After the egotism, America-Firstism and unpredictability of Donald Trump, Joe Biden would bring back the multilateral, institutionally-engaged and constructive United States of old. He would follow in the footsteps of Democrat predecessors such as Jimmy Carter, who initiated the Camp David accords, which brought peace between Israel and Egypt; and Bill Clinton, who brokered the Oslo accords, which didn’t quite do the same for Israel and the Palestinians.
If you thought so, then think again. Obviously, some of the President’s policies break with his predecessors: on Iran (he wants to return to the nuclear deal), on climate change (America has rejoined the Paris accords) and, up to a point, on Israel-Palestine (he has restored aid to the Palestinians that Trump cut off).
But there is no sign whatsoever that the Biden administration is rolling up its sleeves for a major Middle East peace push. And a lot of evidence to the contrary.
For better or worse, and for whatever reason, the President has been unwilling to seek an early UN Security Council resolution in response to the latest outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas – the scale and range of which clearly caught the administration by surprise. Previous flare-ups have not previously been followed by violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel itself.
We can think of at least four reasons why Biden is reluctant to be drawn in. First, the Clinton initiatives ultimately failed: a summit in 2000 collapsed, when Ehud Barak was Israel’s Prime Minister. There is no shortage of veterans from the Clinton administration in Biden’s, including Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, and their collective take seems to be: once bitten, twice shy.
Especially since, second, Israel’s leadership has changed over the last 30 years – and not at all to Team Biden’s liking. Benjamin Netanyahu took Trump’s line on the Iran deal, or rather vice-versa, and Biden’s wish to restore it will do nothing to smooth relations. After Trump was elected, he rang Netanyahu within two days. His successor waited for three weeks.
Third, once Biden took a major initiative in the Middle East, he would own it – with all the political risks that might entail with both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinianian Democrats in Congress (and voters). Furthermore, who would the President engage with on the Palestinian side? With Mahmoud Abbas, who is clearly terrified of losing power in the West Bank, hence his postponement of elections? With Hamas?
Finally, America is moving on – and has been doing so for some time. Remember how Barack Obama wanted Europe’s main military powers, Britain and France, to take responsibility for military action in Libya. The retreat from the Middle East didn’t begin with Trump – who, remember, did see through the Abraham Accords, which brokered peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Indeed, Israel’s battle with Hamas should be seen through the lens of the struggle in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The latter arms Hamas (and Hizbollah); the former co-operates militarily with Israel. Insofar as Biden is working to end a war in the Middle East, he appears to be focused on the conflict between the Saudis and Yemen.
But with America no longer dependent on middle eastern oil, the President has more pressing foreign affairs priorities – not least, dealing with China.
Quite right too, many will say – adding that, whether one’s sympathies are with Israel, the Palestinians, both or neither, the odds of a fully engaged Biden administration making a difference are vanishingly long. Be careful what you wish for, however. When the United States is active abroad, others complain. But beware of the consequences when it isn’t. (The EU lacks the authority and capacity to substitute).
Like the bloody struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Israel-Palestine has the capacity to spill over onto our streets. Nine officers were injured over the weekend, as the police were targeted during a pro-Palestine protest. And men brandishing Palestinian flags drove through North London, with one proclaiming through a loudspeaker: “f**k the Jews…rape their daughters”. What happens in Jerusalem and Gaza has consequences in Kensington and Finchley – and elsewhere on our streets.