Can Biden Pivot to Asia While Israel and Gaza Burn?

By, a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! It is a beautiful spring day in Washington, I have my second COVID-19 shot scheduled for later in the day, and I have finished teaching for the semester. I would almost be in a good mood if it weren’t for a few pesky issues like war in the Middle East.

Emma Ashford: Another week, another continent, another war. It’s been a pretty active year on the foreign-policy front. Tensions have been escalating between Israelis and Palestinians for a few weeks now. But I don’t think anyone expected this sudden, violent clash. We shifted in days from protests and street-level disturbances in East Jerusalem to mass rocket bombardment of Israel and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

Opposing viewpoints on U.S. foreign policy in a post-Trump Washington, weekly. Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center.

MK: It is the worst violence in years. It is truly tragic, and it caught me and many other observers by surprise.

I also think it is important to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its proper context. This is simply not the high-priority global agenda item that it was two decades ago.

The Middle East has become an “economy of force” theater for the United States as it shifts its attention to the Indo-Pacific. The Abraham Accords show Israel can make peace with its Arab neighbors without solving the Palestinian issue first. (Even if Israel’s actions at al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan did not go over well in Jordan.) And despite some rockets reaching downtown Tel Aviv, Israel’s security fence and impressive Iron Dome air defense system demonstrate the country is quite effective at defending itself from terrorist attacks.

The crisis clearly matters for Israel and the Palestinians, of course, but this has become a small civil conflict in a small country. Unlike in the past, there are fewer larger geopolitical ramifications.

EA: I think it came as a surprise to U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration too; they’ve purposely adopted a hands-off approach to the question of Israel-Palestine, rightly gauging that it isn’t a particularly salient global issue anymore. But while I’m normally the last person who’d argue for more U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Americans can’t pretend they are not already involved here.

Yes, this is a small civil conflict in a small country—but Washington arms and supports one side politically! The United States has spent years arming Israel and ignoring the political issues—all while the Palestinian situation has become increasingly untenable and while any hope of a two-state solution has died. Then former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords—and the bizarre so-called peace plan—effectively formalized the situation. Washington is partly to blame here, and it should be helping to solve it.

MK: The United States invested enormous energy in attempting to solve this dispute for decades with little to show for it. If you have the solution, I would love to know what it is. While the Palestinians’ frustration is understandable, it does not justify violence. I think Washington’s approach has been about right: Condemn terrorism, support Israel’s right to defend itself, and call on all sides to exercise restraint.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply not the high-priority global agenda item that it was two decades ago.

EA: Look, nothing justifies Hamas launching rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. But Israeli strikes kill civilians too, reportedly more than 100 people in the last few days alone. Just condemning violence by one side doesn’t help us to find a political solution.

Smarter people than me have tried and failed to solve this solution for decades. But perhaps we can start by laying out the core problems. First, it is mostly Israeli policies in recent years that have created the current crisis. Permitting Jewish settlers to seize land in traditionally Palestinian areas and denying basic rights to Palestinians have resulted in a situation that Human Rights Watch recently described as a form of apartheid. It seems to me the United States can and should pressure the Israeli government to improve this situation.

MK: I’m all for improving the plight of the Palestinians. They have legitimate grievances and Israel’s policies, including the evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, have angered many. But the policies are lawful, even if controversial, so I don’t see how they “created” rocket attacks. Clearly, Hamas deserves most of the blame for the bloodshed.

And the United States and international community have taken enormous steps to try to help the Palestinians over the decades, including failed efforts at negotiating for a Palestinian state and development aid. I do not see any obvious U.S. options for solving this problem.

EA: The question of the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah has become a flash point for many Palestinians precisely because Israeli law doesn’t grant them rights. Jews can reclaim land from before 1945, but Palestinians often can’t legally claim the land they’re living on today. As with almost all civil conflicts, it’s a question of political rights: The Palestinians have no right to determine their own future and often can’t work or live in peace. That’s a recipe for continued unrest.

And to top it off, the Trump peace plan was a travesty. The Trump plan publicly promised a two-state solution, when it actually gave much of the West Bank to Israeli settlers, leaving the Palestinians only a tiny rump state, surrounded and controlled by Israel. It wasn’t surprising, given that it was written by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has close personal ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it wasn’t even an attempt to act as an honest broker in this case.

MK: The two-state solution was dead long before the Trump administration. Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and other Palestinian leaders were offered a Palestinian state on reasonable terms, but they were unwilling to risk peace with Israel, in large part because they feared extremists on their own side.

Some have floated the idea of a one or even three-state solution, but those do not seem likely either. Israel’s leaders will not accept a single state that is majority non-Jewish. And Egypt and Jordan do not want to adopt the Palestinian problem. Unfortunately, it seems like a continuation of the status quo—one that has prevailed for decades now—is likely to continue.

As with almost all civil conflicts, it’s a question of political rights: The Palestinians have no right to determine their own future and often can’t work or live in peace. That’s a recipe for continued unrest.

EA: Yes, the two-state solution is deader than a dodo. And both sides have certainly been unreasonable in the past. But I think the question for the Biden administration is how to encourage both sides to move toward a viable one-state solution. As journalist Peter Beinart recently put it: “The goal of equality is now more realistic than the goal of separation” in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The question is how to get there.

Which brings us to the other big problem: Conflict may serve the political goals of actors on both sides. The current flare-up is as much about politics as anything else. The recent cancellation of Palestinian elections means Hamas is desperate for a chance to prove itself, hence the rocket attacks and its attempt to tie its cause more closely to what’s happening in East Jerusalem. Even on the Israeli side, there are political implications. Israel has just had another inconclusive election. Netanyahu is clearly banking on the rallying effects of a crisis to undermine his opponents and prevent them forming a coalition—though so far they appear undeterred.

But the conflict won’t end until political actors on both sides are pushed to do so. And it seems to me the U.S. government can play a role here.

MK: There are things Washington can do during peacetime; encouraging greater freedoms for Palestinians, for example, would be consistent with Biden’s call to strengthen democracy globally. But Washington’s stance in the heat of this crisis should not be to coerce a democratic ally to appease terrorist violence.

Tehran has long supplied Hamas and Palestinian Islamist jihad with weapons. I suspect the Biden administration will be careful in managing this crisis so as not to upset its ongoing nuclear talks with Tehran.

We should also spotlight the other villain in this episode: Iran. Tehran has long supplied Hamas and Palestinian Islamist jihad with weapons and support for its attacks against Israel. Trump was able to broker peace between Israel and its neighbors because they were all more afraid of Iran than of one another. Prioritizing the containment of Iran should remain the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy, and Washington’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian dispute will remain consistent with that bigger priority. I suspect the Biden administration will be careful in managing this crisis so as not to upset its ongoing nuclear talks with Tehran.

EA: Well, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Gulf states react to this issue. The Trump-brokered peace agreement between the Gulf states and Israel was premised on an assumption by the Gulf states that the Palestinian issue was no longer particularly politically salient. And by that, I mean that Gulf monarchs thought it was no longer domestically politically salient—in other words, their own populations, which were historically very supportive of the Palestinian cause, no longer cared. We’ll see in the coming weeks, as footage of bombed buildings and bodies in Gaza stream 24/7 on Al Jazeera, if that’s the case or not.

And if this ends up forcing the Gulf states to back away from Israel, the Netanyahu government has only itself to blame for raising tensions to the point where clashes were inevitable. The eviction question has been simmering for a long time. In fact, the Israeli Supreme Court recently postponed its hearing on the issue for fear of inflaming tensions. But the Israeli police overreacted to the protests, and their crackdowns in East Jerusalem were far more violent than necessary. I mean, they used tear gas to clear a mosque during Ramadan prayers. That’s incendiary.

It wouldn’t have been hard to keep tensions from spiraling out of control.

MK: I still must object to this refrain from you and others that Israel or Netanyahu made these clashes “inevitable.” It assumes that lobbing rockets at civilians is a justified response to policies some do not like.

There is also the domestic political reality in the United States that support for Israel remains high. According to a recent poll, Americans sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians by a 40 percent margin. It would not be politically astute for Biden to blame Netanyahu for this crisis.

EA: Come on, Matt. You know as well as I do that acknowledging reality isn’t the same as approving of what’s happening. Terrorism is abhorrent. But it’s fundamentally a political form of violence; it happens when a group has a political grievance that can’t be resolved through the regular political process. And in this case, historical deals and more recent Israeli policies have created a situation where there’s a large group of disenfranchised, poverty-stricken Palestinians living effectively inside Israeli-controlled territory. The solution isn’t more violence. It’s to find a political solution, as Washington helped to do in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

And domestically, it’s not perhaps as unpopular as you’d think. A majority of American Jews support a two-state solution, support U.S. pressure to resolve the crisis, and are willing to dismantle settlements in the West Bank to achieve a deal. So while I understand the new administration doesn’t want to spend political capital on Israel-Palestine, I think it could actually be a smart move: politically popular and showing the world America can still do diplomacy, not just use its military.

Quite a few other things happened this week though. Shall we finish with a lightning round?

MK: That sounds good. On vaccine diplomacy and intellectual property (IP), Biden proposed waiving IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines with the avowed intent of helping the developing world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders objected. Merkel is right and Biden is wrong.

There are better ways of helping the developing world, including by exporting excess U.S. supply. Throwing out IP protections undercuts innovation and America’s successful biotech industry. And calls from other countries to loosen restrictions were motivated as much by greed as humanitarian goodwill. They want to profit by producing generic versions of the vaccines themselves.

EA: I mostly agree. I’m friends with a lot of progressives, and this issue has been driving me crazy for a few weeks now. It’s a total misunderstanding of where the bottleneck is in preventing vaccine distribution: not IP but rather supply shortages and export restrictions. Lifting IP protections sounds good, but it’s not going to do much to get vaccines where they need to go.

In other news, I hear we’re proposing a Washington-Beijing red hotline, just like the one we had with Moscow during the Cold War. As a good article here at FP recently pointed out, not all nuclear powers actually have a means to connect leaders in a crisis. I find that terrifying. But I assume you hate the idea?

Terrorism is abhorrent. But it’s fundamentally a political form of violence; it happens when a group has a political grievance that can’t be resolved through the regular political process.

MK: No. I think it is useful but only marginally so. As FP reported this week, a defense hotline between the United States and China could help deconflict military activities—if Beijing will go for it. But it would be a mistake to assume such a communication channel will greatly reduce the risk of armed conflict. The major tensions between Washington and Beijing stem not from miscommunication but deep differences on important issues like the future of Taiwan. No hotline can resolve these underlying conflicts of interest.

EA: I actually wrote a paper about this recently! The hotline is what security studies folks would call a “confidence-building measure,” things that help to reduce the risk of conflict. So this is a great step, but we need more: more agreements and norms and more day-to-day conversations with Chinese officials. All of those things together can help to reduce the risk of conflict.

Next up in the lightning round: secret directed-energy weapons. Apparently, some officials are privately blaming Russian intelligence for the so-called Havana syndrome, which has left some U.S. embassy staff with mysterious health effects. It’s technically implausible, and I’m still not convinced this is anything other than mass hysteria, just the same as what happened during the Cold War. You?

MK: I think it makes sense. Russia is hard at work on directed energy for use in missile defense and other applications. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine think directed energy is the “most plausible” cause of the illnesses. Havana syndrome has been a big mystery, and this is the best explanation I have heard for it.

In other news, the place that makes the good whisky had an election?

EA: Yes, though no true Scotsman would spell whiskey without the “e.” The Scottish parliamentary elections returned the Scottish National Party to power, though only by a titchy margin. They still need the Greens for a coalition. But that hasn’t stopped Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s high heid yin, from calling for a new independence referendum.

Pretty gallus of her given the polls are still not showing support for independence. Of course, Westminster’s swithering about whether to even let the vote happen. And U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is widely considered to be an absolute numpty by many in Scotland, so his refusal to allow a referendum won’t help anything. I’m just scunnered about the whole thing.

Sorry, the copy editor informs me I just accidentally slipped into Glaswegian. Let’s come back to Scottish independence in the future. In the meantime, aren’t you running late for your vaccine?

MK: Yes. I’d better hurry to benefit from the impressive innovations of America’s drug companies while they last.