The horrific Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has laid bare a key assumption underpinning U.S. policy toward the Middle East: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be marginalized indefinitely from regional political dynamics. Both the Donald Trump and Joseph Biden administrations banked on the unifying threat posed by Iran to bring Israel and the Gulf Arab states together and have sought to institutionalize tacit cooperation into a new regional security architecture based on that realignment. That strategy, however, has now been called into question. At a minimum, the deadliest month in the conflict’s history since the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war will indefinitely delay efforts to secure a Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement. At worst, it threatens to spark an expanded regional conflict.
In all, the fallout from Hamas’ attack suggests that the United States can no more avoid addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it can pivot from conflicts in the Middle East to focus exclusively on “great power competition” elsewhere. U.S. policymakers should not fall into the trap of viewing the present devastation as a mere speedbump on the road to a new regional political landscape. Even if diplomatic negotiations achieve a limited ceasefire, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to present a major risk to U.S. strategy toward the Middle East. In the absence of progress toward a political settlement, the present war and potential reoccupation of the Gaza Strip will present an ongoing threat to Israel’s security and economy, prevent the consolidation of the very security architecture that the United States has counted on to contain Iran, and heighten the chances of a major international conflict in the region in the years to come.
The United States, then, has an interest in taking even minor steps that keep the future prospect of a settlement alive. These include applying pressure to get humanitarian, and ultimately reconstruction, aid into the Gaza Strip; emphasizing the need for Gazan residents to return to the north of the enclave under Palestinian governance after the fighting has ended; and more forcefully addressing Israeli settlement construction and settler violence in the West Bank. At a minimum, it is hard to imagine that the United States can secure the Palestinian Authority’s participation in the future governance of Gaza without something that the Palestinian leadership can present as a meaningful concession from Israel to non-Hamas political factions.
U.S. Interests and the Arab-Israeli Dispute
In many ways, the Oct. 7 attack suggests a return to an earlier understanding of U.S. interests in the Middle East. For much of the postwar era, U.S. policymakers regarded a Middle East peace settlement as a critical strategic objective and U.S. pressure — including on Israel — as a means of obtaining it. During the Cold War, American strategists felt that a peace deal would help protect Washington’s geopolitical position by checking the spread of Soviet influence in the Arab world. President Richard Nixon, for example, favored “a totally even-handed policy” and believed that if the United States needed to put its thumb on the scale, it should weigh in “on the side of 100 million Arabs rather than on the side of two million Israelis.” In doing so, he wanted to avoid giving Moscow “an unparalleled opportunity to extend its influence in the Arab world.” This type of thinking was only reinforced when the Arab oil-producing states decided to use oil as a political weapon during the October 1973 Middle East war. And to move matters toward a settlement, U.S. officials like Nixon believed that, ultimately, the United States would have to “squeeze [the Israelis] goddamn hard.”
American policymakers, moreover, felt that a settlement was profoundly in Israel’s own interest. They viewed genuine acceptance from Israel’s Arab neighbors as the ultimate guarantee of that country’s security over the long term. “In a historical perspective,” Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, said in 1969, “[there is] no way 3 million people can survive in the midst of 60 million hostile people unless they can change that hostility.”
Above all, U.S. officials worried that the Arab-Israeli dispute could spark a major regional conflict that would seriously jeopardize American interests, potentially drawing in the United States directly. Per Nixon, the Middle East was “an international powder keg, that, when it exploded, might lead not only to another war between Israel and its neighbors, but also to a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.” Thus, a scenario in which an Arab-Israeli crisis resulted in Soviet intervention was, for Kissinger, a “nightmare.”
This perception of U.S. interests survived into the post–Cold War period. Though the United States faced reduced geopolitical competition in the region, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks indirectly provided new incentives for policymakers to seek a peace settlement, with analysts arguing this would help the United States prosecute the “Global War on Terror” and improve the American position vis-à-vis regional rivals like Iran. “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East,” the 2006 Iraq Study Group concluded, “unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts.”
To be sure, it can hardly be said that policymakers in Washington have consistently made the Palestinians per se a top policy concern. Yet as new consideration of available evidence makes clear, U.S. officials have long recognized that addressing the Palestinian issue ultimately represented a core ingredient of long-term regional stability — even if concerns about domestic politics meant these views were often expressed in private. Unless the Palestinians were satisfied in negotiations, officials in the Jimmy Carter administration observed, “any agreement that is reached will be dangerously incomplete.” Even Kissinger, who many scholars contend was largely uninterested in the issue, stressed its importance, even though he ultimately chose not to pursue a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Although he emphasized that the White House had “an extreme domestic problem” when it came to the Palestinian issue “because the [Palestine Liberation Organization] is still considered here as a terrorist organization,” and, thus, that the Arabs needed “to think in terms of what the political traffic will bear,” the secretary of state was fully aware that the matter was of the utmost importance to achieving peace and stability in the Middle East. Frustrated with Israeli policy, Kissinger declared in November 1975: “We could co-exist with the [Palestine Liberation Organization]. It is indeed historically inevitable.” Regardless of how the matter was ultimately dealt with, he understood that it “can’t be avoided.”
By contrast, the Biden administration’s pursuit of a Saudi-Israeli deal, with only cursory attention given to the Palestinian issue, suggests that American officials now see little need to maintain even the appearance of balance in their approach to the conflict. While there have been a number of factors driving U.S. policy since Oct. 7 — among them the utterly repugnant nature of the attacks, the strength of the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship,” and Biden’s personal feelings about Israel — the force of President Biden’s support for Israel stands out in comparison with U.S. policy during past Arab-Israeli conflicts, such as the June 1967 war. Even during the October 1973 war, when the United States carried out a substantial airlift and passed a $2.2 billion aid bill for Israel, Kissinger was preoccupied with the task of building American credibility with the Arabs so that he would be in a good position to jumpstart a diplomatic process once the fighting had ended.
Troubled Prospects for Regional Realignment
This shift in American policy is underpinned by a belief that U.S. strategic dilemmas can be resolved by locking in bilateral ties between Israel and friendly Arab governments without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As the thinking goes, if even Israel’s former Gulf Arab adversaries are joining Egypt and Jordan in embracing normalization, then perhaps the Palestinian issue no longer holds geopolitical significance for the United States. Normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is generally presented as the final step in this process, with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman openly acknowledging negotiations to this end in a marquee Fox News interview just weeks before the attacks.
Still, this line of thinking banks heavily on the ability of Arab autocrats to repress, or at least withstand, popular sympathies with the Palestinian cause. Gulf monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (and to a lesser extent Qatar) have publicly acknowledged once-tacit security cooperation with Israel alongside reinforced repression of domestic pro-Palestinian sentiment — often with the direct aid of surveillance tools pioneered in Israel. This repression has driven dissenting views underground more than it has built support for normalization. In recent online polling by the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Studies, a full 57 percent of Saudis refused to answer a question about normalized relations with Israel, and only 5 percent supported normalization outright.
Notably, recent moves toward normalization have unfolded at a time of relative quiet in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — context seemingly taken for granted by American, Israeli, and Arab Gulf policymakers alike. Now, as images of demolished Gazan buildings and dead Palestinian children flood Arab and Muslim social media networks, regional rulers have struggled to prevent latent disregard for Israel from translating into destabilizing mass mobilization. In Saudi Arabia, for example, well-connected commentators pivoted rapidly from spelling out the benefits of normalization for Saudi security, to trying to deflect blame onto Hamas, to warning citizens against getting too caught up in “politics.”
U.S. security partners among the Arab countries thus remain under considerable pressure to display at least some solidarity with the Palestinian cause. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has struggled to keep “official” pro-Palestinian protests from threatening his hold on power amid a stagnant economy and with presidential elections looming. Jordan’s King Abdullah signed off on the air force air-dropping supplies to Gazan hospitals and recalling Amman’s ambassador from Israel. Even in Saudi Arabia, efforts to focus on domestic Saudi events have been accompanied by an official aid fund for Gaza — with King Salman personally donating around $8 million and bin Salman contributing another $5.6 million.
The conflict also risks direct involvement from Iran, Hizballah, and other members of the self-styled “Axis of Resistance” — none of whom countenance anything remotely resembling “normalization” — at a time when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have managed to secure a tenuous détente on regional security issues. A fraught, de facto ceasefire between Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces in Yemen has been underpinned by resumed diplomatic relations with Iran and Arab countries’ rehabilitation of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, cooling down, at least temporarily, regional hotspots to Saudi Arabia’s north, along its southern border, and within vulnerable Persian Gulf shipping lanes. Notably, Saudi leaders have sought to position the Kingdom alongside Iran in putting diplomatic pressure on Israel for a ceasefire, rather than criticizing Hamas to mobilize domestic public opinion against the Islamic Republic.
The devastation of the Israeli ground invasion may crank up pressure on Saudi Arabia and other regimes even higher, while even a ceasefire would carry the looming threat of renewed violence that would further augur against normalization. As Riyadh seeks U.S. security guarantees in exchange for normalization, those guarantees will have to be more ironclad and carry a greater downside risk for the United States in the absence of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Implications for American Policy
“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated barely a week prior to Hamas’ attack. The events of Oct. 7, along with Israel’s response, have presumably altered this assessment in dramatic fashion. At a minimum, they represent a clear signal that the Palestinian issue cannot simply be walled off from broader regional dynamics.
As American strategists try to pivot toward great power competition with China and Russia, we argue that relative peace and stability in the Middle East remain a critical interest for Washington. If the United States wants to counter the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East, restore the potential for a regional realignment, and help shield friendly governments in states like Egypt and Jordan from political trouble, then it should focus its attention on ensuring that Tehran and its partners can no longer use the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a wedge to divide Washington and Jerusalem from their Arab partners. Although it is unclear whether Hamas sought to derail any specific negotiations, the sense of the Palestinian cause’s geopolitical isolation undoubtedly fed into the planning for such an appalling display of violence. With neither direct U.S. diplomatic nor coercive approaches to addressing Iranian influence proving both effective and sustainable, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite its considerable complications, represents a more feasible path to a more peaceful region, if not regional peace.
We realize that this is probably not what many people in the Middle East want to hear right now. Indeed, we sympathize with Israelis who, in the aftermath of an attack that some observers are calling their country’s Sept. 11, do not currently have peace negotiations on their mind, as well as with Palestinians experiencing the direct and indirect effects of Israel’s retaliation for that attack. Nor is the idea of reviving the peace process likely a popular one within the Biden administration, particularly with an election year just around the corner. We have no illusions about the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of even minor progress — prospects for productive peace talks have perhaps never been worse.
But movement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would help stabilize the region, and, for better or worse, the United States, even after all of its failures in the region, remains the country best positioned to help generate it. Conflict in the region has helped produce diplomatic progress in the past. After the October 1973 war, the Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter administrations believed that major U.S. interests were at stake, made the Arab-Israeli conflict a top priority, and within six years the United States helped broker an Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. To be sure, the situation today is very different in a number of ways. One cannot compare former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with Hamas — or even with Mahmoud Abbas, the deeply unpopular president of the Palestinian Authority — and Israeli, Palestinian, and American domestic politics constrain leaders more than at the height of the Cold War. But to the extent that core American interests have once again been implicated in the Arab-Israeli dispute, the analogy is relevant.
Some analysts will undoubtedly object to reorienting American policy in the Middle East around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, presenting it as a return to a strategy marked by failure. After all, the Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s response have not yet resulted in a wider escalation involving Iran and its partners in the region, especially Hizballah, and Washington has not had much success in its past efforts to mediate the dispute. One could argue that staying the course is the superior option: continuing to support Israel’s present military operations; simultaneously working to deter Iran and its proxies from entering the fighting; ultimately establishing some sort of successor authority in Gaza, likely under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, once the fighting has ended; and, after some time has passed, trying to resume normalization negotiations with Riyadh.
But such proposals are seriously flawed. Failure to invest in a meaningful peace process risks catastrophic consequences for regional stability over the long term. Even if Washington manages to restore the status quo ante, the best-case scenario will entail a lingering risk of regional escalation, along with an exacerbation of the threat that terrorists pose to the U.S. homeland. It will also feature continued frustration throughout the Arab world with American policy and politically risky repression of dissent in Jordan and Egypt. Even in Saudi Arabia, rulers will probably take some time to feel assured that pro-Palestinian sentiment has subsided before forging ahead again with normalization efforts. It seems unlikely, moreover, that over the long term, the Palestinian cause will simply recede into the background — and the longer it continues, the longer it will be a drag on U.S. interests and reputation in the Middle East and beyond.
Furthermore, U.S. policy toward the Middle East has not exactly been successful in recent years. Despite heavy expenditures of blood and treasure, Iran has expanded its influence throughout the region and made significant progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons; support for American interests remains heavily dependent on assistance from authoritarian partners; and all the while, the number of devastating civil conflicts, including ones involving the extensive use of American arms, has seemingly grown by the month. Even if the more troubling scenarios that we have outlined ultimately do not come to pass, the idea that the United States should simply return to its pre-Oct. 7 policies — and even leaving aside the extent to which the Hamas attack has called U.S. policy into question — thus seems fundamentally unsound.
Beyond merely supporting ongoing ceasefire negotiations, we believe there are several steps the Biden administration can take to achieve incremental progress toward a peace process. Each of these measures broadly aligns with existing U.S. policy aims, can likely be pursued without any major political backlash at home, and holds the potential to reduce the strain on U.S. security commitments in the region. However, each will also require the administration to apply meaningful political pressure on Israel — in public if necessary.
An immediate concern is ensuring access for humanitarian aid — particularly fuel — into the Gaza Strip. Even before the current fighting, the humanitarian situation was dire. Now, prolonged Israeli attacks on Gaza City and the resulting displacements have created dire conditions amid Israeli-mandated limitations on aid that can cross in from Egypt. The worse this situation gets, the more the administration will be blamed — certainly by Arab audiences, and potentially even by some voters — for helping bring about a catastrophe. U.S. pressure has been consistently credited with forcing even minor concessions from Israel on aid and essentials entering Gaza. More can be done in this area, particularly in pressing the Israeli government to permit major fuel shipments into the territory. Alleviating suffering is both good in and of itself and reduces political pressure on U.S. security partners in the region.
Next, the administration should not only continue to insist that Gazan residents will remain in Gaza, but also should begin emphasizing their ultimate return to the northern part of the enclave after the immediate fighting has ceased. In practical terms, the southern part of the Gaza strip will struggle to support more than 600,000 displaced Gaza residents, even with massive provisions of aid—to say nothing of Israeli plans to expand the IDF ground invasion southward. With the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unable or unwilling to put forward a vision of postwar governance of Gaza, the Biden administration should seize the initiative to emphasize the need to return the Gaza Strip to Palestinian governance, likely under the Palestinian Authority, however long this may take. This would not only partially address Palestinian and Arab concerns that present military operations constitute a “Second Nakba,” but also would start building support for a renewed Palestinian political role in both immediate governance needs and, eventually, political negotiations.
Finally, the U.S. government should seek to restrain the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as settler attacks on Palestinian communities. The settlements undermine prospects for good-faith peace negotiations, both in signaling ultimate Israeli intentions to annex the West Bank and in creating a political constituency fiercely opposed to Israeli concessions. Neither the settlements nor annexation are particularly popular among independent or Democratic voters, making it feasible for the administration to hive the issue off from U.S. support for Israel writ large. At a minimum, the Biden administration should promote a settlement freeze for the duration of Israeli military operations in Gaza and continue criticizing the striking rise in settler violence in the West Bank — an increase that predates the fighting in Gaza. Given that the Netanyahu government has ceded authority on the West Bank to the most extreme members of his coalition, movement on this issue will require the threat of real consequences, such as withholding weaponry clearly intended for use in the occupied territories or even public threats to withhold the U.S. veto on United Nations Security Council condemnations of settlements.
On its own, each of these recommendations addresses Palestinian suffering and ongoing aggravators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without infringing on Israel’s security. Together, they offer at least some hope of generating political space for U.S. officials to imagine and pursue a peace deal broader than a fraught and fragile ceasefire — even if far more contentious topics will inevitably remain.
The long-held assumption in Washington has been that the best way to ensure Jerusalem’s safety is to work for its broad acceptance throughout the Middle East. As Kissinger put it, “Israel’s hope of survival over the long term is to work toward a normal relationship with its neighbors.” In his view, a political settlement was “Israel’s salvation.” American policymakers, then, should do everything in their power to incentivize such an acceptance — and advancing negotiations with the Palestinians remains arguably the single best way to accomplish that goal.
Source: War On The Rocks