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James M. Dorsey

Biden may not have enough rope to push his vision of the Middle East

Not enough rope

By James M. Dorsey

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This year’s US presidential elections are not the only potential hurdle confronting President Joe Biden’s multi-pronged vision for a Middle East peace once the Gaza war ends.

So is Israeli intransigence, the prospect of a long-term insurgency in post-war Gaza, and increasing Saudi Chinese technological cooperation.

The Biden administration is pushing for a multi-pronged comprehensive Middle East deal that would not only end the war in Gaza but also produce a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The deal would involve a reformed Palestine Authority governing Gaza and the West Bank, a credible pathway to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and Saudi recognition of the Jewish state.

The plan doesn’t lack ambition but the odds of all the pieces coming together are almost insurmountable, certainly in the time left until the November US election, even if Saudi Arabia has bought into the concept, albeit with a high price tag.

Assuming the price is right, Saudi Arabia is interested in cutting a deal while Mr. Biden is in office. The kingdom is not sure that a second Donald J. Trump presidency would meet Saudi demands, particularly its insistence on a legally binding defense agreement with the United States.

Despite his catering to the Saudis during his presidency, Mr. Trump turned the moment the kingdom needed US assistance into a business opportunity.

In response to Yemeni Houthi attacks in 2019 on Saudi oil facilities that temporarily knocked out 50 per cent of the kingdom’s oil production capacity, Mr. Trump described the incident as a Saudi, not an American problem, and offered to retaliate on behalf of the Saudis if they were willing to foot the bill.

Saudi Arabia is not the only player putting a price tag on a Middle East deal.

The United States has indicated that Saudi Arabia would have to curtail its technological cooperation with China on return for a defence agreement.

Nevertheless, signalling interest in a deal, Saudi media, much like Al Jazeera, the pioneer in airing Israeli voices in Arab media and covering the Jewish state with correspondents on the ground, have increasingly included Israelis in their reporting on the Gaza war, despite the kingdom’s vocal condemnation of the Jewish state’s war conduct.

Even so, the war has raised the price Saudi Arabia insists on extracting from Israel and the United States in return for diplomatic recognition.

In contrast to vague Saudi references to a resolution of the Palestinian problem before the war, officials now insist on a “credible and irreversible” pathway to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Public opinion in the kingdom and across the Muslim world enraged by the Gaza war is one reason for the hardening Saudi position.

However, an incident earlier this week suggests that changing Saudi attitudes towards Israel and Jews may not happen overnight.

A delegation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) curtailed a visit to the kingdom after the group’s chairman, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, was asked to remove his skullcap during a tour of a heritage site, despite Saudi Arabia’s projection of itself as a beacon of tolerant and ‘moderate’ Islam.

The Saudi embassy in Washington said, “This unfortunate incident was the result of a misunderstanding of internal protocols.” The embassy did not say what those protocols are.

The United Arab Emirates recently highlighted the sensitivity of relations with Israel when its state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and multinational oil and gas giant BP suspended a US$2 billion bid to buy a major stake in Israel’s NewMed Energy company.

The UAE established relations with Israel in 2020 and has insisted it will maintain the relationship despite its criticism of Israel’s war conduct.

New Med, which owns a 45 per cent stake in Leviathan, Israel’s biggest gas field, and 30 per cent of Aphrodite, located off Cyprus, said the suspension was due to “uncertainty created in the external environment.”

To be sure, Israel is no less in need of a sea change in attitudes towards Palestinians for a pathway to a Palestinian state to be credible and irreversible. That too is not going to happen overnight and may not happen before Americans go to the polls.

Discriminatory attitudes towards Palestinians have always been ingrained in Israeli society but have been on steroids since Hamas’ October 7 attack.

In addition, opposition to a Palestinian state, particularly one that is not demilitarised, extends far beyond Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative coalition partners.

While implicitly highlighting the imperative of a political solution, this week’s US intelligence’s Annual Threat Assessment also implicitly suggested that Hamas will remain a player that will need to be taken into account in any peace process.

In effect, the assessment suggested that Israel would not achieve two of its three war goals: the destruction of Hamas and ensuring that Gaza no longer serves as a launching pad for armed Palestinian resistance.

Similarly, Israel’s third goal, the freeing of Hamas-held hostages is likely to be a product of negotiations rather than military action.

Hamas holds hostage some 136 people and bodies of captives killed in the war. Negotiations on a ceasefire and prisoner exchange have stalled.

“Israel probably will face lingering armed resistance from Hamas for years to come, and the military will struggle to neutralize Hamas’ underground infrastructure, which allows insurgents to hide, regain strength, and surprise Israeli forces,” the assessment predicted.

If correct, continued Palestinian resistance is likely to stiffen Israeli opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state.

In recognition of the likelihood that Hamas will remain a player, the Palestine Authority has insisted that the group would have to be part of the mainstream Palestinian polity, even if it is not represented in a post-war transition government.

The Authority’s insistence is one reason why Mr. Netanyahu opposes taking control of post-war Gaza. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu wants tribal and clan leaders to administer the Strip under Israeli tutelage.

In a first step, Israel was believed to be attempting to recruit Gazan clansmen to provide security for aid convoys entering Gaza.

Bowing to US and international pressure, Israeli military spokesperson Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari said this week that Israel, accused of using “starvation as a weapon for war,” planned to “flood” the Strip with humanitarian supplies.

The website of Hamas’ Al-Majd intelligence and internal security forces indicated that the group was seeking to thwart Mr. Netanyahu’s plan by targeting Palestinians suspected of cooperating with Israel.

Earlier this week, Al-Majd warned Palestinians who cooperated with Israel that they would be treated as collaborators and handled with an iron fist. Hamas has a history of executing suspected collaborators.

Arab media reports said Hamas had killed in recent days the head of the powerful Doghmush clan and two others in their family compound in Gaza City. Hamas accused the unidentified leader of stealing humanitarian aid and maintaining contact with Israel.

With links to organised crime and the arms trade, Doghmush clansmen have clashed with Hamas in the past. Clan members have been associated with multiple Palestinian groups including Hamas, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Al Fatah, and various Islamist organisations.

Dubbed the “Sopranos of Gaza City, the Doghmush gained notoriety for their involvement in the 2005 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the 2007 kidnapping of British journalist Alan Johnston.

The killing is likely to persuade clans potentially willing to work with Israel to reconsider. Hamas this week welcomed a clans’ statement rejecting cooperation with Israel.

The statement “underscored the families’ and clans’ support for our resistance, government, police, and security services, and the rejection of the occupation’s attempts to sway Palestinian nationalism,” Hamas said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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