Roberta N. Haar: Unraveling the Complex Dynamics of U.S. Policy on the Hamas war

30 november 2023Leestijd: 8 minuten
Pro-Palestijnse mars door Amsterdam

The war that Hamas started against Israel is part of a conflict that now seems like inextricable, Roberta N. Haar states. If Hamas were to be eliminated, that does not mean that a solution comes closer. Leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and others have an interest in tensions in the Middle East. It does not help that media such as Al Jazeera report one-sidedly about the war between Hamas and Israel.

From time to time, I watch Al Jazeera, the Qatari-controlled media outlet that has become the dominant news source in the Middle East. Sometimes its analysis provides a thoughtful take on world events. However, when I recently tuned in to find out how they were covering the current surge in violence between Palestinians and Israelis, I was deeply troubled.  Their featured commentator said that the United States was entirely to blame for the ghastly events currently playing out in Gaza and those committed by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7.

While the U.S. certainly has made mistakes in the Middle East and since the 1980s it is increasingly beholden to powerful pro-Israel groups inside the U.S., to say that America is entirely to blame for the current upsurge in violence, sounds closer to Russian and Chinese propaganda than serious analysis.  Such reflexive-anti-American-blame-gaming calls for a response.  It also calls for a clear articulation of U.S. policy on the Middle East along with an examination of the measures taken by the Joe Biden administration to address and resolve longstanding issues.

Differences within America

First, contrary to what I heard on Al Jazeera, there are real differences in the U.S. on how to think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  While it is true that already during Obama’s two terms, some congressional Republicans abandoned any pretense of caring about what happened to the Palestinians, centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.

But a strong majority of white evangelicals (which over time has become the Republicans’ most reliable voting bloc and thus driving much of Congressional Republican policy), believe that the creation and gradual expansion of Israel fulfills God’s promise to Abraham and heralds Christ’s eventual return.

Add to this, that over time even stalwart progressives within the Democratic Party have become loath to look less pro-Israel than Republicans across the aisle in Congress, especially since many progressive Democrats are Jewish themselves or are representatives of sizable Jewish constituencies.

The power of AIPAC

Second, link these focuses with concerns by members of both parties about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful bipartisan lobbying organization dedicated to ensuring unwavering U.S. support for Israel.  AIPAC ‘s clout can be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the U.S., and just about every politician in Washington counts AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors. In the past this was not a big problem as AIPAC accommodated a spectrum of views on Middle East peace, insisting mainly that those seeking its endorsement support a continuation of U.S. aid to Israel and to oppose efforts to isolate or condemn Israel, for example, at the UN.

But as Israeli politics moved to the right, with far-right ideologue becoming lynchpins in Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, so did AIPAC’s policy positions. Its staff and leaders increasingly argued for default support of Israeli governments, even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy and interests in the Middle East. Those who criticize Israeli policy too loudly risk being tagged as anti-Israel or antisemitic and then possibly even confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.  For instance, it is no accident, that shortly after he was re-elected, Obama visited Israel, in part, attesting to AIPAC’s sway in American electoral politics.

Bring the two sides to the bargaining table

However, it is also true that several U.S. administrations attempted to resolve the Israeli conflict with Palestinians. I recently read one account in Obama’s biography A Promised Land, in which he retells, with some frustration, of getting the Netanyahu government in 2009 to freeze settlement building in the West Bank for ten months. Netanyahu even agreed to conditional support for a two-state solution, in return for an end to the incitement of Palestinian violence inside the West Bank.

Unfortunately, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) dismissed the freeze as meaningless since it did not include a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. Obama writes that other Arab leaders quickly echoed Abbas’ sentiments, spurred by editorializing from Al Jazeera, which, Obama writes, had built “its popularity by fanning the flames of anger and resentment among Arabs with the same algorithmic precision that Fox News deployed so skillfully with conservative white voters in the States.”

Obama did get Abbas and Netanyahu (as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah) to the White House for peace talks in September 2010. But Obama’s optimism was dashed on performative negotiating, Netanyahu’s intransigence, and Abbas’ fear of criticism and losing business deals. The performative negotiating was for the American audience: designed to placate the latest U.S. President who thought things could change.

The power of the Status quo and the interests of Spoilers

The real crux of the problem is that too many leaders in the region benefit from the status quo, either building their power base on a promise of being uniquely capable of providing security in a threat environment that they stoked through hardline policies and an emphasis on military solutions. As all scholars of International Relations will tell you, a security dilemma exists when actions taken by one actor to enhance its security are interpreted by others as threats, potentially leading to a cycle of increased tensions and insecurity. The Netanyahu government’s assertive policies, its disproportionate responses, and its unwillingness to negotiate a two-state solution, contributed to resentment, Palestinian and Arab humiliation as well as potentially increasing the likelihood of violence and security threats.

In the case of Hamas, the status quo meant they win in their twenty-year political battle against Fatah and the PA. In their vying for influence among all Palestinians, Hamas peddles the false hope that a Palestinian state could be achieved through violence, an uncompromising resistance, and the complete destruction of Israel. While Palestinians in Gaza fell deeper into poverty, Hamas stockpiled rockets, impeded the work of humanitarian NGOs and, as increasingly looks like, built command centers under hospitals in Gaza. Instead of working towards a better economy, they stoked new tensions with Israel and incited popular hatred. Hama’s zero-sum approach limited diplomatic solutions and fueled cycles of violence.

Add to this, that too many leaders in the wider region and even globally benefit from the power vacuums and the chaos that a re-emergence of violence creates.  Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ali Khamenei in Iran emerge as the “winners” of continued chaos in the Middle East. One, because the U.S. brokered normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is now scuttled. Iran, which is a generous supporter of Hamas, is an enemy with both Saudi Arabia and Israel and thus it certainly does not want them to combine forces. In fact, just before Hamas’ vicious attack on Israeli citizens, the Biden administration’s efforts were about to bear fruit with national security adviser Jake Sullivan expressing relief that he did not need to devote so much time to Middle East crises.

A second reason why authoritarian leaders benefit is because it undermines U.S. influence in the region, which they hope to fill as part of their broader geopolitical strategies. Strengthening ties with Middle Eastern countries could provide Russia with diplomatic support, thereby influencing Russia’s standing in other global matters, including its invasion of Ukraine. For China, a weakened U.S. role in the Middle East contributes to perceptions of diminishing U.S. global influence and the undermining of liberal values globally, which may embolden Chinese strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

A third reason is linked to resource acquisition and economic opportunities. The Middle East will remain for some time to come a crucial region for global energy production, any shift in the balance of power there will impact global energy markets. If Russia, China, or Iran perceive a vacuum in U.S. influence, they might seek to enhance their roles in the energy sector, or in China’s case, negotiate better prices for the region’s oil.

What is the Biden administration’s policy today on the Middle East?

Obama was not naive to his part in the performative peacemaking described above, writing, that he imagined a pantomime in Washington, after which the actors returned to the world that they knew—a  world in which “Netanyahu could blame the absence of peace on Abbas’s weakness while doing everything he could to keep him weak, and Abbas could publicly accuse Israel of war crimes while quietly negotiating business contracts with the Israelis, and Arab leaders could bemoan the injustices endured by the Palestinians under occupation while their own internal security forces ruthlessly ferreted out dissenters and malcontents who might threaten their grip on power.”  Obama further writes that he thought of all the region’s children who would grow up “knowing mainly violence, coercion, fear, and the nursing of hatred” because, none of the leaders he met “believed anything else was possible.”

I do not want to end on a negative note.  The wars in the Holy Land that started in 1948 are much different today than 75 years ago. Israel made peace with many of its neighbors, starting with the Camp David Accords brokered by U.S president Jimmy Carter between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, including the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and the 2020 Abraham Accords, brokered by the Donald J. Trump administration for the normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Moreover, economic, and institutional progress is part of life for Palestinians in the West Bank, with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S.—which is the Palestinian Authority’s largest bilateral donor.

While it is true that the Biden administration wanted to largely leave the Middle East, to focus on China’s pacing threat and support Ukraine in its defense against Putin’s invasion, it is also true that the U.S. made valiant efforts during all three of the last administrations to expand normalization and peace. Today, U.S. policy is to support: a two-state solution, direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, economic and institutional development in the Palestinian territories as well as security assistance for Israel. On his recent trip to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken further communicated that there should not be a permanent Israeli occupation of Gaza, nor should there be a forced displacement of Palestinians out of Gaza nor a buffer zone that would reduce the size of Gaza. He also pressed the Israeli government to pause fighting for humanitarian reasons, to release tax money to the PA and to prevent Jewish settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Achieving any of these policies will be daunting, while I do not want to be negative, I also want to be realistic. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is deeply entrenched, and its complexities have many players and spoilers who do not want to realize solutions. It is just too bad, that a major news outlet—the most impactful in the region—chooses simple false narratives rather than to focus on unravelling these complexities.