Bepi Pezzulli
International counsel & foreign policy adviser

The Middle East Puzzle: US Returns to Forefront

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The Middle East, a geographic crucible of historical complexities and contemporary geopolitical intricacies, remains a focal point of global attention. The outbreak of war after the heinous terrorist attack on Israel at the hand of Hamas serves as a stark reminder that disentangling from this volatile region is a persistent challenge.

American disengagement began with President Barack H. Obama’s nuanced strategy between 2009 and 2017. The gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan aimed at a paradigm shift, favoring local security forces over direct military intervention. Multilateral diplomacy, exemplified by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, sought to manage the nuclear threat. However, the unintended fallout, epitomized by the Syrian civil war, exposed the inadequacies of relying solely on regional actors for stability. President Joseph R. Biden continued the emphasis on diplomacy, particularly in re-engaging with Iran through negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nevertheless, as instability in the Middle East persist, the US strategy devised by the Democratic administrations has been a failure.

Historical precedents, diplomatic maneuvers, and the evolving power dynamics have repositioned the United States in the labyrinth of Middle Eastern geopolitics, proving their disengagement from the region to be an elusive attempt. As reported by Karl Maier on Bloomberg, National Security Adviser Jacob J. Sullivan has already been working on a post-Gaza war scenario. Sullivan now grapples with three distinct options for a resolution, each with its implications, presenting a diplomatic tightrope.

  1. Temporary Control by Regional Countries: One option involves granting temporary control of Gaza to regional countries. This approach envisions a multinational force, including US, British, German, and French troops, along with possible contributions from Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE. This option aims to bring stability to the region through international collaboration and oversight.
  2. Peacekeeping Force Modeled after Sinai: Another option proposes the establishment of a peacekeeping force similar to the model operating in the Sinai. This force would be tasked with enforcing the conditions of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Surprisingly, Israel might find this idea acceptable, and it could serve as a mechanism for maintaining peace in the aftermath of the conflict.
  3. Temporary UN Oversight: The third option suggests a temporary government for the Gaza Strip under the auspices of the United Nations. This would offer an internationally legitimized solution to the complex issues at play. However, Israel’s reservations about the UN could complicate the feasibility of this proposal.

Whatever the outcome, a transition of power in Palestine seems inevitable, and analysts spotlight two potential leaders, Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti, for succession. As the twenty-five-year leadership of Abu Mazen nears its end, US interests converge on influencing the Palestinian Authority’s future leadership. Mohammed Dahlan, with his history somehow tied to the Abraham Accords, emerges, in spite of controversy, as a pivotal figure, offering a pragmatic and potentially stabilizing force. Marwan Barghouti, not less controversial, represents a secular alternative, adversarial to the Muslim Brotherhood, with historical involvement in peace processes.

The stakes are high in determining Abu Mazen’s successor, not just for Palestine but for regional stability. The US aims to leverage leadership changes to strengthen the Palestinian Authority after the eradication of Hamas, navigating, however, a precarious balance to shape the future of Palestinian politics.

The intricate web of regional dynamics demands nuanced approaches, though. The two-state solution, once vigorously supported, faces growing skepticism, requiring a reassessment of the viability of an autonomous Palestinian state, especially from the economic standpoint.

Ambassador Sergio Vento, a former Italian Head of Mission to the UN and to the US, proposes an “Abraham Plus” economic approach to complement the diplomatic strides of the Abraham Accords. This expanded vision aims to neutralize the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by fostering economic development in Palestinian territories. By investing substantially in infrastructure, healthcare, and education in Judea and Samaria, “Abraham Plus” aims to tangibly defuse hostilities and build trust.

The intricacies of implementing “Abraham Plus” lie in overcoming longstanding mistrust and coordinating international efforts. The proposal acknowledges that sustainable peace hinges not only on political solutions but also on uplifting the economic well-being of the region’s populace.

The groundwork for such a vision has already been laid by the Kushner-Berkowitz Plan. Crafted by Jared C. Kushner, Avrahm Berkowitz, and Jason D. Greenblatt and presented in 2019, it echoes historical attempts like the “Casablanca Process” of 1984 masterminded by Shimon Peres. Designed to improve the economic conditions of Palestinians, the plan faced criticism from Palestinian leadership for sidelining fundamental political issues in favor of economic incentives.

While the economic-focused approach has historical parallels, the challenge remains: can a comprehensive political solution be grounded solely in economic initiatives? The status of Jerusalem, borders, and Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria remain contentious, necessitating a nuanced strategy to overcome Palestinian maximalism.

The Abraham Accords, signed in 2020, fractured the historically united Arab front and initiated a significant shift in regional dynamics. Skillful management of political and economic dynamics becomes pivotal in either fostering collaboration or exacerbating existing tensions. The unexpected opposition to proposed measures against Israel at the Arab League Summit of 11 November reveals fractures within the Arab League. How major actors navigate these dynamics will shape the region’s future, determining whether the Abraham Accords herald a new era of collaboration or further deepen existing tensions.

As reported by The Times of Israel, the potential return of Tony Blair as a humanitarian coordinator for Gaza, coupled with David Cameron’s appointment as the UK’s Foreign Secretary, adds diplomatic sagacity to the region’s intricate tapestry. Blair’s previous role as the Middle East Quartet’s representative (2007-2015) and Cameron’s recent cabinet appointment highlight efforts to navigate regional complexities and prevent the escalation of crises. The duo also vindicates Brexit, as the United Kingdom, free to pursue not only independent commercial policies but also security ones, reclaims regional influence vis-à-vis an impalpable European Union.

Internal challenges persist in Israeli politics, with a leadership transition potentially being the only way to open a new chapter in Israel-Palestine relations. The controversial leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu prompts considerations for electoral reforms. Proportional representation has led to government instability and yielded disproportionate power to marginal parties. Meanwhile, the respected figure of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant emerges as a possible successor to Netanyahu in a post-war cabinet.

As said, questions linger over the viability of the two-state solution, particularly regarding the economic sustainability of an autonomous Palestinian state. Amid uncertainties in the region, post-conflict reconstruction emerges as a potential avenue for initiating a new era of collaboration, without a pre-determined game end in mind. That is, as the region stands at a crossroads, innovative solutions unattached to historical Palestinian grievances and irrespective of past Palestinians aspirations are imperative for a safe Israel and a peaceful Middle East.

About the Author
Giuseppe Levi Pezzulli ("Bepi") is a Solicitor specialised in International financial law and a foreign policy scholar. His research interest is economic statecraft. In 2018, he published "An alternative view of Brexit" (Milano Finanza Books), which investigates the economic and geopolitical implications of Brexit. In 2023, "Brave bucks" (Armando Publishing House), which highlights the role of private capital in the industrial policy mix. Formerly an Editor-in-Chief of La Voce Repubblicana; is a columnist for the Italian daily financial newspaper Milano Finanza; a pundit for the financial TV channel CNBC; and a Middle East analyst for Longitude magazine. He received degrees at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome (LLB), New York University (LLM), and Columbia University (JD).
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