To cut a long story short, let’s start with the conclusion: U.S. President Joe Biden should not get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly not now or in the foreseeable future.
He should not waste precious presidential time, unnecessarily expend political energy, surely diminish U.S. power and certainly decimate diplomatic capital by going back to a place broadly considered and empirically proven to be “the graveyard of presidents’ foreign policy.” There is nothing in it for the United States, nothing in it for Biden.
A basic cost-benefit calculation will demonstrate that the potential cost (or failure) far outweighs the unattainable effectiveness. The U.S. has no vital interest in relitigating previous engagements in “the Peace Process,” repackaging or supposedly improving old and unsuccessful policies, or exerting itself in an effort to find an innovative and creative new policy.
As long as Israelis and Palestinians are reluctant, unwilling, incapable or lacking the leadership to engage in a serious political conflict-resolution effort, the United States in general – and Biden in particular – should simply stay away at this point in time.
Biden is under some pressure to return to the Middle East. There is a vocal and not-without-clout foreign policy ecosystem in Washington that sees the last round in Gaza between Israel and Hamas as proof that the U.S. needs to devise a coherent policy. Perhaps it is impossible to “solve the conflict,” they admit, but introducing small confidence-building measures and displaying the U.S. interest would constitute a presence and an involvement that would prevent escalation and “manage the crisis.”
This is D.C.-speak for “Let’s get back to our favorite issue.” These are think-tank, lobby group and media platitudes that will prove to be nothing but a wasteful and destined-to-fail distraction from Biden’s agenda. His successful recent intervention, which led to a cease-fire after 11 days, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s regional visit this week, when he stressed the U.S.’ commitment to strengthening the Palestinian Authority, are seen as portents of some longer-term U.S. policy formulation. They are not.
The United States is in a process, or a trajectory, of gradual disassociation from the Middle East. Energy independence, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fatigue with military entanglements and a more robust challenge in China are widely perceived as the causes of this policy shift. But, the D.C. ecosystem argues, the region has a tendency to suck you back in if you dare neglect or disassociate from it. The U.S. must therefore be proactive, a vociferous choir of professional “peace processniks” (aka Mideast experts) contend, and so Biden is being urged to assert his leadership and offer creativity, diplomatic mediation and leadership.
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Yes, there is also China and Russia, but the Middle East is the holy grail of U.S. foreign policy, the argument goes.
There’s just one thing: Biden does not seem to agree with that.
He was elected to fix, repair and propel an ailing republic, not decide the future of settlements in the West Bank.
Here is a snapshot of President Biden’s agenda and priorities: the $1.9-trillion “American Rescue Plan” (aka COVID-19 stimulus package); an ambitious $2.3-trillion infrastructure endeavor (pending negotiations and adjustments) called the “American Jobs Plan”; and an additional tax credits and education-focused $1.8-trillion initiative titled the “American Families Plan.”
In addition, there’s the question of augmenting the Supreme Court, correcting an imbalance that does not reflect U.S. society, and possibly seeking statehood for Washington, D.C., to partially correct the world’s most distorted and unrepresentative elected body: the U.S. Senate.
Politically, the president has two very slim majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and a less-than-hospitable or favorable political climate ahead of the November 2022 midterm elections.
In international relations, Biden’s ostensible and explicit macro approach – and preferred paradigm – is to reengage and strengthen existing regional alliances, emphasize coalition-building and multilateral policy implementation, concurrent with the renewed, reinvigorated projection of U.S. power and resolve via setting and mediating international priorities. Sounds simple? It isn’t.
In terms of specific foreign policy priorities, there is a three-tiered structure at work.
Tier one comprises just one challenge: China. This is a geographical challenge that stretches from the Korean Peninsula in the north to the South China Sea in the south. It is also an economic challenge stretching from the Pacific Rim, through inner-Central Asia, to the Middle East, north to Southern Europe and south to Africa.
Tier two is an adversarial and defiant Russia, balancing its strategic and economic inferiority with cyberattacks and intimidation, and a return or possible expansion to a modified Iran nuclear deal (aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).
Tier three are crises that arise or existing crises that escalate: Yemen, Myanmar, North Korea (the latter is arguably part of tier one).
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just not in those three tiers.
Of all the dusty old clichés used repeatedly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one appears to be perfectly suited to Biden’s presidency: the U.S. cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. Once Israel and the Palestinians actually recognize and internalize this, perhaps a new U.S. policy will be welcome.