Is Biden getting tough with both Israel and Iran?

The US President may be tightening the screws on Netanyahu and the Tehran-backed proxies, but to what end?

US President Joe Biden attends the dignified transfer of the remains of three US service members killed in Jordan, in Dover earlier this month. Reuters
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As the Middle East continues to face instability, there is widespread criticism of what appears to be a feeble US stance towards both Israel and Iran. Yet officials in Washington retain a sense of optimism that the Biden administration will leverage is relationship with Israel, which could lead to provisional agreements, ceasefires and consequential settlements involving the two regional powers.

It has taken much too long, but US President Joe Biden adopted a sharper-than-usual tone towards Israel last Thursday, saying that its military operation in Gaza had been over the top. “I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage ceasefire … to lead to a sustained pause in the fighting in … the Gaza Strip,” Mr Biden said.

The White House has also advised against Israel’s planned offensive on Rafah.

While the US has repeatedly called on Israel to limit civilian casualties during its military offensive, these appeals have never escalated to the level of a formal ultimatum. Thursday’s warning, despite the tone, has not been accompanied by concrete actions. In other words, the Biden administration appears not to have made a definitive decision regarding putting tangible pressure on Israel, such as imposing restrictions on its $3.8 billion annual military aid package.

During a recent visit to Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demonstrated patience even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a news conference declared his intent to expand the military operations – including towards Rafah, into which about one and a half million displaced Palestinians have been crammed. He made it clear that he accepts nothing but a total victory by eliminating Hamas.

Mr Netanyahu has so far shown little interest in a settlement, or a Palestinian state, or even a demilitarised state with reduced borders.

There is a sense, at least in some parts of the Arab world, that Hamas’s actions have proved costly for the Palestinian people

After the killing of more than 28,000 Palestinians, Hamas has called for a deal that, it says, should pave the way for a permanent ceasefire. However, Israel has categorically rejected its proposal, saying that it will not permit the group to continue running Gaza.

Nonetheless, if certain western media outlets are to be believed, Israel might be willing to facilitate the departure of Hamas’s top leadership from Gaza as part of a ceasefire and settlement. Indeed, these reports suggest that Israel is open to allowing Yahya Sinwar to go into exile in exchange for the release of all hostages and ending the group’s rule in the territory.

Current efforts by the US and key Arab nations are reportedly aimed at providing security assurances to Israel in return for its acceptance of the “two-state solution” and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In addition, a successor to Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas capable of leading both the West Bank and Gaza is being pursued. There is a sense, at least in some parts of the Arab world, that Hamas’s actions have proved costly for the Palestinian people.

Last week, Riyadh clarified its position through a statement from its foreign ministry, affirming that it had communicated its unwavering stance to the US that diplomatic relations with Israel will be established only after its recognition of an independent Palestinian state, an end to Israeli aggression in Gaza, and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory.

Be that as it may, the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza and elsewhere continue to threaten an escalation of the current conflict in the region. An operation in Rafah could have dire consequences, and the Lebanon-Israel border remains tense.

The Biden administration is expected to issue an ultimatum to Israel, starting with a gentle approach but potentially escalating to unprecedented measures if the Netanyahu government continues to defy it. Were that to happen, it could dent the traditional US-Israeli relations.

Meanwhile, neither the Biden administration nor the Iranian regime has so far been drawn into Israel’s provocations. This underscores the significance of US diplomatic efforts, particularly in pacifying the political class in Lebanon. The understandings with Iran are crucial, even as Tehran-backed proxies threaten American interests in the region.

The Biden administration appears to have adopted a strategy reminiscent of the previous Trump administration’s response to provocations by Iranian-backed proxies in both Syria and Iraq, by targeting their leaders. An American drone strike killed two high-ranking militia leaders in Baghdad late on Wednesday.

Tehran is attempting to distance itself from the actions of its proxies. It maintains indirect communication with the Biden administration, which appears to have taken a softer stance on Iranian responsibility for attacks targeting American interests. Both parties are treading cautiously between words and actions, in order to avoid a costly confrontation.

The Iranian regime, from what I understand, would consider a possible – although still-elusive – ceasefire deal in Gaza a positive outcome for the region.

For its part, the Biden administration is convinced that the Netanyahu government will arrive at some form of accommodation with Hamas. The challenge now lies in translating this conviction in Washington into a tangible reality in the ever-shifting sands.

Published: February 11, 2024, 2:00 PM