The Palestinian people have never really figured prominently in the calculations of U.S. administrations. The Middle East is a locus of power politics, and Palestinians have very little power. Tragically, Arab states have all too often treated Palestinians like pawns as well. In Israel, as second-class citizens and residents of occupied territory, Palestinians hardly merit a place on the chessboard.
Sure, the Palestinians have international law, the United Nations, and a large swath of public opinion on their side. That and $3 will get you a latte.
The latest outbreak of horrendous violence—the slaughter of Israeli citizens by Hamas, the slaughter of Palestinian citizens by Israeli forces—has frequently been linked to the specific suffering in the Gaza strip. Nominally governed by the militants of Hamas, Gaza has been rightly compared to an open-air prison where Israel subjects the residents to all the indignities of the incarcerated. The environment is tightly controlled. There is terrible overcrowding. Only a designated number of Palestinians are allowed out on work release. These intolerable conditions have nurtured dreams of resistance: the more intolerable the conditions, the more violent the resistance.
But there is another desperation at work here, fueled by a fury at being sidelined by geopolitics. Even as they lose more and more land to Israeli settlers, Palestinians have had to listen to promises that this agreement or this pact or this set of negotiations will accord them something approximating a state or a secure homeland or some measure of dignity. And it just hasn’t happened.
The most recent deal, which would result in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic recognition of Israel, has also included some sops thrown at the Palestinians. According to murderous Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deal would “reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians.”
Forget about an independent state, which had long been the Saudi demand. This time around, Riyadh would settle for some unspecified version of prison reform: better meals, more exercise in the yard outside, perhaps conjugal visits. As if Palestinians don’t merit even an asterisk in the agreement, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu refused to enumerate even these minor concessions.
Disrupting this imminent deal seems to have been at least one motivation for the attacks launched last week. But if it’s true that Hamas had been planning this assault for one or even two years, then it’s necessary to look at the other geopolitical conditions that have pushed Palestinian militants to act and the Israeli government, equally militant under Netanyahu’s extremist reign, to wage war in return.
As befits a country obsessed with power politics, American presidents have long been focused on the very sources of power in the Middle East—namely, fossil fuels. Oil undergirded the longstanding U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, a regressive, authoritarian state that has nevertheless thumbed its nose at the United States by funding anti-Western extremism throughout the world. Securing access to oil was one reason the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and unseated Saddam Hussein. If the Middle East consisted of nothing but sand and date palms, the United States would have expended as much geopolitical capital there as it has in Patagonia and Mauritania.
The other locus of U.S. interest in the region has been Israel. Over the years, Israel has been the top recipient of U.S. military assistance. In 2021, for instance, it received $3.3 billion, 11 percent of the entire U.S. foreign assistance budget. To make this alliance more secure, successive U.S. administrations have dreamed of ending the nearly 80-year-long conflict between Arab countries and the Zionist state. Beginning in the 1990s, the road to that rapprochement ran through the Occupied Territories. If the United States could push the Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution, so the thinking went, Arab-Israeli peace would follow.
Beginning with the Trump administration, however, the United States reversed the equation, focusing more on negotiating agreements between Israel and the Arab states that secondarily dealt with Palestinians. Through the Abraham Accords, the brainchild of Trump’s son-in-law and foreign policy neophyte Jared Kushner, the United States brokered a deal between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain. Then came normalization between Morocco and Israel, at the expense of U.S. recognition of Moroccan claims to Western Sahara. In one of its last acts, the Trump administration presided over an agreement between Sudan and Israel, which has so far stopped short of full normalization.
Not only has the Biden administration adopted the Abraham Accords as part of its own foreign policy in the Middle East, it has attempted to build on them by pushing the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. If it can make the bed for these strange bedfellows, the United States can accomplish a task started during the Obama administration: refocusing U.S. attention away from the Middle East and toward Asia in particular. Because of its need for heavy crude, the United States still imports some oil from the Persian Gulf—12 percent of total imports in 2022. But beginning in 2019, America began to produce more energy than it consumes. No longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil and having brought Israel in from the cold, the United States is poised to downgrade the Middle East in geopolitical importance.
Israel and oil are not the only pull factors for the United States in the Middle East. Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the United States has also sought to contain Iran and its partners, including Hezbollah and Hamas. The progress made during the Obama administration to secure a nuclear agreement with Tehran was unraveled by Trump, which also led to the discrediting of the political pragmatists in Iran and their loss in the 2021 elections. A sign of the erosion of U.S. influence in the region could be measured recently when China negotiated a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Less animosity between the leading Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) countries in the region should be good news for Palestinians. Despite much rhetorical support, however, the major states in the Middle East have largely failed to stand up for the Palestinian cause, beginning with Egypt’s involvement in the Camp David Accords in 1979. “Seeking to maintain good relations with the superpower, Arab regimes allowed Washington—Israel’s main supplier of weapons and military support—to take control of peace efforts in the region,” writes Imad Harb of the Arab Center Washington DC. “This left no space for Arab leaders to positively impact decision-making regarding the Palestinians. Slowly but surely, the rights of the Palestinian people dropped down the priority list of Arab governments which saw the US as the main guarantor of their political survival and narrow economic interests.”
This high-level abandonment of the Palestinians has proven unpopular with folks on the street in the Middle East, who have taken a very dim view of the Abraham Accords and their successors. Demonstrations in support of Palestinians have spread rapidly throughout the region in the wake of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and preparations for a ground invasion. But if the United States is unable to influence Israeli policy—and several administrations indeed attempted to push back on Israeli occupation policy and its treatment of Gaza—then these public protests won’t have much impact either.
The Russia Factor
Hamas has counted on both Iranian and Russian support over the years. Iran has provided military support and, through Hezbollah, training as well. Despite much work by intelligence agencies, however, no Iranian fingerprints have been found on the latest attack by Hamas.
Russia, meanwhile, adopted the Soviet foreign policy of supporting the Palestinian cause. Although some Russian weapons have ended up in the hands of Hamas, it’s not likely that there has been a direct military relationship. Indeed, Russia has tried hard to maintain good relations with Israel, and it thinks of itself as a potential arbiter of conflict in the region.
At the same time, the Hamas attacks fit comfortably into the Kremlin narrative that the tide is turning against Ukraine because now the West’s attention is divided. As far as Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned, U.S. and European governments are experiencing donor fatigue, which is accentuated by the new demands for assistance from Israel.
But the Biden administration is likely to use the Hamas attacks to bundle assistance to Ukraine with support for Israel, making it that much more difficult for Republican lawmakers, who are currently hamstrung by their inability to choose a House speaker, to vote down the package.
Putin, meanwhile, has placed calls to various leaders in the region. The Kremlin has its own version of the Abraham Accords: the Authoritarian Accords. The Russian leader has good relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, not to mention Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas. If he weren’t saddled with the conflict in Ukraine, Putin might actually be able to bring everyone to the table. But a leader’s convening power is undercut when he has broken international law by invading a neighboring country and helped to drive up the global prices of food and energy. In such an environment—Russia down, United States on the way out—Israel acts without meaningful constraints.
The situation in the region is indeed bleak. An Israeli ground assault on Gaza will have horrendous consequences—for Palestinians, probably for Israel, and for the prospects of regional peace. Israel will try to eliminate Hamas, an entity it once helped to create in order to undercut the authority of the more secular PLO. But Israel has never been able to eradicate any of its adversaries in the past. So, should it proceed with an invasion, Israeli will face an occupation of Gaza as difficult to maintain as Russia’s seizure of a part of Ukraine.
It might seem that any kind of rapprochement between Israel and Palestine is off the table for another generation. But some analysts harbor hopes, however slender. According to Steven Simon, a former Obama national-security adviser, “The U.S. should establish a small contact group of important players, including Saudi Arabia, to validate and sell a post-conflict plan. This would entail the handoff of Gaza to the U.N., once the guns have cooled, pending the invigoration of the Palestinian Authority and commitment to Palestinian national rights.” Perhaps, under cover of providing public solidarity with Israel, Biden quietly pursued such an option during his recent trip to the region.
The key point here, though, is “once the guns have cooled.” The sooner the guns cool, the better. That means an immediate ceasefire.
Israel should learn the lessons of the past, including the ones that the United States learned after September 11. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq might have satisfied, in whatever misguided fashion, an immediate desire for revenge. But keeping the guns hot ended up killing more than twice as many Americans as died on that day in 2001. The costs—in shattered lives, in outlays for the military campaigns—continue to negatively affect the United States. And those costs are dwarfed by the impacts on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.
What should Israel do instead? It’s certainly easy to preach restraint from a distance. But here’s the reality that Israel needs to face: even if it somehow eliminates Hamas, it won’t eliminate the conditions that brought Hamas to power in Gaza. Israel has to grapple with the reality of Palestinians. They can’t be wished away.
The dispossession of the Palestinians has been a non-stop tragedy—for the dispossessed obviously but also for the occupiers, who have known no real security. An independent Palestinian state at first might only externalize the risks that Israelis face. Over time, though, the two historically stateless peoples, who have both been used as pawns for centuries, can find common cause as neighboring states—like Germany and France after World War II or Indonesia and East Timor today. Fratricide, as the latest events have proven once again, only benefits the one percent of extremists on both sides.