Opinion | Biden’s Win Last Week in the Middle East Is Part of a Bigger Failure

By Equipo
8 Min Read

President Biden’s behind-the-scenes crisis management appears to have helped stop a wider war from igniting in the Middle East — for now. But that tactical win for the administration is actually part of its much larger strategic failure in the region.

Over the past two weeks, Mr. Biden has scrambled to ensure that the unprecedented open exchange of fire between Israel and Iran did not spiral into a full-blown conflict. After Israel struck the Iranian Consulate in Syria on April 1, killing senior Iranian military officials, Mr. Biden publicly urged Iran not to strike back while privately negotiating a choreography that ended in Tehran’s well-telegraphed barrage of missiles and drones being shot down before they could inflict major damage in Israel. Mr. Biden then tried to persuade Israel not to retaliate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t heed the order, but Israel’s response was so muted that Tehran effectively ignored it. Mr. Netanyahu’s minister of national security called it “lame.”

Mr. Biden deserves credit for orchestrating this crucial de-escalation. Iran launched an attack that failed, as it was designed to; Israel’s response was limited enough that Iran could pretend it hadn’t been attacked at all. But while the president’s maneuvering helped avoid an immediate disaster, it is his own policies that have set the Middle East on its current dangerous trajectory. Israel and Iran have been embroiled in a shadow war for more than a decade, but they had never been this close to all-out war.

Since Hamas’s attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, Mr. Biden has refused to leverage America’s considerable influence over Israel to rein in the behavior of Mr. Netanyahu’s government, to secure a cease-fire or to deter Israel from committing what may amount to war crimes or acting against American interests. Instead, he has followed Mr. Netanyahu’s lead, even as Israel has put vengeance over interest.

Mr. Biden has armed Israel in the middle of what the International Court of Justice has said could plausibly be considered genocide, including twice circumventing congressional review and oversight of arms shipments. His State Department has made a mockery of his claim of centering America’s foreign policy on the protection of human rights by certifying that Israel is not committing war crimes in Gaza. And most important, he has on three occasions vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a cease-fire. He allowed one such resolution to pass last month, only to immediately undermine it by claiming it was nonbinding.

These policies have not only prolonged the war in Gaza, contributing to the slaughter of civilians and isolating the United States internationally. They have also fueled the risk of a regional war into which the United States could easily be dragged. The war in Gaza led to the breaking of the unwritten cease-fire between U.S. troops in the Middle East and Iraqi and Syrian militias aligned with Iran, which in turn led to a significant rise in attacks on American forces and the killing of three American service members in January. Mr. Biden responded by using force against these militias and the Houthis in Yemen, bringing the United States ever closer to open conflict.

The president, while he has often said he supports a two-state solution, has also pushed policies that, at best, ignored Palestinians’ right to statehood and, at worst, directly blocked them. Before the war, the Biden administration paid little attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and failed to reverse several Trump-era decisions, like the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which was the official diplomatic point of contact between the United States and the Palestinians. President Donald Trump’s formula for the Middle East asserted that a two-state solution was no longer the key to peace in the region. Rather, economic integration between Arab states and Israel would deliver peace, and Palestinians would effectively have to accept their fate as a people doomed to indefinite occupation.

Mr. Biden has continued to channel diplomatic energy into building on Mr. Trump’s Abraham Accords. The accords offered costly American concessions to Arab states in return for their dropping of the demand for Palestinian statehood as a condition for normalizing relations with Israel. Mr. Biden embraced this approach early in his presidency, and has sought to outdo Mr. Trump by trying to bring in the most important Arab state, Saudi Arabia. But by blocking any hope that peaceful efforts could deliver the national aspiration of Palestinians — the accords offer nothing more than a pinkie promise of a “pathway” to statehood — both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden made Palestinian violence all the more likely.

Rather than re-evaluate this approach after Oct. 7, Mr. Biden stuck to that formula. Mr. Biden’s pursuit of a normalization deal with Riyadh was put on hold when the war broke out. Now Washington is once again abuzz with rumors of how close Mr. Biden is to sealing a deal between Saudi Arabia’s dictator, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Israel’s right-wing government. As part of any such deal, Saudi officials are reportedly now considering settling for mere verbal assurances from Israel that it will participate in talks on Palestinian statehood.

Though all of this is presented as a new and innovative plan for the Middle East, it is eerily similar to America’s decades-long failed strategies of organizing the region against Iran instead of supporting an inclusive Middle East security architecture that brings in all of the region’s governments. While Iran’s ideological animosity toward Israel runs deep, Tehran has on numerous occasions in the past hinted that, within a larger regional arrangement that doesn’t exclude it, Iran can live with whatever Israeli-Palestinian agreement the Palestinians themselves find acceptable.

Mr. Biden has pursued policies that have pushed the Middle East to the precipice of war. His tactical successes in avoiding the worst outcomes of his policies should not be belittled. But they can never make up for his government’s broader failure to pursue a strategy that brings real security to America and real peace to the Middle East.

Trita Parsi is the author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy” and the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute.

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