The Independent / October 9, 2023
The conflict was traditionally a high priority for US presidents. But in recent years, it has been allowed to fester.
This weekend’s heinous massacre of unarmed civilians by Hamas was shocking not just for its unbridled brutality, but because the people in places of power in Israel and the United States appeared blind to its possibility.
For the better part of the last 50 years, the Israel-Palestine conflict — for want of a better term — was a top priority for successive US presidents. From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, both Republican and Democrat administrations recognized and often witnessed the costs of allowing this conflict to fester unaddressed.
But fester it has. After years of treating the conflict as a low priority, a catastrophic and deadly escalation in violence has left hundreds of civilians dead and risks sparking a regional war that could provoke more direct US military involvement.
Joe Biden set the tone for his administration early in his presidency. At a joint meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Biden spoke about the importance of keeping a diplomatic solution to this decades-long conflict in sight.
“There must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel. We cannot allow the hopelessness to steal away the future,” he said. He insisted, however, that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations.”
Biden appeared to recognize that hopelessness was where danger lay, but was unwilling to take meaningful action to address it. Hamas has for years exploited this despair to convince young and desperate Palestinians that violence is the only way for them to win their freedom. The absence of a diplomatic solution gives them space to make their argument.
The Biden administration did not attempt to initiate any kind of direct talks between the two sides. Instead, like his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden sought to fiddle around the edges of the conflict by chasing normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia — a country which has had no real influence over the primary actors for decades. Trump, for his part, celebrated the Abraham Accords — a normalization pact between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — as the “dawn of a new Middle East.”
Speaking after Hamas carried out its attack on Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed back on the suggestion that the US had taken its eye off the ball.
“We’ve said from day one that even as we’re working toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that can’t be a substitute for resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
This indifference persisted against the backdrop of a steady drumbeat of violence across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories during his tenure.
Before this weekend’s outbreak of violence, some 227 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli troops or settlers this year, according to the United Nations — the majority of those deaths occurred in the West Bank, which is not controlled by Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority. At least 29 Israelis were killed during the same period, also mostly in the West Bank.
There was a sense in the White House that the issue could be contained — that there was no need to pursue talks because things were calm. A little over a week ago, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, declared: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt the same, choosing to build a governing coalition of far-right extremists and expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, seemingly in the knowledge that he could do so without serious pushback from allies in Washington.
Biden was not the first to deprioritize the conflict. Trump did much more than nothing. Rather than act as a mediator, as previous Republican and Democratic administrations have sought to present themselves as, he did everything he could to tip the scales in Israel’s favour, asking nothing in return.
In Gaza, meanwhile, a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007 has left the vast majority of Palestinians there dependent on aid to survive and with no hope of escape.
If peace talks seem like a foolish enterprise at this current moment, when the dead are still being counted, consider the futility of expecting another massive military operation in Gaza to herald different results than it has before. In the 16 years since Israel blockaded Gaza in an attempt to squeeze Hamas — a measure described by the UN as “collective punishment” of the enclave’s more than 2 million inhabitants — four devastating military assaults have failed to weaken Hamas in any meaningful way. None of this requires a direct negotiation with Hamas, but rather with rival Palestinian groups that Hamas has sought to eradicate.
The US is by no means an impartial broker. It is Israel’s staunchest ally and delivers billions of dollars in military aid every year to ensure that it maintains an overwhelming superiority of arms over its enemies. But that relationship, and that aid, is precisely why the US role in brokering peace is essential.
Of course, Hamas has never needed an excuse to carry out attacks in the past. A peace effort by the Biden administration would likely not have impacted their decision to kill civilians en masse. But a serious effort at peace would weaken groups such as Hamas, not strengthen them. Hopelessness breeds extremism, and never before has the prospect of a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict seemed more distant.
Richard Hall is The Independent’s senior US correspondent