Biden is about to have his hands full in the Middle East

Biden is about to have his hands full in the Middle East

Aaron David Miller and Robert E Wilhelm Fellow Steven Simon argue that Middle East may play a larger role in Biden's foreign policy agenda for the next two years. This piece was originally published here in Foreign Policy.

January 13, 2023 | Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon | Foreign Policy
Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon
January 13, 2023
Foreign Policy

For most of his first two years in office, US President Joe Biden has been extremely fortunate to have avoided sustained entanglement with the Middle East, a place where more often than not, US foreign-policy ideas—good and bad—have gone to die.

Biden may have a harder time avoiding the Middle East in 2023 and beyond, though. The administration’s top foreign-policy priorities remain Russia’s war against Ukraine and a rising China. Yet Biden may soon have his hands full with smaller yet determined regional powers eager to advance their own interests and unwilling to play by US rules. With five states—Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya—in various stages of dysfunction, the Arab world will remain a source of instability, with the exception being wealthy Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) that are acting with greater independence from Washington while insisting on US support.

But it’s really the two non-Arab powers, Iran and Israel—one, the United States’ foremost regional adversary, the other its closest regional friend—that may set the agenda for the next two years. And the implications of that are not particularly uplifting.

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to office, the Biden administration now confronts the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, one likely to cause a serious rise in—if not an explosion of—tensions over the Palestinian issue and Iran’s nuclear program. If you believe the rhetoric of its extremist ministers—and there’s no reason not to—this coalition is determined to alter Israel’s democratic system, transform society along Jewish exclusivist lines, sow tensions with Israel’s Arab citizens, and erect a gravestone over the buried hope of a Palestinian state by permanently lashing the majority of the West Bank and Jerusalem to Israel.

How bad the situation in the West Bank becomes may be tied to the degree to which Netanyahu can exercise influence over coalition partners he desperately needs to pass legislation that will postpone, if not nullify, his ongoing trial. Being not as far right as other members of his party, Netanyahu would much prefer a coalition without extremists and may be already thinking about broadening his government at some point. But his legal travails are existential. Without some skyhook, he almost certainly faces prison if convicted—or, more likely, a plea bargain and an exit from politics. He cannot, therefore, jettison the extremists; for the time being, he’ll have to manage them.

Netanyahu will do what he can to smother or divert their most egregious policies, but it’s hard to see how he can completely control them and easy to see how the fiefdoms they’ve carved out in their respective governmental roles could wreak havoc in relations with Israeli Arabs as well as Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, now the newly created minister of national security, ran on a platform of demonizing Palestinian citizens of Israel and will have a great deal of authority over the border police, an additional 2,000 troops he’s taken from the Israel Defense Forces, and Israel’s national police force. He will be free to reset their rules of engagement and permissible tactics, particularly in the mixed cities where Arabs and Jews interact. He will be able to redirect forces from the West Bank to the Negev or Galilee, which will not only endow him with unprecedented coercive power within the Green Line but also in effect erase it by creating a unitary jurisdiction for Israeli law enforcement.

Bezalel Smotrich, perhaps the more dangerous of the two ministers, will have near-total authority for managing the lives of the inhabitants in Area C (more than 60 percent of the West Bank)—some 400,000 Israelis and 280,000 Palestinians—with responsibilities for all authorities related to infrastructure, planning, construction, energy, electricity supply, environmental protection, and more. Smotrich’s strategic goal is to dilute the influence of the Ministry of Defense and work to apply Israeli civilian law to these areas, effectively accelerating annexation.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how any number of provocations could trigger broader unrest that some Palestinian groups can and will exploit. The Palestinian Authority has lost the ability, and perhaps the will, to help control it. And this will only encourage extremists among both Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and terrorism.

And sooner rather than later, a blow up will become Biden’s problem. Depending on how bad the situation becomes, he’ll likely face action in the United Nations Security Council, forcing him to defend or criticize Israel. And it’s not in Biden’s political interest to be caught between Republicans, who will demand that he supports Israel, and a growing number of progressives within the Democratic Party who want him to criticize Israel’s actions against Palestinians.  European allies will press him to restrain Netanyahu, as will the countries of the Abraham Accords. And hovering above it all will be serious unrest and violence.

As we saw in May 2021, Hamas seized on Israeli actions in Jerusalem to trigger a serious escalation with Israel that lasted almost two weeks and forced Biden personally to intercede with Netanyahu and Egypt to press for a cease-fire. The conflict resulted in at least 256 Palestinians killed, including 67 children, and 13 Israelis, among them 2 children. The next confrontation could easily be much worse.

If Netanyahu’s return presages increased tensions on the Palestinian front, it may also serve to heighten the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu has made the Iran nuclear threat his signature issue; he seems more than ever to be a man on a mission. “I have come back to office … for one main reason,” Netanyahu said in late December 2022, “to do everything I can to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.” And the circumstances are now more propitious for Netanyahu’s view of the Iranian challenge than ever before.

Prospects for a return to the nuclear accord seem remote at this point; Biden even conceded last month that the deal was dead, though he didn’t want to say it publicly. Iran’s brutal crackdown on unprecedented demonstrations calling for the end of the regime, now in their fourth month, combined with Tehran’s supply of drones to fuel Russia’s war against Ukraine have raised anti-Iranian animus in Washington. Given congressional opposition, it’s arguable whether the administration could even do a deal on the nuclear issue with Iran, as it would involve providing Tehran with sanctions relief at a time that Iran is killing its own citizens and helping Russian President Vladimir Putin kill Ukrainians.

Israel, which has the most to lose from a nuclear armed Iran, is getting increasingly nervous about Iran’s stockpiles, which it helped unleash by urging former US President Donald Trump to dump the nuclear deal. Beginning last summer, then-Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, then-Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata, and Mossad chief David Barnea have traveled to Washington to urge the Biden administration to plan for an attack on Iran and conduct another round of joint exercises to test the plans and fine tune bilateral coordination. On Oct. 25, 2022, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was updated on U.S. military plans and the proposed exercise was scheduled.

As Gantz prepared to leave office with the advent of a new government, he said the need to block Iran’s nuclear program militarily was something that most Israelis agree on—regardless of their party affiliation. And in an address to new Israeli Air Force pilots, he said that for some of the pilots, an attack on Iran was in their future. US officials have avoided predictions, but no experts have disputed Israeli leaks about more intensive US-Israeli planning for some sort of strike on Iran.

The question is: What sort of strike? Only the United States has the capacity to destroy deeply buried centrifuges without putting troops on the ground to kick down the front door. Only the United States has the airplanes capable of carrying so-called bunker busters, bases on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, and sea-based airpower to carry out a sustained coordinated air campaign to destroy Iran air defenses as well as command and control centers, attack designated targets, return to assess the bomb damage, and keep returning until nothing but the rubble bounces.

Plans to do this were created under the Obama administration and are well developed. Israel can join in, of course, by launching ground attack missiles from its submarines, joining the United States in airstrikes, sharing intelligence, and carrying out sabotage and assassinations that might hobble an Iranian response.

Thus, the world is currently facing an Iran with strong incentives to proceed with enrichment and an international reputation that lowers the diplomatic cost of action for an attacker; a strategic regional adversary—Israel—that has declared its intention to use force and showcased a national consensus in favor of using it; a US administration that, despite a tense relationship with Israel, has made its support for combined operations against Iran abundantly clear; and a US military that has the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. These developments do more than just suggest the United States is entering a new phase fraught with risk.

Of course, one must question how much of this is theater. US hand-holding could be more about reassuring Israel that the United States is onboard while conveying the message that Israel cannot succeed on its own. Talk about military action in both Jerusalem and Washington might also have as much to do with encouraging Iran to reenter nuclear talks and delay weapons-grade enrichment as it does with signaling an impending attack. And the whirlwind engulfing Iran’s government and its self-imposed restraints on enrichment might nudge it toward compromise.

To put it mildly, Biden shouldn’t expect much good news from the Middle East in the next year or so. Washington’s capacity to shape events, let alone control them, is limited on the two challenges he faces: how to avoid an explosion between Israelis and Palestinians and how to put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear program. Biden’s options run from bad to worse. Perhaps Fortuna will intervene—the Iranian regime collapses and Netanyahu, shackled to extremist ministers, decides to jettison them in favor of a more centrist national unity government.

One could be forgiven for sensing that on both Iran and the Palestinian issue, the United States is drifting without a clear sense of exactly what to do. Shifting into a more assertive deterrence posture by credibly threatening war if Iran goes too far may buy time, but time eventually runs out. And even if the worst practices of the new Israeli government don’t come to pass, it’s only a matter of time until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict produces a major blow up. In short, the situation Biden confronts is likely to get worse before it gets worse. And perhaps in view of our prognosis, it’s fitting that we give poet William Butler Yeats the final word: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Steven Simon is the Robert E. Wilhelm fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East, will be released in April. Twitter: @sns_1239