Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Joe Biden is discovering what most US presidents find out at some point in their tenure: Middle East politics is hard. It is deep-rooted in decades of war, entrenched in centuries of difficult coexistence.
After years of getting better, it is getting worse again. Palestinian children born during the second intifada, which took place between 2000-2005, are now old enough to avenge for the death of a parent. Gilad Shalit, the former Hamas hostage, and his unit may be years past their military conscription, but as Israel calls up 9,000 reservists, they may need to dust off their uniform and hope one of their number is not kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists for five years again.
When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there simply is no simple solution.
So often in politics, the option set is binary. Remain or Leave. Trump or Biden. Free speech or cancel culture. The Middle East fails to fit the mould. But it suits a world in which the happy median and polite disagreement are fading into extinction.
Both sides are capable of being right. In this case, one will tell you that Israel senselessly bombed a building that housed press outlets, including the Associated Press. The other will tell you if Israel laid down its weapons, the country would cease to exist: Hamas’ charter commits to the destruction of the State of Israel, for the avoidance of all doubt. Neither is wrong. ‘What about-ism’ too often plagues conversations about life in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Biden, Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, and Hady Amr, the State Department’s envoy, have their work cut out. Before them, Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to Donald Trump, made Middle East peace his top priority. But the events of the last fortnight prove that he made minimal progress.
The White House reportedly blocked three recent United Nations attempts at the Security Council to call for a ceasefire in order to protect its relationship with Israel for as long as possible – a critical ally and let us remember, the only democracy in the Middle East.
As the death toll grew, the White House could resist no longer. Biden has now “expressed support for a ceasefire” – short of calling for one outright – between Israel and Hamas in a call with Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden and Netanyahu are awkward allies, at best. Netanyahu pitted himself firmly against the Obama-Biden administration in virulently opposing (unsuccessfully) the Iran nuclear deal that was eventually signed in 2015. They are unnatural bedfellows. But the US-Israel relationship dictates that they must see eye to eye.
As the situation in the Middle East worsens, Democrats are split between the establishment and progressives
Congress is beginning to flex its muscles. Let us start with the GOP.
Republicans are unfailingly behind Israel, another legacy of Donald Trump. The 45th President was almost embarrassingly pro-Israel in office, typified by his deeply personal relationship with Netanyahu, and the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The legacy effect was that pro-Israel politics went from being a truly bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill to, essentially, a GOP foreign policy talking point. The running joke for decades on the Hill was that the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby could get a napkin circulated with 70 Senators’ signatures on it. After Trump, Democrats are proving harder to come by.
Biden has the current support of his party. It will not last long.
The Democratic establishment and leadership back Israel: the House of Representatives’ Speaker. Nancy Pelosi, did exactly that late last week during in a news conference. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, has an historically fierce pro-Israel voting record. (Pro-Israel politics has an outsized importance in his New York Senate seat.)
Left-wing Democrat Congress representatives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so often described as the ‘future of the party’, deviate from the leadership. And as a whole, the left of the party is not holding back.
Jon Osoff led a statement with 29 Democratic senators calling for such a ceasefire. Chris Murphy and Todd Young, the top Democrat and Republican on the Middle East subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Panel, led a bipartisan statement also calling for a ceasefire.
The centre of the party is wavering, too. Robert Menendez, the Democrat Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a fierce supporter of Israel on Capitol Hill, issued a statement over the weekend saying he was “deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”
And Gregory Meeks, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Democrats that he would ask the Biden administration to delay a $735 million tranche of weapons to Israel that had been previously approved. (The administration has approved the sale regardless.)
Fading unity is not just prevalent in the Democratic Party. The red, white, green and black in the Palestinian flag are the same colours that run through flags across the Arab world. The plight of the Palestinians is shared amongst its allies. But what has changed in the Middle East’s political nexus since the last major round of tensions between Israel and Gaza is Israel’s diplomatic engagement with the Arab world.
Israel has signed trade and peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – which, to his credit, Trump was happy to facilitate. Israelis now freely travel to Dubai for beach holidays, an unimaginable prospect ten years ago. Israel is now less of a blanket enemy in the region than it once was.
The underlying tragedy of the events of the last fortnight is the human suffering. Neither side is blameless, and once again civilian deaths are the sad outcome of failed diplomacy. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, said during an interview on MSNBC: “talk to the mothers who put their children next to them because if they’re going to die, they want to die together.” What is most upsetting is that her statement applies no less to mothers in Gaza than it does to mothers in Israel.