Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs U.S. President Joe Biden

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The Spectacular Failure of Biden's Middle East Policy

From his first day in office, Biden pursued a strategy intended to sweep aside the entire issue of Palestine. It was a mistake.

U.S. President Joe Biden is back from his shortened trip to the Middle East, a trip which turned into a clear demonstration of his fecklessness and failures.

Biden’s trip is being wildly spun by the White House and by mainstream U.S. media into something that was somehow at least minimally productive when, in fact, it was anything but. The grandest failure was that the three political entities that are arguably most enthralled to the U.S. –Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority—canceled their scheduled meeting with the President.

That’s no small thing. When the leader of the superpower that is providing considerable amounts of your revenue every year travels halfway around the world and has meetings scheduled with you, simply breaking it off is a big deal, regardless of the circumstances. But these circumstances warranted nothing less.

With Biden back in Washington, he immediately set about securing unprecedented amounts of money for weapons of war and weaving a narrative that he is hoping will quiet critics of each of the major conflicts the U.S. is involved in: Gaza and Ukraine.

Biden’s speech

Biden returned to tie Israel’s devastation of civilians in Gaza with Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion. Whatever one thinks of the policies in each war—and I find enormous flaws in Biden’s approach to each—the comparison could not be more off-base. In one case the U.S. is funding a fight against occupation, in the other we are backing the occupier with all we have.

Biden’s speech was aimed at explaining why he wants to send $14 billion to Israel and $60 billion to Ukraine. But more than that, Biden asserted that all of this was the duty of the United States, reasserting the U.S.’ long-time role as the world’s police force, imposing its version of law and order as the ultimate arbiter of justice, a duty thrust upon us.

The echoes of George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” were clear to anyone who listened to both. Equating two entities as different as Vladimir Putin and Hamas requires a great deal of spin, but it’s crucial to create the jingoism needed for a new march into long-term war.

In this case, Biden is leading the U.S. into a very different kind of warfare than George W. Bush did. In this version, U.S. boots don’t touch the ground. We are trying to relegate our involvement to aircraft carriers, missile launchers, and some planes. Will it work? It seems as flawed a strategy as Biden’s whole approach to the Middle East. It invites the sort of attacks on ourselves that we find so appalling.

But, as Biden said, “It is a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations,” adding that “It will help us keep American troops out of harm’s way.” It’s a cowardly move, of course. Other people do the dying, and we reap the benefits. But most of us won’t reap those benefits unless we have stock in Raytheon or Boeing.

Biden’s plans have a nasty tendency to blow up in his face after a while, and this is likely no different. And it seems our Middle East allies, for all of their fecklessness, are starting to realize that.

An embarrassing cancellation

First, Palestinian Authority President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas gave in to the overwhelming public pressure to cancel his meeting with Biden in the wake of the catastrophic bombing of the al-Ahli Hospital (Israel has dubiously claimed that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was actually responsible; see here for analysis of this claim, while Palestinians insist it was Israel). After that, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Jordanian King Abdullah II realized they had no choice but to cancel as well.

The enduring image from that trip will be his embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That image, captured while Israel was slaughtering thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including, at last count, over 1,374 children, communicated more than just Biden’s support of Israel.

Biden was left with only his trip to Israel, which brought his and the United States’ image even lower throughout the Middle East and the Global South. The enduring image from that trip will be his embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That image, captured while Israel was slaughtering thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including, at last count, over 1,374 children, communicated more than just Biden’s support of Israel. It sent the message that Biden embraces the very worst of Israel. This is, after all, a prime minister who was under a constant barrage of protest before this all began and, even with the rage in Israel and the rally-around-the-flag sentiment that usually accompanies a massive attack like the monstrous one Hamas carried out on October 7, is still wildly unpopular. In fact, recent polls found his popularity falling like a stone, as most Israelis, including a large majority of right-wing voters, blame him for the massive military and intelligence failures that led to Hamas’ horrific success on October 7.

But Biden loves the man, even as Israelis don’t, while the blood of the people of Gaza flows ever thicker. Biden also continued to parrot Israeli propaganda, repeating, in disturbingly cavalier language, the controversial assertion that Palestinians were responsible for the devastation of al-Ahli hospital. It was that catastrophe that sparked a huge spike in outrage and protest all around the Middle East and the world. And those protesters all saw quite clearly that Biden showed no sympathy at all for the people of Gaza.

Biden knew he had to make a gesture. So he authorized $100 million for “the Palestinians.” This was money that would go to the West Bank as well as Gaza, and it was unclear just how that money would be allocated. But it is a moot question for the moment. Biden got Israel to agree to twenty truckloads of humanitarian relief supplies to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. That means the roads at the crossing must first be repaired after Israel bombed them. Even then, the fate of those trucks is not assured. Israel has agreed not to target them, but it is not letting up in its assault on southern Gaza. Targeted or not, that means those trucks could be hit.

But twenty trucks is a tiny percentage of what is needed. For context, hundreds of trucks per day would come into Gaza before the bombing, and the United Nations, knowing the limits of what is possible, is calling for a bare minimum of 100 trucks per day.

So the so-called “humanitarian aid” that Biden boasted of convincing Israel to allow was really just for show. No real relief is promised.

What does it mean for U.S. policy?

Biden has managed perhaps the most spectacular failure of policy in Palestine and Israel in U.S. history. That’s no small statement considering how badly successive presidential administrations, starting with Bill Clinton, have exacerbated an already vexing situation.

From his first day in office, Biden pursued a strategy intended to sweep aside the entire issue of Palestine. As Matt Duss, former foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, described it, “The Biden doctrine presumed that the Palestinians could be shunted aside and offered some crumbs to keep them quiet. No attempt would be made to address a key source of violence: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem…”

Biden has managed perhaps the most spectacular failure of policy in Palestine and Israel in U.S. history.

Many of us, including some pro-Israel voices, insisted that was a foolish policy that was going to lead to trouble. But Biden—who, on domestic policy is all about avoiding confrontation and compromising until almost nothing is left—has shown a complete disdain for international diplomacy. That’s been true in Ukraine, with China, and with Iran. But nowhere has it been truer than in the Middle East.

Biden has tried to double down on Donald Trump’s dangerous and foolhardy idea of arming Arab allies and normalizing their relations with Israel to set up a US-client defense and trade alliance in the region. Both Trump and Biden called that “peace.”

That process is certainly not moving forward any time soon, given the widespread rage throughout the Arab world.

Worse, it’s clear that Biden has managed to anger even Israel’s closest regional allies, Jordan and Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at their meeting this week that Israel was committing the crime of collective punishment, and, while his statement that Jews had never been targeted in Egypt isn’t true, that he even said it to Blinken is a mark of his anger. And he wasn’t alone.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II said, at a Press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, “That is a red line, because I think that is the plan by certain of the usual suspects to try and create de facto issues on the ground. No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt.”

That was an obvious reference to rumors, and very likely, feelers from the U.S. and its allies, that Biden would try to pressure Jordan and Egypt into taking in refugees from Gaza. Temporarily, of course, they said. Of course, such temporary refugee status is all too familiar to the people of Gaza, 70% of whom were already refugees before this began.

But the firmness and anger from both Abdullah and Sisi was telling. The firmness comes from their own national concerns. Egypt has always seen the people of Gaza as a potential source of instability, from the days when Gaza was controlled by Egypt and largely isolated from the rest of the country, through to today when successive Egyptian presidents have seen the people of Gaza as a radical force, not without reason.

And Jordan is full to bursting with refugees from Syria, and its economy is teetering on the verge of collapse. It’s not just the capacity, but also the social instability crowding in hundreds of thousands of new refugees would bring.

Doubtless, both Sisi and Abdullah were also angry because of the contemptuous attitude the idea reflects toward not only the Palestinian people, but also to the Arab world in general.

That Israel would not care about their concerns in their zeal to drive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of Palestine again is unsurprising. But the fact that the U.S. would even consider making such a request shows such a profound ignorance of the conditions in Egypt and Jordan, and the U.S.’ insensitivity to what this request means surely spurred the anger.

The idea that Biden and Blinken were oblivious to what it would mean for Egypt or Jordan to be complicit in forcing as many as a million Palestinians out of Gaza and into other countries is stunning. But their obliviousness would not be shared by the Arab world. The echoes of the Nakba are so obvious they should not need to be pointed out.

It would be one thing, and still terrible enough, if Biden had turned to his allies out of desperation because nothing he could do would convince Israel to change course. But he is turning to them while fully backing Israel’s onslaught.

When Biden met with Israel’s main war leaders, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told him that, “it will be a long and difficult war, and Israel will need U.S. support for a long period of time,” according to an aide to Gallant. And according to journalist Barak Ravid, “Israeli and U.S. officials said Biden didn’t push back.”

A long and difficult war. That’s on top of an IDF spokesperson telling AIPAC—a decidedly unsympathetic audience to Palestinians—that “the scenes out of Gaza will be hard to stomach.”

None of this got any pushback from Biden or Blinken, just empty words about the need to address “humanitarian concerns.” And they’re doing that by sending twenty trucks of supplies for 2.2 million people.

Potential widening of war

The tensions with Hezbollah and Iran are also slowly inching upward, even though it is absolutely clear that neither they nor Israel nor the United States want to see a wider regional war. Iran sent a warning to Israel not to escalate the onslaught in Gaza, or they will consider taking action. A ground invasion may compel Iran to respond, which it would likely do indirectly, through Hezbollah or one of its militias in Syria. If it does so, it is a virtual certainty that Israel, and possibly the United States, will retaliate. The spiral from there is potentially terrifying.

The Gulf states won’t have as much of a problem staying out, but a war that still features massive Israeli assaults on Palestine is going to stir up massive outrage in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. It will put Turkiye in a serious bind, as Erdogan will not want to fight the U.S. but will want to support the Palestinians, a feeling likely to reflect a divided populace on the issue.

But even if the war doesn’t expand, the United States has lost a lot of traction in the region. U.S. support, in its purely military forms, hasn’t helped Israel’s security and U.S. policy has proven to be incompatible with diplomacy, whereas the U.S.’ absence opens up diplomatic channels, as it did for the Saudis and Iranians. That is going to be a more attractive model than ever.

The Saudis would be eager to assume a leadership role in the region by maintaining a business relationship with the U.S. but moving out of its security umbrella to a degree. Whether the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and other Arab nations that have normalized with Israel can maintain their ties is questionable. They will try, but it will depend greatly on how much Israel tests those ties. The same could even be true for Egypt and even Jordan, though the latter might be concerned about losing its special connection to Jerusalem.

Clearly, China is watching all this with great interest. Biden is alienating the entire Arab world with his hypocrisy. He devoted a few words to Palestinians’ humanitarian needs but offered no words about the one thing that can really help Palestinians in Gaza immediately: a ceasefire. He reiterated his naïve vision of a two-state solution that died years ago.

But all of the Arab world can see that the United States’ actions are completely disconnected from Biden’s words. Without ending the bombing, humanitarian aid, even if it extends past the twenty trucks that are primed to go in, can’t be safely or reliably distributed. There simply is no way to protect civilians in Gaza without stopping the onslaught.

For years, people have warned American presidents that its myopic, one-sided support for Israel and its indifference, at best, and antipathy, at worst, to Palestinian rights would eat away at the U.S.’ relationship with the Arab world. It has taken that turn now. Israel doesn’t care, especially now, with so much of its population blinded by rage at Hamas’ murderous attack. And Biden, sadly, doesn’t even seem to see it.

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