Joe Biden had just completed his first hundred days in office and was generally considered to have a good and determined approach. There was no question of “Sleepy Joe”, as he was often denounced under Trump. Now, however, events in the Middle East are forcing him to change his focus in the short term.
Biden wanted to focus primarily on domestic issues, and in terms of foreign policy, other issues are actually more important to him than the eternal dispute over the Holy Land. In the USA itself, the focus is currently on two tasks: on the one hand, ending the pandemic, especially by continuing the vaccination campaign, and on the other hand, economic recovery. This is being driven by several multi-trillion programmes to rebuild the country and its infrastructure. The welfare state is also being expanded considerably, a trend that was already evident under Donald Trump and his Corona policy. Still hovering over all of this is the country’s internal discord, which has been further exacerbated during the Trump presidency. For all the importance of foreign policy for the United States and its future role as a world power, domestic policy and Biden’s ability to shape the US into a united society again will be decisive in determining whether his presidency will be considered a success.
But also in terms of foreign policy, there are actually more important issues for the US than Israel at the moment. The major dispute in world politics today is that between the USA and China. Actually already considered the most important task under Bush J., after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the concentration shifted instead to the Middle East, above all Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the fight against “global terrorism”. In retrospect, or in the final stages of this endeavour, this episode of US foreign policy must be seen as a gigantic aberration that for a decade obscured the view of the really significant threat to US hegemony. Be that as it may, under Obama the so-called “Pivot to Asia” was finally initiated and established the path to a new self-image of the country, namely away from an Atlantic to a Pacific power.
Under Trump, the threat from China was also (finally) labelled as such and both the rhetoric and the actual policy became much more confrontational than before. Biden has adopted much of Trump’s policy on this point, albeit with somewhat less rhetorical stridency. And that’s where he wanted his focus to be. He probably sees the Middle East, like large parts of American strategists by now, more as an annoying problem that has to be dealt with willy-nilly, but which should not be at the centre of planning.
This is probably also behind the approach of the new US administration to resume negotiations with Iran on its nuclear weapons programme. In doing so, they probably also hoped to gain some breathing space in the Middle East in order to be able to act more freely in the Pacific, which could become particularly important in relation to Taiwan and North Korea. In addition, the Iranian-Chinese cooperation is very worrying from Washington’s point of view, since an alliance or even a strong economic link between these two states, in combination with the increasingly difficult relationship with Russia, would considerably weaken the position of the USA on the Eurasian continent.
Now, however, Israel. The unexpectedly fierce clashes between the Israeli military and Hamas cannot be ignored by Biden, and so it will have to decide on a strategy early on, a step he obviously wanted to take at a later date. As a first concrete reaction, Biden has now sent a special US government envoy for the Middle East to Israel to help find a compromise. But there can be no talk of a coherent strategy yet. In defining one, he must also find a solution between two increasingly polarising positions. On the one hand, there is a strong faction of supporters of Israel, especially among the Republicans, who sometimes stand by the country almost unconditionally and also support the settlement policy in the West Bank. On the other side is the left-wing faction of the Democrats, which has become increasingly powerful since the 2016 presidential elections, led by Bernie Sanders, and clearly influences the president’s agenda. They traditionally side with the Palestinians, whom they see as an oppressed people to whom one should stand in solidarity. Thus, the current situation in Israel is not only important for foreign policy, but could even create a new point of contention between the different political currents within the USA itself.
It will be interesting to see how the USA will act in the region. After the policy of Trump, who always supported the allies of the USA, sometimes far beyond the traditional measure, and always attacked the opponents of the USA hard, even if only with economic means, the balance of power in the Middle East has changed. Israel is currently weakened, Trump’s unilateral pro-Israeli policy has caused frustration to rise among many Palestinians, and Biden’s critical tones towards Netanyahu and Israel’s de-facto partner Saudi Arabia have now escalated the situation. The president will have to find a way to cast his attachment to Israel in a foreign policy programme without angering the left wing of the Democrats and jeopardising negotiations with Iran. No easy task.