Robert E. Hunter served as US Ambassador to NATO and as chief White House official for Europe and the Middle East. He was Senior International Consultant to Lockheed-Martin from 1998 - 2013. He has written speeches for three US presidents and three vice presidents and provides coaching in strategic planning, political and executive communications and media handling.
With the multitude of issues the war in Gaza poses for the United States, the Biden administration needs to start, now, to answer a critical question: “What are America’s interests and goals for the future - in Israel, Gaza, the occupied West Bank, and the broader Middle East?” As far as one can tell, no answers to this question yet exist.
In addition to his current team, naturally overwhelmed by day-to-day tasks, President Biden needs to engage some smart and experienced outsiders to start thinking about a Middle East that does not repeat cycles of crisis and conflict, notably pitting Israel and the Palestinians.
The enormity of the current conflict is sufficient argument that there cannot be just return to a status que ante: in the Levant, that is punitive Israeli military action in response to provocations, eventually an end to fighting, and then “normalcy” before the next crisis escalates to open conflict.
The US has long been committed to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but too often marked by desultory diplomacy and not much presidential “oomph.” That is not good enough. The Gaza war has shown the size of the risks, not just in the Levant but across the Middle East and even beyond.
When the war ends, necessary US diplomacy will be made more difficult by the depth of feelings among Israelis, non-combatants in Gaza, and West Bank Palestinians. Would Israel be ready to consider a two-state solution? Even with a new government, the answer is clearly “No,” at least for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Palestinian demands have risen, including not just an end to Israel’s 16-year virtual blockade of Gaza, a halt to yet more Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and more killings by settlers, and radical change in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in general.
Israel will understandably continue paying in Gaza whatever price is required to ensure its security, as self-defined, even if that means sacrificing what is left of its standing abroad. There are also other prices. Notably, Israel cannot expect completion of the so-called Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia, even if the accords with other Arab states survive. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), wants access to Israeli high technology, a civilian nuclear program, some form of US security guarantee, and top-line US armaments. In exchange, he asked Israel for minimal movement on the “Palestinian question,” though both he and Israel obviously calculated that that could be finessed.
But because of reaction to the Gaza war by the newly-reenergized “Arab street,” Saudi Arabia cannot now consider an Abraham Accord. Even if after the war the Arab street again becomes quiescent, an Israeli-Saudi Arabia accord will not likely be possible without serious Israeli concessions to Palestinian aspirations. Whatever aims Hamas had for its October 7th assault, killing off this last piece of the Abraham Accords has been a result.
Iran is a further complication. One major Israeli motive for the Abraham Accords has been to isolate Iran. Israel has consistently opposed any improvement of relations between Iran and the West, especially the United States, while stopping short of war. Most notable has been its decade-long effort to scotch the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), concluded by President Barack Obama in 2015, and which trammeled any Iranian nuclear weapons program. Then, in 2018 Trump quit the JCPOA, with the predictable consequence that Iran withdrew from its part of the bargain – which until then was working. President Joe Biden followed suit by refusing simply to return to the JCPOA but rather has engaged in endless negotiations. Adding to that the impact of the Gaza war, a key US strategic goal of the JCPOA has thus been lost: to test whether there is a chance of moderating Iran’s challenges to a stable Middle East.
The Biden administration has been assiduous in warning Iran to keep out of the war, whether directly or through proxies. So far it has worked; and anyway, Iran should have no interest in exposing itself to attack. However, there is widespread suspicion that Iran is inciting proxies to widen the Gaza war, notably through Hezbollah on the Lebanon-Israel border, where fighting has been taken place. It’s not clear that Iran is encouraging Hezbollah to act, given the risks that Iran could get pummeled. Indeed, Hezbollah was only created in response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and thus has its own motives for taking advantage of Israel’s focus on Gaza. Also, Iran has already gained from the war in Gaza by new openings to key Arab leaders: President Raisi recently took part in the Riyadh summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and met for the first time with the Saudi Crown Prince and Egyptian President El-Sisi.
When Israel has previously used military force in Gaza, the US has usually temporized until the Israeli prime minister has judged that he has “got the job done.” Only then does Washington call on Israel to halt. This time, in face of the enormity of the October 7th Hamas attacks, President Biden has fully supported Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas. But he is now having to calculate the impact of increasing sympathy around the world for the Palestinian cause. Fairly or not, much of the world lays Israel’s military actions at America’s feet, imposing a price for the United States in its standing and influence elsewhere. Further, the war has caused a major rise in anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, as well as a (lesser) rise of Islamophobia, both of which everyone needs to counter.
To try threading the needle, Biden has rejected calling on Israel for a cease-fire but has rather asked for “humanitarian pauses,” in part to facilitate negotiations (mostly by Qatar) to get hostages released. This is having some success. Yet until the fighting stops for good, Hamas is most unlikely to give up the last of the hostages, who are its “hole cards.”
At some point, hopefully soon, both because of international pressure and his need to retain credibility for the US abroad, President Biden will need forcefully to tell the Israeli prime minister to stop the bombing. In response, Netanyahu should recognize the risks if he rebuffs Israel’s only patron by refusing to comply. Further, Israel has already destroyed a substantial part of Hamas’ military capacities and seriously degraded its ability to pose new threats to Israel.
If the war can thus be ended, Gaza’s borders should immediately be opened wide for refugees, especially across Egypt’s frontier – a country that depends on US money and good will but has so far failed to show concern for Palestinians. There also needs to be a massive flood of the vitals of life into Gaza. A radical improvement in the lives of ordinary Gazans would also reduce their dependence on Hamas and weaken its hammer-lock on Gaza’s politics – a point made by many outsiders since 2007.
The next questions are “Who will govern Gaza?” and “What security – for Israel, especially – could be provided?” As complex as these tasks are, they are “doable,” and many viable proposals – tested elsewhere -- are already on the table. Finding answers also depends on whether Israel will cede primacy in determining Gaza’s future.
More difficult is “How to work toward lasting peace?” Here, too, US leadership and commitment are key. They include beginning the long trek toward lasting security for Israel, an end to settlers’ violence, decisive improvement in the lives of the Palestinians, and a two-state solution which has long been a Palestinian demand. Because of his unstinting support for Israel, Biden has the asset of high credibility there; but unless he now presses for a rapid end to the war and follows-through with vigorous diplomacy afterwards, he will unfortunately continue having little credibility among Palestinians and cannot play the indispensable US role as honest broker.
How President Biden responds to issues like those raised here will have a critical impact both on US foreign policy overall and – more than anything else in his foreign policy so far -- his historical legacy.