U.S. Position on Gaza Risks Wider War in the Middle East


Just days before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan proclaimed a “quieter” Middle East, and, with faintly concealed satisfaction, declared how little attention he – and thus the nation – needs to devote to the region’s myriad geopolitical headaches.

But now, Israel’s war on Gaza has dragged the United States back to the Middle East, and the Biden administration finds itself sucked into the vortex of multiple regional flashpoints revolving around Gaza. However, five months of frantic, high-level U.S. diplomacy, accompanied by creeping military involvement of U.S. forces, have brought little in the way of tangible returns for the administration.

Yet the root cause of America’s failure lies beyond the White House’s frustration with Israel’s leadership, however well-deserved it might be. Rather, the problem lies in how the administration has chosen to frame this war. From the moment that President Joe Biden labelled Hamas as “sheer evil” and characterized Israel’s military campaign in existential terms, he implicitly signed off on Israel’s maximalist objective of eliminating Hamas. By invoking the language of the war on terror, Biden also rendered the war on Gaza as an unbounded conflict – another potential forever war that threatens a wider Middle East confrontation by pitting the U.S. and Israel against Iran and its regional proxies.

In endorsing Israel’s maximalist objectives, the U.S. built its approach toward the “day after” in Gaza on a shaky string of assumptions.: Hamas’ destruction would remove a militant spoiler in the conflict and provide a clean slate upon which to build an ambitious U.S. architecture for the Middle East. Free of Hamas’ challenge, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank would return to govern Gaza, and a Palestinian state would be established in Gaza and the West Bank, thus resolving the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What’s more, a far-reaching normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be concluded anchored in a renewed U.S. defense commitment for Saudi security and support for its nuclear program.

For all the elegance of this new “Biden doctrine” for the Middle East, it risks becoming bogged down in the wreckage of Israel’s war on Gaza and explains the mounting failures besetting America’s broader regional policy. Despite the administration’s unqualified support for Israel’s war effort, U.S. intelligence assessments show that Israel is far from achieving its declared objective of destroying Hamas. Moreover, the U.S. is implicated in a humanitarian catastrophe bordering on what some observers and critics have called a genocide – one that has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Palestinians. All this has left the U.S. increasingly isolated internationally and regionally.

As if all this were not enough, the U.S. has become ensnared in two additional conflicts: The nation is now engaged militarily against the Houthis in Yemen to protect maritime shipping in the southern Red Sea and against Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, as Iranian-lead proxies seek to capitalize on America’s steadfast support for Israel by targeting U.S. forces deployed across the region. The risk of escalation in any one of these conflict arenas threatens to trigger a regionwide confrontation.

The Gaza war has shown how the Palestinian cause still resonates as a core issue of legitimacy throughout the region. By linking their military operations against U.S. forces to Israel’s assault on Gaza, the Iranian lead “axis of resistance” has put the U.S. and its regional allies on the defensive. The clearest example of this can be seen in the reluctance of key regional states to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian against the Houthis.

Perhaps the most serious concern for the administration is the lack of a clear Israeli endgame for the war in Gaza. This both threatens to implicate the U.S. in what could become a drawn-out conflict and heightens the risk of a broader regional war. The only prospect for a face-saving exit now lies in a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, coupled with a “temporary ceasefire” that Washington would seek to extend indefinitely in the hope of bringing about a de-facto end to the conflict. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris made the case for a ceasefire just this weekend, while also pushing for “immediate relief to the people of Gaza.”

Yet Netanyahu’s lack of interest in such a deal was evident in his approach to recent rounds of negotiations, reluctantly sending Israeli delegations under U.S. pressure but with no mandate to negotiate. Netanyahu understands that an end to the war short of Israel’s “total victory” would lead to the breakup of his political coalition – the most right-wing one in Israel’s history – and pave the way for a political reckoning for his responsibility for the failure of Oct. 7.

Washington must now reckon with the price of hitching its diplomatic wagon to Israel’s war agenda – one that is not only undermining the prospect of future Israeli-Palestinian peace, but also pushing the Middle East dangerously close to a regionwide conflict. The administration needs to distance itself from Netanyahu’s reckless military campaign and bring this war to an end before it’s too late – for the sake of America’s interests, for the sake of peace in the region and for the sake of Israel itself.


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