’t amount to abandonment but a pragmatic solution to end the war.

The Biden campaign is likely to highlight the incumbent’s success in containing wars, preventing their escalation and steering the US clear of their pitfalls. The Gaza war serves as a live example, where the Biden administration has so far deterred Iran on the one hand and restrained Hezbollah in Lebanon on the other, thereby averting a regional war. Additionally, it has resisted Israel’s eagerness to embroil Washington in a direct conflict with Iran.

But the Biden administration’s problem is its perceived weakness and inability to deter direct attacks on American bases and interests, as well as to halt the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza, beyond seeking temporary humanitarian ceasefires. To date, the administration has been unsuccessful in securing a major deal and the lasting settlement that it is pursuing.

Mr Biden finds himself in what could be termed the “Obama moment” – when former president Barack Obama opted at the 11th hour to not strike Syria despite having declared a red line to halt Damascus’s prohibited chemical weapons programme in 2012.

Having been Mr Obama’s vice president at the time, Mr Biden is keen to avoid escalatory rhetoric. But the resemblance between the two men’s leadership styles lies in their inability to take decisive action. Indeed, there is an impression that Mr Biden failed to respond swiftly enough after suffering blows from Iran-affiliated groups and to reaffirm that the US does not tolerate targeting its soldiers and bases – including on the Tower 22 military base near the Jordan-Syria border. Instead, Mr Biden seems to have accepted Tehran’s claims that it isn’t involved in the operations conducted by its proxies.

The Biden administration’s response to the Tower 22 attack is likely to rely on conducting strikes on targets affiliated with Iran inside Iraq and Syria over the next several days. But this might be designed to avoid direct confrontation with Tehran, which Washington does not desire. However, it is not a resolute strategy and does not convey the message that this is a great power that does not tolerate transgressions by Iran or its proxies.

The Iranian regime does not seek war with the US or Israel. It is buying time to complete its nuclear weapons programme and avoid further domestic economic pressures. It may, therefore, seek to co-operate with the Biden administration to find solutions and even facilitate a major deal.

There is little doubt, then, that the fear of war is fundamental to both powers’ current policies.

The country that stands to benefit from this awkward situation is Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a valuable asset for Iran and the key to a major settlement if ceasefire efforts in Gaza prove successful.

Local reports suggest Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has informed relevant parties that Tehran is seeking a diplomatic solution to the Lebanon-Israel border disputes, and that it does not object to American mediation to delineate the land boundaries.

I am given to understand that US special envoy Amos Hochstein could unveil a deal between the two countries immediately after the impending Gaza ceasefire. The plan aims to implement UN Resolution 1701 and prepare the Lebanese army for deployment in the south.

Simultaneously, negotiations could be launched between Lebanon and Israel through the UN regarding the removal of disputes along the Blue Line separating Lebanon and Israel, and diplomatic solutions could be explored to settle the Shebaa Farms and Kafr Shuba disputes, which would necessarily involve Syria given that these territories claimed by Lebanon fall within the zone supervised by the UN Disengagement Observer Force maintaining the ceasefire between Syria and Israel since their 1973 war.

All of this, of course, requires Iran’s consent and approval.

Currently, however, all eyes are on the humanitarian tragedy that continues to unfold in Gaza – as well as any action the Biden administration will take in its dealings with Iranian entanglements and challenges.

Published: February 04, 2024, 2:00 PM