During his trip to the Middle East at the end of May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conducted talks with both the Israelis and Palestinians. He promised the US’ support in ensuring the continuation of the ceasefire that recently ended the deadly 11-day bombardment in Gaza and pledged to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Though these were helpful gestures, they were far from the paradigm shift the Palestinians had hoped for under Joe Biden.
Biden’s Agenda at Home
President Biden is facing various domestic pitfalls these days. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused severe damage to the economy. Racial tensions continue to increase, while the Republican Party is blocking the President’s agenda whenever possible.
Biden’s focus was supposed to be on “Build Back Better,” the idea of restoring and improving America simultaneously, instead of mediating conflicts in the Middle East.
However, the latest Gaza conflict between Hamas and US ally Israel forced Biden to react in some form.
An Old strategy in New Clothing
In response to the serious Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Biden sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region. Miracles were not anticipated. Rather, the primary goal was to prevent further escalation.
Blinken’s tone was, however, clearly distinguishable from that of his predecessor Mike Pompeo. The latter broke with tradition and visited Israeli settlements a few days before the local election, further exacerbating tensions there.
Blinken conspicuously emphasized the suffering of the people on both sides.
Contrarily, during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken conspicuously emphasized the suffering of the people on both sides.
Blinken also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, which did not happen under Pompeo’s watch.
Help That Will Hardly Make a Difference
During his conversation with Abbas, Blinken announced further humanitarian and financial support for the Gaza Strip: US$75 million in development and economic aid, US$5.5 million in emergency disaster aid, and US$32 million for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In addition, the White House plans to deliver 1.5 million Covid-19 vaccine doses. The situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories is serious, not only because of the recent fighting but due to the Covid-19 crisis, Blinken stated.
He also promised that the US would reopen its Consulate General in Jerusalem. For a long time, the Consulate served as an autonomous office responsible for diplomatic relations with the Palestinians. Trump changed that during his term and made the Consulate subordinate to the American Ambassador to Israel, when he moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hence, Blinken sought to underline the commitment of the US to rebuild relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian people.
The Secretary also said that the US rejects all steps on both sides that could jeopardize a two-state solution, including evictions and the construction of Israeli settlements.
Washington Establishment Politics
However, that is as far as Washington would go. Washington has no genuine interest in playing an independent mediator, and the conflict is not Biden’s priority. Biden cares about what happens in the conflict because it can have dire consequences for the entire region. Yet he does not see it as his task to finally bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians— and he is not inclined to do what is necessary to ensure that, as it would break the norm.
Biden is acutely aware that a serious attempt at resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict would require him to use the leverage the US has on Israel.
Indeed, doing so would include putting pressure on Israel. Biden is acutely aware that a serious attempt at resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict would require him to use the leverage the US possesses on Israel. Even though the situation within the Democratic Party has slightly changed, with more progressive voice arguing against biased US support for Israel, the Biden White House is not willing to go down that path. It does not come as a surprise, either. When Bernie Sanders suggested this idea during the 2020 US presidential race, Biden rejected it immediately. Blinken has echoed this position.
The reaction from Washington to the most recent conflict was correspondingly subdued. The State Department and the White House conducted standard diplomatic gestures, publicly urged de-escalation, and called on all sides to refrain from violence and provocations, but without any firm stance that could have altered the course of the conflict.
Loss of Interest in the Israeli-Palestinian Issue
One cannot speak of a powerful, active diplomatic intervention by the US or even significant pressure. American Middle East policy has yet to become fundamentally critical of Israel, even with the change of power in Washington.
Other matters are simply more pressing for Washington, particularly its fight for global hegemony with Beijing.
Moreover, Biden’s Middle East policy focuses not on Israel and the Palestinians but on the Iranians. Biden is concentrating on containing the regime in Tehran and, as opposed to his predecessor, is attempting to do so through diplomacy—that is, the return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Trump had terminated.
Hence, during Blinken’s visit, the nuclear deal was also discussed.
Netanyahu had previously warned the US that it should not return to the nuclear deal with Iran as it might force Israel to conduct a unilateral, pre-emptive strike against Iran.
Again, the lack of diplomatic pressure from the US is evident, as such an action would never even be contemplated if Washington drew a red line.
No Engagement with Hamas
Perhaps the most significant indicator that Washington’s position has not changed is that Blinken did not engage in direct talks with Hamas during his visit. Though real change will only be possible with Hamas.
After all, it may have more support within the Palestinian population than the Fatah movement-led PA. In addition, Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip for more than 15 years. President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 85 years old, has further dwindled support for the PA, especially after another postponed election. Although Hamas and Fatah agreed on the move, it sparked public criticism.
The US appears inclined to work with the PA, but not Hamas, for as long as the latter is designated as a terrorist organization.
Nonetheless, the US appears inclined to work with the PA, but not Hamas, for as long as the latter is designated as a terrorist organization.
Palestinian unity, one of the keys to lasting peace, cannot be achieved via this approach.
It appears as if the US’ plan for the conflict is to make Israel feel more secure in the hope that when it does, it might be willing to offer concessions to the Palestinians. However, all the evidence suggests the exact opposite.
Blinken’s visit was not based on a new vision for peace but rather on what is politically possible within the context of American domestic priorities. This means a continuation of – for the Palestinians mostly – a detrimental status quo.