The Middle East at an inflection point

US President Joe Biden (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct 18, 2023

It has been a perennial hope and expectation that Israel would abandon the path of repression, colonisation and apartheid as state policies and instead accept a negotiated settlement of the Palestine problem under pressure from its patron, mentor, guide and guardian — the United States. But that  proved delusional and the remains of the day is a chronicle of dashed hopes and hypocrisy. The big question today is whether a paradigm shift is possible. That is also the dilemma facing US President Joe Biden at 80.  

History shows that while catastrophic events have myriad negative effects, positive effects are also possible, especially in the long term. The French-German reconciliation after two world wars is, perhaps, the finest example in modern history, and it planted the germane seeds of European integration project.  Certainly, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave impetus to the Sino-Russian rapprochement, which morphed into a “no limit” partnership.

However, for such miracles to happen, visionary leadership is needed. Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer were indeed political visionaries — and, in a different sort of way, the two consummate pragmatists Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin too were. 

Does it look as if Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu belong to that pantheon? When Biden met with Netanyahu and his war cabinet in Tel Aviv on October 18, he assured them: “I don’t believe you have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist.” Therein lies the paradox. For, how could you possibly be an Irish Catholic and a Zionist at the same time? Sinn Féin, which is on course to top Ireland’s next election, is embracing Palestinians and condemning Israel. Of course, there are no surprises here.

Biden is torn between conflicting faiths. Suffice to say, when Biden speaks about a two-state solution, it becomes hard to believe him. On Netanyahu’s part, at least, he doesn’t even feel the need to pay lip service to a two-state solution, after having systematically buried the Oslo Accord and embarked on the journey towards a Jewish theocracy in what was once the state of Israel. Make no mistake, Greater Israel is here to stay and the world opinion regards it as an apartheid state. 

There is a great misconception that Biden is under pressure from the American opinion on the conflict in Gaza. But the fact of the matter is that support for Israel has all along been rather thin in America and had it not been for the Israel Lobby, it would have probably asserted a long time ago. Curiously, something like one third of American Jews, especially the youth, don’t even care for the Israel Lobby. 

That said, it is also a fact that Americans have generally a favourable opinion about Israel. Their problem is really about Israel’s aggressive policies — this is despite the absence of any open media or academic discussion in the US regarding the state repression of Palestinians or the colonisation of West Bank. 

A defining moment came when Netanyahu taunted and humiliated President Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear deal by consorting with the Congress against the presidency in an audacious attempt to derail the negotiations with Tehran. 

In the recent years, Israel’s image has been tarnished in the liberal opinion following the ascendance of right-wing forces and the overtones of racist attitudes including among Israeli youth. Indeed, Israel has been an increasingly illiberal country even toward its own citizens. Due to such factors, Americans no longer take an idealised view of Israel as a morally upright country battling for existence.    

Meanwhile, there has been a marked erosion of support for Israel within the Democratic Party. But this needs to be put in perspective, for, there has been a countervailing rise in  support for Israel among Republicans. Thus, although “bilateral consensus” on Israel is dissipating, paradoxically, the Israel Lobby still wields influence. 

That is because the Israel Lobby traditionally didn’t much pay attention to rank and file Americans but instead focused on the power brokers and indeed worked hard to shore up their support. Therefore, it must be understood that what Biden cannot but factor in is that the elites in the Democratic Party establishment remain deeply committed to relations with Israel although the support within the party for Israeli policies may have waned and the American opinion finds the bestiality of Israeli conduct in Gaza revolting. 

The elites fear that the Lobby will target them if there are any signs of them wavering in their support for Israel. Put differently, the political elites do not place American national interests above their own personal or career interests. Thus, the Israel Lobby always wins on the Palestinian issue and in extracting generous financial support for Israel with no strings attached. Make no mistake that the Lobby will go to any extent to have its way whenever the crunch time comes, such as today.  

Biden is hardly in a position to displease or annoy the Israel Lobby on  a day of reckoning. So, why is he making big promises to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt that “under no circumstances will the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, or the besiegement of Gaza, or the redrawing of the borders of Gaza”? 

The answer is simple: these are fait accompli that have been forced upon the US and Israel by the Arab States in their finest hour of collective security, none of whom is willing to legitimise Israel’s genocide or its roadmap of ethnic cleansing. Didn’t even little Jordan say ‘no’ to Biden?

Biden is making hollow promises. In reality, what matters is that the Israel Lobby will go to extraordinary length to protect the emerging Greater Israel. Again, it costs Biden nothing by affirming support for a two-state solution. He knows it will be aeons before such a vision takes life, if at all, and if South Africa’s experience is anything to go by, the journey will be fraught with much bloodshed. 

Most important, Biden knows that Israel will not accept a two-state solution as per the Arab Initiative crafted by Saudi Arabia’s King  Abdullah, which is a finely balanced matrix of mutual interests with a historical as well as long term perspective. In a historic speech addressing the Arab League on the day of its adoption in 2002, then Crown Prince Abdullah had  said with great prescience: “In spite of all that has happened and what still may happen, the primary issue in the heart and mind of every person in our Arab Islamic nation is the restoration of legitimate rights in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.”

The high probability is that Israel will hunker down with the help of its Lobby in the US and would rather prefer to be a Pariah in the world community, to a two-state solution that demands abandonment of the  Zionist state built around Greater Israel. The only game changer could be be if Biden is willing to make the US force its will on Israel — through coercive means, if necessary.

But that requires the courage of conviction and a rare ingredient in politics — compassion. Biden’s hugely successful half century in public life was almost entirely devoted to realpolitik and there are no traces of conviction or compassion in it. A legacy cannot be built on ephemeral considerations and expediency.