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Biden’s Middle East Test

May 28, 2021
  • He Wenping

    Research Fellow, West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

The latest round of hostilities between Israel and Palestinians after Ramadan is the fiercest and bloodiest conflict between Israel and Hamas after a seven-year hiatus. As of May 18, 212 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict, including 61 children and 36 women. Israel has also suffered casualties, including 10 civilians, with two children among them.

On May 15, the Israeli air force obliterated a building in Gaza that housed international media, including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. While sending shock waves around the world, this bewilders the world. How far will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go and what Middle East policy is the Biden administration contemplating? 

The Trump administration attempted to lure some Middle East countries into detente and even establishing diplomatic ties with Israel through Donald Trump’s New Middle East Peace Plan (also known by the grandiose title “Deal of the Century.” The deal, which runs roughshod over Palestinian rights, only ended up fomenting Palestinian frustration and anger, though it did succeed in bringing the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to sign agreements to normalize relations with Israel.

But now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in more than 100 missions, with their consequent casualties, will inevitably create new obstacles to the expansion of Israel’s diplomatic space in the Middle East. Even the normalization of diplomatic relations is now subject to renewed pressure and even reversal.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also poses a severe test to the Biden administration’s nascent Middle East policy. After he took office, the process of unwinding Trump’s legacy began in many aspects of U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign. In addition to a prompt return to the WHO and the Paris agreement, the U.S. also directly engaged with Iran in Geneva, initiating the process of returning to the nuclear agreement. In addition, the Biden administration has announced plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan without preconditions before Sept. 11 this year, remove the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations and urge Saudi Arabia to seek a negotiated solution to the war in Yemen.

Senior U.S. officials, including Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have repeatedly emphasized on key international occasions that the administration will take a different approach from Trump in that it will emphasize the importance of multilateral diplomacy. It believes that conflicts cannot be resolved by war and that negotiations represent the only right way out. The U.S. needs to make a break with Trump’s Middle East policy and return to the path of multilateral diplomacy.

But the Biden administration’s rhetoric has not been validated by actions in the current conflict. It wasn’t until his third phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 17 that Biden said he supported a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. This belated first public call by the American president didn’t come until May 16, which was the deadliest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as 42 Palestinians, including 10 children, were killed. Previously, the administration had publicly expressed its condemnation of rocket attacks by Hamas, along with support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

Most ironic is that in the midst of a conflict that is asymmetric — as measured by both military strength and casualties — the Biden administration, as it called for a cease-fire, also approved the sale to Israel of $735 million worth of precision guided weapons. Also, the administration vetoed three successive statements by the UN Security Council, which has been calling for a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities since the start of Ramadan.

As the rotating president of the UN Security Council this month, China has played a constructive role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On May 15, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi expounded China’s three-point position on this issue. First is that the root cause of the deterioration of the situation lies in the long absence of a just solution for Palestinians. Second, the pressing task is a cease-fire and end to violence, and the UN Security Council has the responsibility to seek early de-escalation. Third, the fundamental solution to the Palestinian issue lies in the implementation of the two-state solution.

On May 16 in Beijing, while hosting an emergency public meeting of the UN Security Council on the conflict, Wang again stressed China’s four-point proposal to solve the issue that features a cease-fire and cessation of violence as priority, humanitarian assistance as an urgent need, international support as an obligation and a two-state solution as the ultimate way out. China also put forward practical options for solving the problem, including inviting Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to hold direct talks in China.

Saving the lives of innocent civilians on both sides requires an immediate cease-fire and an end to violence. The ultimate solution lies in the two-state solution. Like Israel, the Palestinians who live in the region are entitled to a state of their own.

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