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American Diplomacy in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities

US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's recent visit to Israel amidst ongoing turmoil.

November 06, 2023: In a rare move, US President Joe Biden ventured into the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict, a war-torn zone that has seen immense suffering and loss of life. His visit followed a tragic event where over 1,400 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed in an attack by Hamas. President Biden’s presence in Israel was not only symbolic but a reassurance of America’s longstanding commitment to the nation. During his visit, he expressed unwavering support for Israel during these challenging times.

Leading up to and following President Biden’s visit, senior US diplomatic and defense officials made their way to Israel, sending strong signals of unity between the two countries. However, even with the backing of the world’s most powerful nation, Hamas’s attacks on Israel have persisted. For decades, US-led diplomatic efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel have failed, leaving a contentious issue unresolved.

This week, we delve into the potential outcomes of American diplomacy in the Middle East. David Sanger, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, pointed out three key objectives of President Biden’s visit to Israel. First, it was an essential public declaration of the United States’ unwavering support for Israel and a clear stance against what is viewed as a terrorist attack, akin to the 9/11 tragedy. Secondly, it aimed to reshape Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perception of warfare in the modern world. Simultaneously, there was a drive to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian residents in Gaza, who remain trapped in dire circumstances.

The challenge for the US is to convince Israel to exercise restraint, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and adhere to international norms in military actions. The complexity lies in balancing the goals of eliminating Hamas to prevent future attacks and safeguarding innocent Palestinians who do not support the organization. This predicament in an ever-changing and volatile situation leaves many questions unanswered.

Despite ongoing efforts, the conflict threatens to expand beyond Gaza and Israel’s borders, prompting the US to deploy aircraft carriers and prepare military units in the region. These precautions aim to deter other regional powers from becoming involved in the conflict and provide a rapid response if additional fronts open up.

The fear of a potential attack by Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militant group supported by Iran, intensifies the challenge. Over recent years, the US has shifted its focus from establishing two independent states to normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The hope was that if Saudi Arabia recognized Israel, it would pave the way for an independent Palestinian state. However, both of these objectives remain unfulfilled.

The role of the United States in the Middle East crisis is a subject of debate, with concerns about the nation’s involvement in conflicts beyond its borders. President Biden has addressed the nation, emphasizing the importance of preserving Ukraine’s independence and Israel’s security. The common denominator in these conflicts is the desire to undermine democracy, which forms a significant part of the Biden administration’s diplomacy. Yet, the question remains: Can America achieve this goal unilaterally, and how do both political parties in the United States view support for Israel?

To comprehend the depth of the relationship between the United States and Israel, we turn to Steven Cook, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The bond traces back to the early days of the United States when Protestant missionaries held the idea of a Jewish homeland. This vision became a reality three years after World War II, with the United Nations’ decision to grant Jews a homeland in Palestine. US President Harry Truman was the first foreign leader to recognize the newly established state of Israel in May 1948, motivated by a sense of justice.

During the Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, Israel emerged as America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East. The Jewish community’s influence in various states and their electoral significance reinforced this alliance. In contrast, many Arab nations, backed by the Soviet Union, refused to acknowledge Israel’s existence. Therefore, the United States aimed to balance its foreign policy between Israel and Arab nations.

However, under President John F. Kennedy in 1960, the relationship between the US and Israel transcended, characterized as a “special relationship.” The United States also kept a close watch on Israel’s nuclear ambitions, aided by France. Israel successfully solidified its security ties with the US.

The turning point arrived in 1967 when Israel won the Six-Day War against neighboring Arab nations, capturing East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This victory positioned Israel as a crucial regional player, and the United States increasingly supported its Middle Eastern partner. This victory, though, escalated tensions and marked the beginning of a protracted conflict.

Subsequent years saw numerous conflicts between Israel and Arab countries, but the wars of 1967 and 1973 were pivotal in shaping the region’s future. While the US remained a staunch supporter of Israel, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in diplomatic endeavors to promote peace and assert America’s role in Middle East diplomacy.

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 concluded, but the Palestinian people’s aspirations remained unfulfilled. Nevertheless, five years later, a significant breakthrough emerged with the Camp David Accords. These accords saw Egypt regain the Sinai desert while recognizing Israel, a historic development as Arab nations had previously refused to acknowledge Israel’s existence. The late 1970s witnessed the emergence of extremist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, raising concerns for both Israel and the United States.

The 1980s witnessed joint military operations by Israel and the United States in Lebanon. Simultaneously, the intifada movement, a rebellion against Israeli occupation, began in the West Bank and Gaza. A moment of optimism arrived when the United States facilitated the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, which aimed to establish an independent Palestinian state. Unfortunately, neither side made a genuine effort to implement the agreement, and it ultimately failed.

Despite intermittent diplomatic efforts, the seven-decade-old conflict remains unresolved. As the Middle East faces growing challenges and the prospects of peace appear to diminish, Germany, France, Britain, and other nations are striving for peace. However, Brian Katulis, Vice President of the Middle East Institute, believes that the United States will continue to play a pivotal role.

Israel’s military and economic strength has grown substantially over the years, but the imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians remains. The involvement of other regional powers, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, has complicated the diplomatic landscape. China has also stepped in to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, further changing the dynamics of the region.

As the Biden administration seeks to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia to curb Iran’s influence and Hezbollah’s actions, it appears that American diplomacy in the region is facing significant challenges. However, it also presents a glimmer of hope for revisiting the issue of Palestine constructively and reevaluating an agreement that could resolve the longstanding question of Palestine.

In conclusion, American diplomacy in the Middle East remains a complex and ever-evolving endeavor. While past agreements have been made, their implementation has fallen short, leading to ongoing violence. Present-day diplomacy aims to mitigate the loss of life and property on both sides and prevent further escalation. The ultimate goal is a new world order that takes into account the interests and perspectives of multiple nations, transcending the influence of any single country. The challenge of finding a peaceful resolution to this 75-year-old conflict in the Middle East remains a formidable task for the global community.

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