It is monumental task for any diplomat in any era to contain a fire in the world’s oldest match box, much less amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the real threat of more terrorist attacks in Europe. US President Joe Biden decision to visit Israel this week though cut short due to internal tensions, is a mission wrath with political dangers.
US President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu relationship spans almost 40 years. They have been uncomfortable allies at the best of times, having joined forces despite being at odds over the path forward in the Middle East. Biden fully supports an agenda for independent Israeli and Palestinian states. Though Biden announced that the US will be providing $100 million in humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to support the more than a million displaced people in need of water, food, medical care, he pleaded with Israeli leaders not to allow the rage over the killings of “your fathers, your grandparents, sons, daughters, children, even babies” to blur the clarity over their objectives in trying to destroy Hamas.
Biden is a foreign affairs veteran. From his long decades of experience in the US Senate and as a former vice president, he knows the perils of this region more than almost anyone in US politics. Biden’s Presidency though has been seen by many political analysts as a monumental disaster on the world stage, from the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan through his shameless groveling towards Communist China. On his visit to Israel, Biden wanted to look like an honest broker dealing with both sides in the Middle East. He faced the embarrassment of being told by the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority that they have no confidence in his ability to end the violence, which they say is in breach of international law. There is no doubt whose side Biden is on when it comes to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The president described the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October “sheer evil”, and said the country had a right and a duty to defend itself. He has been crystal clear about Israel. He’s been about as forceful and morally clear as he’s ever been. He’s expressed firm support, told Israel they will get whatever help they want, that the US has Israel’s back.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s declaration that “the United States has chosen to lose its qualification as a mediator” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has sealed a difficult scenario for Biden. Insofar as a mediator requires both parties to accept its authority, the US has reached a block in its ability to mediate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
At Shimon Peres memorial in 2016, US President Biden described Peres as exemplifying “the indispensable quality of the Israeli character,” noting his work in developing the Jewish state, the security of his people and his commitment to making peace with Israel’s neighbors’. During the speech, Biden referred to himself as a “Zionist” and recalled a time earlier in his career when he was criticized for identifying himself as such. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he said.
This war presents a challenge for diplomatic practice, yet diplomacy has never been more vital. By failing to make any immediate breakthroughs, Biden’s trip showed the limits of US leverage in a grave geopolitical situation and therefore suggested, worryingly, that it may not be possible to stop events spinning out of control. While a peace treaty may not be on the horizon, the historical general distrust of America’s ability to be a fair arbiter between the two parties may also limit Biden’s ability to influence Palestinian leadership to take more immediate actions conducive to peace. Biden believes the Hamas militant group must be eliminated but there should be a path to a Palestinian state. The US President warned it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza but that “taking out” Hezbollah and Hamas was a “a necessary requirement.” He said “It would be a mistake to … for Israel to occupy … Gaza again.”
Critics will say Biden would have been wiser to stay at home and leave the diplomacy to diplomats. Coming here, they say, risks making matters much worse. He must now prove them wrong.