From Iran and Israel to Europe and the ICC, Biden may curse his luck

Far from securing a grand bargain in the Middle East, the US President is facing a grand setback in an election year

It's been a forgettable few days for US President Joe Biden, seen stepping off Air Force One in Delaware earlier in the week. AFP
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Key developments in recent days – all of them relating to the Middle East – will have led the Joe Biden administration to curse its luck, particularly given that the region’s shifting sands have the potential to sink the US President’s re-election chances in November.

In Iran, it was negotiating understandings with president Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian before their deaths in a helicopter crash.

In the Hague, Prosecutor Karim Khan requested the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as Hamas leaders.

And in Europe, Ireland, Norway and Spain recognised the Palestinian state, amid support from several countries on the continent for Mr Khan’s application – thereby revealing a fundamental rift in the West.

All of this affects what the Biden administration views to be a golden opportunity for a historic agreement between the US and Saudi Arabia, hinging on Israel’s acceptance of the principle of establishing a Palestinian state.

So what surprises and pitfalls await the administration while it tries to navigate a domestic storm, not just with Congress but within the governing Democratic Party over various issues, including Israel’s war on Gaza?

Let’s start with Iran, where seasoned diplomat Brett McGurk, Mr Biden’s Middle East point man, was working towards understandings with key figures in Tehran. The talks were promising, as the two countries aimed to reach an agreement of some kind that would satisfy Iran’s desire for sanctions relief without its coveted nuclear programme being affected in any significant way.

Contrary to Biden’s desire for a grand bargain, Saudi officials view their talks with Washington as bilateral rather than trilateral

In return, the Iranian regime would conceivably have committed to restraining the Houthis in the Red Sea and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria to prevent the war in Gaza from escalating further into a full-blown regional conflict. Additionally, Tehran was urged not to disrupt the two-state solution, even if Israel’s version of it is not at the desired level.

Mr McGurk also sought to ensure that Iran would not disrupt the defence agreement that the US is negotiating with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Tehran has a history of undermining US security or defence relations with Arab states.

The deaths of Mr Raisi and Mr Amirabdollahian will affect the timeline of the Biden team’s ambitions. Iranian diplomacy won’t be able to move forward, for now, with internal stability being the absolute priority at this juncture. This won’t suit Mr Biden’s interests.

Also inconvenient for the US President is Mr Khan’s request for arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders, inviting threats against the Prosecutor from some members of the US Congress and efforts within the Biden administration to counter his move.

What has angered both Israel and the US is that the ICC has effectively placed Israeli officials in the same category as Hamas leaders, accusing both sides of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Some Palestinian parties are also angered, given that the Court has equated the oppressor with the oppressed, arguing that Hamas’s attacks on October 7 were a form of resistance against Israeli occupation.

The double standards are evident in both camps, as they both seem to ignore their duty to protect civilians during war and not use them as cover.

US threats against the ICC are a disgrace, especially after several of its legislators had praised the Court’s decision to issue a warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes in the war in Ukraine.

If the ICC does issue arrest warrants against the Israeli and Hamas leaders, the European countries that are parties to the Rome Statute will be obligated to arrest Mr Netanyahu, Mr Gallant, and anyone else indicted for the alleged crimes if they were to visit them. It also won’t be easy for countries such as Qatar, Turkey and Iran to continue providing a safe haven for individuals linked to Hamas. Indeed, the ICC won’t differentiate between warrants for Israeli and Hamas officials.

To recall, it is the accession of the state of Palestine to the ICC that has empowered Mr Khan. One of the benefits of Palestine’s ICC membership is holding Israel, as an occupier, accountable for its actions.

Broad European support for Mr Khan’s request, particularly as this coincided with key European countries recognising Palestine, has caused hysteria among Israeli authorities. Yet it must be noted that Mr Netanyahu has already turned it into political ammunition for himself within Israel, before the US Congress and against the Biden administration.

He has mobilised nationalist sentiment behind him and Mr Gallant by portraying the request as an indictment of the Israeli military establishment.

The Israeli Prime Minister is now heading to Washington to address Congress as a victim. Ironically, Mr Biden has frequently spoken of the Netanyahu government’s violations against Palestinian civilians, yet he only managed half-measures in his attempt to prevent Israel’s incursion into Rafah. The fear now is that Mr Netanyahu will be emboldened by American support to double down in Gaza.

What will the Europeans do? It is crucial for them to implement arrest warrants for Israeli officials if the Court issues them. Meanwhile, the recognition of the Palestinian state is not merely symbolic but also beneficial even for the Biden administration, since the latter agrees to a two-state solution.

However, none of this will matter as long as none of the western governments are prepared to impose sanctions on Israel to hold it accountable for obstructing the two-state solution.

Faced with Israel’s total obstruction of its efforts, the Biden administration wavers between complaining and acknowledging its impotence, especially in an election year. Thus, it invariably ends up bowing to Israeli demands, bearing the costs and consequences of its actions.

Arab countries are well aware of the weaknesses in US proposals, the fragility of Biden administration’s promises and the fantastical thinking behind their grand bargain ambitions. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has made its position clear with pragmatism and openness.

Primarily, since Israel is adamantly against the establishment of a Palestinian state, Riyadh’s message to it and the Biden administration is clear: no Palestinian state, no diplomatic relations with Israel. Contrary to Mr Biden’s desire for a grand bargain, Saudi officials view their talks with Washington on the defence agreement and peaceful nuclear co-operation as bilateral rather than trilateral.

Whether the multiple setbacks to Mr Biden end up costing him at the ballot box remains to be seen. But they will certainly add to the pressure already on the President’s political ambitions.

Published: May 26, 2024, 2:00 PM