The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Israeli right undermines Biden’s Middle East agenda

6 min

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The Biden administration is trying to thread the trickiest of needles in the Middle East. While remaining steadfast in its support for Israel as it pursues its war against militant group Hamas, the United States is also trying to lessen the harm inflicted on Palestinian civilians in Gaza and minimize the scope of the conflict, which is threatening to widen across the region. Critics — including a chorus of pro-cease-fire protesters who interrupted President Biden at a Monday event in Charleston, S.C. — argue that those efforts at mitigation are broadly failing, and that the White House is either deliberately or witlessly presiding over a vast slaughter of Palestinians (at least 23,210 people, at last count) and the de facto ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip.

On a tour of Middle Eastern capitals this week that included a stop in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed ahead. He delivered messages from Arab counterparts to Israeli officials, urging the wartime government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scale back the intensity of its military operations and expand humanitarian assistance for a population wracked by hunger and disease. Blinken also reiterated the U.S. backing of Israel’s campaign and shrugged off a South African-led initiative at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide as “meritless.”

Looming over Blinken’s trips this week are the Biden administration’s concern that the war may spiral regionally. Israel may be withdrawing some forces from Gaza — though the toll on Palestinian lives has only worsened — but tensions are mounting on its northern border with Lebanon, where Israeli forces have been engaged in daily exchanges with influential militant group Hezbollah. “The risk that Israel might launch an ambitious attack on Hezbollah has never gone away,” my colleagues reported, citing White House and State Department officials, “but there has been broader concern about an escalation in recent weeks, particularly as Israel announced the temporary withdrawal of several thousand troops from Gaza on Jan. 1 — a decision that could open up resources for a military operation in the north.”

Then there’s the question of what comes next in Gaza. U.S. officials are pushing for a post-war scenario that would see substantive engagement and investment from Israel’s Arab neighbors, the return of non-Hamas Palestinian administrative rule to Gaza and the revival of a political track for the two-state solution — the now-moribund vision of separate Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side.

Protesters interrupted President Biden by chanting "cease-fire now" during his speech at the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., on Jan 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

In all this, the Biden administration is facing obstacles from within Netanyahu’s far-right coalition. The right-wing prime minister has spent much of his political career chipping away at the prospect of a two-state solution and came back to power with allies further to the right who explicitly reject any talk of Palestinian statehood. They also advocate further Jewish settlement of the West Bank and even of war-blighted Gaza. The rhetoric coming from within Israel has made U.S. attempts to hatch a regional plan to calm the crisis more difficult.

“The gaps between the Israelis and Arab leaders remain vast as far-right members of the Netanyahu government call for the mass displacement of civilians from Gaza and have dismissed American calls for a ‘revamped and revitalized’ Palestinian Authority to play a role in postwar Gaza,” my colleagues reported, nodding to Netanyahu’s public refusal to let the Palestinian Authority assert control over postwar Gaza.

One strain of analysis suggests that Netanyahu is subject to the forces that will keep him in power — namely, far-right firebrands like national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich. “These two far-right cabinet members are constantly fueling disputes between Israel and America and fanning the flames of polarization in Israel. … And Netanyahu appears to be their captive,” Amos Harel wrote in Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The Israeli right’s appetite for a maximalist victory and the broader domestic politics of the moment, Harel added, may mean Netanyahu “has a clear interest in making the war in Gaza drag on throughout the next year. And it’s hard to refute the American fear that this time, with his back to the wall, Netanyahu might also consider further escalation on the northern front.”

Israel’s talk of expanding war to Lebanon alarms U.S.

This is a far cry from the Middle East that the Biden administration hoped to see during its term in office. The White House dropped much of its human rights agenda for the region in favor of prioritizing Israel’s normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia. The political, economic and defense agreements that would emerge out of that formal rapprochement would, in the minds of many Washington policymakers, help bring stability to the Middle East and allow the United States to shift its focus to the Asia-Pacific and the thorny challenges posed by a rising China.

But the provocations of the Israeli far right and the ruinous scale of the war in Gaza is forcing difficult conversations back on the table — including a recognition that the lack of political and civil rights for millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation can no longer be simply swept under the rug.

After meetings in Saudi Arabia this week, Blinken told reporters that Riyadh was still interested in normalizing ties with Israel, but it “will require that the conflict end in Gaza, and it will also clearly require that there be a practical pathway to a Palestinian state.”

In a Tuesday interview with the BBC, Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, pointed to the Israeli right as an impediment to political reconciliation. “The problem that we have today with the current government in Israel is there is an extreme, absolutist perspective which does not work to achieve compromise and therefore you are never going to end the conflict,” he said.

For now, Netanyahu and his allies are digging in their heels. Analysts contend that the course of the war and spiraling regional tensions may also play into the hands of Netanyahu’s arch-nemesis, Iran.

“The Israeli right wing’s grand 1948-style strategy to redraw its demographic and geopolitical realities, on the one hand, and Iran’s patient exploitation of a growing arc of conflict, on the other, threaten to lead the Middle East, and the world, in a very dangerous direction in 2024,” observed Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. “And with the United States having little leverage over Israel — or, for that matter, Iran — and no other regional or global player able to bend this dangerous trajectory, the region looks to be headed in a very explosive direction.”