Shireen Abu Akleh is just a pawn in Biden’s game of Mideast NATO   

(illustration Mondoweiss)

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  July 6, 2022

Biden’s ideal of a Mideast NATO extends the Trump plan. Palestinians will be completely buried by the Gulf Arab leadership in the rush to please Washington.

When the State Department unveiled—on the Fourth of July, no less—its milquetoast conclusion of its investigation of the bullet that killed Shireen Abu Akleh nearly two months ago, it elicited widespread anger.

Israel, naturally, was unhappy that the United States even dared to say that the bullet that killed Shireen came from an IDF position. The Palestinians criticized the “timid” response which ascribed no responsibility or culpability to Israel. Shireen’s family issued a powerful statement expressing their anger at the decision.  

Many observers concluded that the United States, as it has so often in the past, was simply covering for its Israeli partner. But in this case, there was a lot more at stake, as Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East is scheduled for July 13-16.

At first glance, it might seem puzzling that the U.S. would have issued their conclusions so quickly. After all, according to reports, the Palestinians had only handed over the bullet that was ostensibly so important to the investigation two days before. One of the reasons the U.S. was so keen to investigate the matter was to forestall the International Criminal Court’s involvement, as the ICC generally won’t take up a case until other investigations are exhausted or denied. So why not stretch the time out more?

Biden’s trip is the reason for the American haste, although even this gaffe-prone administration must have known that this announcement was not going to end the uproar over Israel’s killing of Shireen. Getting this empty conclusion out there is likely to mollify those Democratic Congress members who have been calling for an investigation, at least enough for them to back off until after Biden’s trip, if not longer. It will also delay further international action on Shireen’s death, again, at least for a while.

Both the Biden administration and Congress wanted to make sure that Shireen’s death didn’t take up space during Biden’s meetings in Israel and with the Palestinian Authority. Similarly, they have brushed aside the killing of Jamal Khashoggi so that Biden’s meeting with “pariah” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can proceed unhindered.

Focused Objectives

Biden has two main goals on this trip. One is to convince the Saudi Crown Prince MBS to increase oil production and thereby lower gas prices, which he hopes will mitigate the high rate of inflation that we are experiencing, and which is a serious political problem for the U.S. president.

The second is to try to bring Saudi Arabia closer to Israel and thus to move the military alliance between Israel and the Gulf states that has been flowering since the Abraham Accords were signed forward.

The question of Palestine can complicate Biden’s quest, so the U.S. is trying to calm the PA leadership. But they are starting from a disadvantage. The PA leadership is standing on very shaky ground, trying to hold on to power as the Palestinian public in both Gaza and the West Bank is turning increasingly against them. The only thing they’ve ever been able to offer the people is the hope that engagement with the United States and Israel can lead to some agreement for Palestinian freedom.

As naïve as that sounds now, it remains the one thing the PA leadership offers. For right now, they recognize that little can be done, so they’ve lowered their demands to the reopening of the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and the reopening of the PLO offices in Washington, neither of which is likely to happen.

While MBS has shown a willingness to simply ignore Palestine in his pursuit of security and monetary gains in the region, much of the Saudi royal family—including, crucially, his father, King Salman—is not willing to abandon the Arab Peace Initiative, which Saudi Arabia continues to insist is the only basis for normalization with Israel they will accept. So, Palestinian complaints about the U.S. failing to address any of its issues complicate matters in Riyadh.

Given the general timidity of the PA, it’s likely that the State Department believed that declaring “that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible” for Shireen Abu Akleh’s death would, if not satisfy them, at least keep them quiet. Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas’ statement was quite subdued, while other Palestinian officials were more direct in their criticism.

Sidelining the Palestinians Again

But there is an even bigger threat to the Palestinian people in this trip. As it becomes less and less likely that the Iran nuclear deal will be revived, the Biden administration has put a great deal of effort into continuing Donald Trump’s work on a Middle East military alliance between Israel, the Gulf monarchies, and other U.S.-friendly Arab states.

The effort to build this anti-Iran alliance has, naturally, made Iran even more wary of re-entering a nuclear deal with the United States. Tehran already must wonder if any agreement with the United States is worth the paper it is written on after Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (called the JCPOA), and the hostility toward any reasonable deal that many members of Congress, including numerous Democrats, have expressed.

Rather than acknowledge that these are reasonable concerns on Iran’s part, the Biden administration has acted as if it, and its successors, should simply be trusted, despite what has already happened. Meanwhile the U.S. is assembling this “Mideast NATO.” Now, Iran is only increasing its demands, signaling that it is less enthusiastic about a return to the deal than ever.

As the focus of diplomacy shifts to Iran, the question of Palestine becomes de-prioritized in diplomatic circles. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have virtually abandoned any pretense of interest in the Palestinians’ situation, unless it involves Jerusalem. Following the U.S. lead, they have elected to pursue the military option over diplomacy where Iran is concerned. They have made this choice even though rapprochement talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by Iraq, have been showing tangible signs of progress.

But those talks, like the talks on reviving the JCPOA, cannot continue to flourish under the shadow of a budding military alliance whose primary purpose is to confront Iran. It is, to a great extent, a zero-sum game, because the more threatening that Mideast NATO becomes, the less Iran will want to risk engagement or compromise and will choose instead to dig in with what allies it can find. The Abraham Accords and the military alliance that has grown out of it are a recipe for war.

As that military mission expands, the UAE and Saudi Arabia (which, despite its lack of official relations with Israel has already been participating in the alliance) will grow more dependent on their connection with Israel, which will be the key to locking down cooperation, and, more importantly, weapons sales, from Washington and will be the military lynchpin for the whole project. And that means the Palestinians will be completely buried by the Gulf Arab leadership.

That is the unpleasant scenario which Joe Biden will be pursuing on his brief jaunt to the Middle East next week. It is the continuation of Donald Trump’s policy without any of the corrupt business dealings on the side.

The price, as always, will be paid by those consumed by fighting, whether in a long string of attacks by various militants groups or in all-out war. And it will be paid for by the Palestinians, even if the scourge of these wars doesn’t hit them directly. Israeli impunity will reach untold heights, as the United States will turn away from the Middle East, dropping any pretense of brokering deals between the Palestinians and Israelis, but continuing its support for its ally. Israel, meanwhile, will become not just the premier military power in the region, but the leader of a major military and economic regional alliance. Everyone’s cynical interests, other than the masses of ordinary citizens, will dictate that ignoring the plight of the Palestinians is preferable. That is what Joe Biden is trying to build. It’s not a pretty future.

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics