These are all developments of the past week, but they would seem equally familiar to observers of U.S. foreign policy during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office.
Following the upheavals of the Arab Spring, an Obama administration keen on unwinding the ruinous wars and perceived overreach of the George W. Bush era got embroiled in a slate of Middle East crises. It cheered the democratic awakening that rocked Arab societies in 2011, but later found accommodation with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi after he came to power in a 2013 coup. It attempted but failed to reconcile the Israelis and the Palestinians and looked on as Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip over 50 days in 2014. It clinched the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran after months of fitful negotiations — and despite the intense lobbying of Netanyahu and Republicans in Congress.
Biden was Obama’s deputy through all of this, and many key officials in Biden’s administration are also veterans of the Obama years. When they came back to office in January, they hoped to turn the page on U.S. policy in the Middle East — reversing some of the effects of four years under President Donald Trump, but also completing the long-mooted strategic “pivot” to Asia, where many in Washington envision the greatest challenges of the coming decades.
The flaring of violence between Israelis and Palestinians was a jolt to an administration that had not planned on investing much effort in changing the dimensions of the long-running conflict. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent this week on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East, meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Sissi in Cairo and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman.
Blinken promised U.S. assistance toward rebuilding Gaza after nearly two weeks of Israeli bombardment as well as toward replenishing the Israeli defenses that warded off thousands of rockets fired by Hamas. He expressed his hope to “build” on last week’s cease-fire and welcomed the engagement of Israel’s Arab neighbors. He also met with Palestinian civil society and voiced the administration’s support for Israelis and Palestinians winning “equal measures” of freedom and prosperity — a new line from the White House that, despite its vagueness, signals a departure from the Trump administration’s open embrace of the Israeli right.
But critics contend that the Biden administration’s shielding of Israel at the United Nations reflected a persistent U.S. role in a conflict in which it has underwritten the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands for decades. “It seemed from the outside that the administration was less interested in intervening and more interested in running interference for Israel’s own operations in Gaza,” Omar Rahman, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told Vox. “They damaged their own claim to lead the world on human rights, even if they were working hard behind the scenes to bring a halt to the fighting.”
Few experts now see any hope for significant progress, not least because the United States has been here before. “The greater irony is yet another wash, rinse and repeat cycle,” Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who has advised Republican and Democratic administrations on Middle East issues, told my colleagues. “Millions for Gaza reconstruction only to see it leveled in the now all-but-inevitable next round.”
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Biden administration is reading from a “dusty, old playbook,” Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Today’s WorldView.
So, too, are its domestic opponents. In the shadow of the fighting between Hamas and Israel, 44 Senate Republicans sent a letter to the administration urging that it suspend its attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal broken by Trump. Their argument, echoing rhetoric from Netanyahu, was that lifting sanctions on Iran would only lead to the regime in Tehran further funding its militant proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas.
“The United States must not do anything to enrich Israel’s enemies, such as by offering sanctions relief to a regime that seeks to destroy Israel,” the senators wrote.
U.S. officials started their fifth round of indirect talks with the Iranians, mediated by European interlocutors in Vienna, this week. Beyond the opposition of Republicans in Washington, the negotiations are also complicated by Iran’s internal rumblings. On Tuesday, the country’s theocratic Guardian Council issued a list of approved candidates for next month’s presidential elections that only included hard-liners. It’s a sign, analysts say, of apparent insecurity within a regime that senses rising threats from within and without.
“Biden should exploit these vulnerabilities to get the best deal possible, one that is good for people and bad for authoritarianism,” wrote Post opinion columnist Jason Rezaian, arguing that the United States need not rush back into a deal with Iran, no matter the latter’s revival of previously curtailed uranium enrichment activities. “Iranian officials can no longer hide the fact that they have lost nearly all public support, something the Biden administration should weigh as it decides what concessions to make to Iran, and what to seek in return.”
Biden is arguably already making concessions on other fronts. On the campaign trail, he vowed to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” for his role in the assassination of dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. He also tweeted last July that the era of “blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator” — a reference to Egypt’s Sissi — would come to an end under his watch. The latter, not unlike Israel, receives hefty U.S. military assistance each year, yet has done little to address U.S. concerns over his authoritarian behavior, including the detention of hundreds — thousands, by some counts — of political prisoners.
A few months into his presidency, and it “seems clear they are going to deliver less than they promised during the campaign,” said Dunne, acknowledging the complexity of managing these “enormous, legacy relationships in the Middle East.”
Biden officials are engaged on a wide range of fronts through the Middle East and North Africa, from reopening the U.S. Embassy in Libya to trying to bring an end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen that the United States previously supported to helping mediate a major water dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over a dam on the Nile River. This “low-key diplomacy,” as Dunne puts it, is probably more what the administration had in mind for the region.
“They came in. They had priorities, and they tried to be disciplined,” she said. “And then stuff happens.”