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America Can’t Go It Alone in the Middle East
A month into the war, the United States needs regional partners to deal with security threats and craft a plan to win the peace.
The news that the small Middle Eastern country of Jordan had airdropped humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip via Egypt in a move coordinated with Israel symbolizes how intertwined and complicated relationships in the Middle East are these days. This move was a small drop in a much larger bucket of what’s needed to meet the growing needs of ordinary Palestinians in the war-torn Gaza Strip. It also shows how the United States should continue to lean on a diverse set of countries in the Middle East to deal with security threats, end hostilities, and start planning for the future after this conflict ends.
For several years, some voices have called for the United States to pull back from the Middle East and downgrade its ties with some regional countries for a number of reasons, including widespread corruption, poor human rights records at home, and disapproval with actions that accelerated wars inside of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya—wars that have been far deadlier than the current conflict in Gaza and previous ones combined. But this past month shows how essential many of these regional partners will be in dealing with the current crisis and planning for what comes next.
Before this latest conflict erupted with the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, the United States had its hands full on other pressing national security challenges like Russia’s war against Ukraine and the threats China poses to Taiwan. The Biden administration put the Middle East lower on its foreign policy priority list during its first two and a half years in office, treading cautiously and trying to conserve its limited bandwidth for other global priorities.
This war forced the Biden administration to re-order its priorities, and it rapidly increased the diplomatic and military resources, senior leadership time, energy and attention to the Middle East. As I outlined in a recent article, the Biden team set out five key objectives in the early weeks of its crisis response:
Support Israel's self-defense and objective of eliminating threats posed by Hamas and other groups;
Secure the safe return of hostages and American citizens trapped in Gaza;
Prevent a wider regional war;
Protect civilians and respond to a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza; and
Maintain strong working relationships with Arab countries and others involved in managing the fallout and planning for the future.
A month into the war, the United States has not made substantial progress on these five goals, though it has enabled Israel’s military campaign while preventing a wider regional war thus far—no minor accomplishment.
Managing the tensions that inherently exist between these five objectives remains a key task for the Biden administration. The fifth objective—maintaining and building strong working relationships with regional actors—is key to managing the impact of this current war and planning for the future after the fighting.
The need for a more cohesive regional diplomatic effort
Secretary of State Antony Blinken just returned from another trip to the Middle East where he met leaders in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey, along with several of his counterparts at a regional gathering in Amman, Jordan. His main goal to prevent the situation in the Middle East from spiraling further out of control and continuing discussions with regional partners about the present and the future.
But the trip itself exposed just how little U.S. diplomacy and stepped-up military engagement has been able to achieve thus far. The Biden administration called for a brief humanitarian pause in the Gaza war, a call rejected by Israel and Hamas both in word and deed. Blinken also heard once again from regional partners positions that are starkly different from America’s own, with most calling for an immediate ceasefire and the United States standing by its position of backing Israel’s military actions to eliminate threats posed by Hamas. Blinken ended this latest trip by saying, “Sometimes, the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is.”
In the current complicated context of the Middle East, there is no wand to wave that will make peace magically appear. It requires more intensive diplomacy backed by security measures that help make Israelis and Palestinians alike feel secure, something they haven’t felt in years.
The United States can’t go it alone—it needs a set of relationships across the region to not only help address the immediate and growing humanitarian crisis but also to plan for the political and economic reconstruction of Gaza and the West Bank as well. Given the open questions in U.S. domestic politics raised by voices on the far right and left about America’s commitments in places like the Middle East, Ukraine, and Asia, it is even more important that the Biden administration double down on the relationships with some its partners in the Middle East, flawed as some of those partners may be.
Doing so won’t produce immediate consensus. The way that the Israeli-Palestinian issue currently plays in the region and the structure of regional politics both make it difficult to create a coalition like the one that was formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State or the one in 1990-1991 that expelled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait.
The central aim of any regional group would be to plan for the day after the war and connect current actions in response to war with a longer-term plan that works towards a two-state solution, an idea that seems far-fetched to some these days but remains the best available alternative. Earlier this year, the Biden team established a regional working group called the Negev Forum, a group of countries that had started to discuss ways to expand regional cooperation; this group did not include the Palestinian Authority and other key actors like Saudi Arabia. Building a regional framework of the Arab countries already in the Negev Forum and including a few others that are playing a pivotal role in this crisis would help move U.S. policy beyond the sporadic senior-level diplomatic interventions like Blinken’s trip.
Egypt and Jordan, two countries that border and have long-standing peace agreements with Israel, are at the top of the list of the most important countries needed in this increased diplomatic effort. The group should also include the countries that signed normalization deals with Israel in recent years, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Qatar, because of its unique and complex role in negotiating with Hamas, should be a part of the group. Saudi Arabia must be included as well, given the leadership role it plays in global and regional economic, energy, and security questions.
This regional group could help the United States achieve progress on some of the five goals it has set for itself in this crisis. Some of the issues this regional group could help to address include:
Reinforcing the messages to Iran not to expand and escalate the conflict. Some of the Arab Gulf countries have recently improved their diplomatic ties with Iran, and the Biden administration has already worked with a few of these countries to send messages to keep the crisis contained and not escalate attacks from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen.
Addressing the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip in a more unified and comprehensive way. In addition to Jordan’s airlift of supplies, the United Arab Emirates announced plans to establish a field hospital to treated wounded Palestinians in southern Gaza. Like the Jordan airdrop, it’s just a small start in a wider effort to respond to the needs of Palestinians as Israel conducts its military operations in northern and central Gaza. But it could represent the start of a common diplomatic plan for enhancing civilian protection in Gaza, where innocent people are losing their lives in increasing numbers each day.
Developing a shared political and diplomatic approach for dealing with Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups responsible for starting this latest war. This is one of the trickiest elements of the diplomacy that’s needed, but it is a necessary discussion to have, especially with those countries calling for an immediate ceasefire. Israel has rejected those calls in part because Hamas and other groups continue to represent a threat and hold innocent civilians as hostages, and it seems likely to continue its military operations to eliminate those threats. But there’s a longer-term question about countries that continue to harbor and support leaders of Hamas and back media outlets that are used to propagate the ideology of terrorists and extremists.
Starting the conversation about what a political transition inside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip looks like after the war ends and how political authorities there can build and maintain law and order. The Palestinian Authority, a self-governing body based in the West Bank, suffers from a crisis of political legitimacy and endemic corruption; it has not held nation-wide elections since 2006. A political and leadership transition looms on the horizon, and the current crisis creates an opening to address ways to help Palestinians build a more effective governance system. It’s not too soon to begin discussions with key Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who reject the violent ideology of Hamas and other groups about what the future looks like, including plans for economic reconstruction and, in the West Bank at least, investment.
A reinvigorated regional diplomatic approach by the United States in the Middle East should seek to move beyond episodic, reactive interventions and instead work to create a new framework for dealing with the implications of the current war and planning for what comes next.
Given all of the other things the United States is trying to do in the world and at home, it will need to work in steadier cooperation with partners in the region to set a new framework that seeks to avoid a repeat of the current ugly moment the Middle East and world are experiencing.