An American vision for the Middle East is emerging as the Biden administration presses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war Cabinet to scale back its 10-week-old campaign to root out Hamas in Gaza amid mounting civilian casualties.
President Joe Biden this week issued his harshest public rebuke of Netanyahu’s government. Speaking to Democratic Party donors, he said Israel risks losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” and that Netanyahu’s government must rid itself of its most extreme elements.
While the U.S. and Israel disagree on how Netanyahu’s war Cabinet should pursue its military objectives and who will oversee postwar Gaza, Biden seems to be setting his gaze beyond the conflict’s horizon.
Behind his sharp words lie clues to his assessment of the elements needed to move toward a two-state solution — the establishment an independent Palestinian state in exchange for a permanent end to hostilities. Peace in the Middle East is a decades-old goal that has eluded American presidents since Jimmy Carter.
Below are the key points based on his remarks Tuesday.
A moderate Israeli coalition
While the main goal is to support Israel’s drive to destroy Hamas, Biden said his second priority is to “work toward bringing Israel together in a way that provides for the beginning of option — an option of a two-state solution.”
He singled out Israel’s national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, and other hard-liners in Netanyahu’s government who reject any two-state solution and whose only goal, he said, is to achieve “retribution.”
Ben Gvir and other members of Israel’s religious and far-right parties enabled Netanyahu to return to power last year, forming the most hard-line government in the country’s 74-year history.
The government has expanded settlements in the West Bank and forced sweeping reform on the Israeli judicial system that resulted in the further stripping of Palestinian rights.
Netanyahu must change his government, Biden said, because it’s “making it very difficult for him to move.” Some see this as a nod toward moderates such as Benny Gantz, a popular opposition politician more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause who joined Netanyahu’s war Cabinet following October 7.
“The only hope for peace is that Netanyahu chooses Gantz and the war Cabinet over his other partners and realizes that a two-state solution is the only long-term strategy to prevent future October 7s,” said Michael Brenner, director of American University’s Center for Israel Studies.
Such a move by Netanyahu is highly unlikely but not impossible once the Israel-Hamas war is over, Brenner told VOA. “Pressure from the U.S. is central to keep him considering this option.”
Even before facing calls for his resignation over the October 7 attacks, Netanyahu was dealing with corruption charges and fighting for his political life. His critics believe he stands to gain from a prolonged war as it delays his corruption trial and an investigation into why his government was caught off guard by the Hamas attacks.
Before meaningful leadership change, Israel needs to “recenter itself,” said Alia Brahimi with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
“Israeli society has yet to process the horrors of October 7th, pass judgment on the litany of military and leadership failures,” she told VOA. “But especially reckon with the moral injury from the killing of so many women and children in Gaza.”
Elimination of Hamas
“There’s no question about the need to take on Hamas,” Biden said, calling the group “animals” and vowing to hold them accountable.
Israel is targeting those they say are the masterminds of the October 7 attacks, including Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar; Mohammed Deif, commander of the group’s military wing, Al Qassam Brigades; and Marwan Issa, Deif’s deputy.
The White House acknowledges that while degrading Hamas’ military capability and removing its leadership will affect the organization’s ability to plan and execute attacks, it’s unlikely Israel will be able to eliminate the ideology that motivates such groups.
An empowered Palestinian Authority
“The Palestinians have been not governed well at all. A lot has happened that’s very negative,” Biden said.
Since its establishment in 1993, and particularly since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, the PA has been losing credibility among Palestinians. In 2006, Hamas ran a campaign against the PA and won, expelling it from Gaza.
An overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza believe that the PA is corrupt, and that its president, Mahmoud Abbas, must go, according to a March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
In Ramallah on Thursday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated that the PA should be responsible for governing postwar Gaza but underscored it would need to be “revamped and revitalized.”
That is a challenging goal that would require much international support, said Gordon Gray, Kuwait professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Netanyahu is partly to blame, Gray told VOA. While the prime minister claims there is no credible and unified Palestinian partner for peace, his critics accuse him of deliberately weakening Palestinian leadership by choking the PA financially and empowering Hamas by allowing it to receive foreign funds.
“From Saudi Arabia to a number of other states, they want to normalize relations,” Biden said. Sullivan stopped in Riyadh on Wednesday before continuing to Israel and the West Bank.
Getting Saudi Arabia – a key Arab country and opinion-maker in the Muslim world – to accept Israel would mark a major expansion of the Trump-era Abraham Accords that restored diplomatic ties between Israel and a few of its Arab neighbors. For decades, most Arab countries had withheld diplomatic relations to pressure Israel toward a two-state solution.
The Saudi deal appeared to be almost within reach before October 7, driven in part by Riyadh’s and Israel’s mutual worries about the threat from Iran. But unlike the Emiratis, Bahrainis and Moroccans who signed the accords in 2020, the Saudis were reluctant to cut a deal that undermined the Palestinians.
While Riyadh keeps its eye on what it considers the prime reward for normalization — a defense treaty with the U.S. to protect it against Iran — the kingdom suspended normalization talks as images of mounting Palestinian deaths inflamed the Arab world.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the U.S. push toward Saudi-Israel normalization is part of the administration’s effort to bridge the gap between what’s happening on the ground in Gaza and where it may lead.
“The dirty secret here, I think, is that neither the United States nor Israel, nor the Palestinian Authority, nor the Arab partners, has a clear idea of where this all ends,” he told VOA.