US grand bargain can’t hold up under scrutiny

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

Ambiguous ideas and wishful thinking regarding peace in the Middle East region do not amount to either realpolitik or a morals-based policy.

US grand bargain can t hold up under scrutiny

 

What does US President Joe Biden want?

For the fifth time since the Israeli war on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began last October, the US president has sent his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to the region carrying messages and plans that will not achieve any tangible result on the ground to alleviate the unbearable suffering of the Palestinians.

During his visit this week, Blinken carried several messages to the leaders of the region.

The first message is that the US administration does not want to expand the scope of the war in the Middle East, even though US missiles preceded Blinken’s visit when they targeted sites in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the killing of three US service personnel at a base near the Syrian border in Jordan.

The second message is that the US is concerned about the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza. This is a claim many parties will find difficult to believe, especially after the US, along with about 18 other countries, stopped its funding of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA following unproven Israeli accusations of the involvement of about 10 people working for UNRWA in the 7 October attacks.

UNRWA employs more than 13,000 people in Gaza. Freezing its funds will make an already bad situation worse, with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians starving due to the lack of sufficient humanitarian aid.

The third message is that Blinken will seek more clarification from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding his plans for governing Gaza after the fighting ends, including a possible role for the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But the current visit by the US secretary of state is likely to be more ambitious in its goals than simply reassuring the region that Washington is not seeking a wider regional war or expressing concern about the fate of the Palestinians.

Senior officials in the US administration, including CIA Director William Burns, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and White House Middle East Adviser Brett McGurk, in addition to Blinken himself, have made several visits to the region in recent weeks.

The goal of these is to create enough regional momentum to revive a grand bargain between Saudi Arabia and Israel with US mediation.

Under this bargain, Washington would offer Riyadh security guarantees similar to those granted by NATO to member states, in addition to helping Saudi Arabia develop a peaceful nuclear programme.

Riyadh will then diplomatically recognise Israel, normalise relations with it, and help to integrate it economically and politically into the region. In return, Israel must agree to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state and take concrete steps in this direction.

During previous visits by US officials to the region, even before the 7 October attacks, the main obstacle to this historic deal was the refusal of Netanyahu to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

This rejection has been reinforced over the past few weeks, driven mainly by internal calculations in Israel related to the popular mood and the fragility of the far-right ruling coalition.

But Washington is in a race against time, and the Biden administration believes that it has two months to reach a deal. An agreement of this magnitude would need Congress’ support, especially regarding providing NATO-like security guarantees for Saudi Arabia and aiding its nuclear aspirations.

In a presidential election year in the US, a deal with those terms would likely have to get Senate ratification by June before the White House and Congress become fully involved in the presidential elections.

The Saudis would also prefer a deal before the end of the year, and in a change of tone, Reuters reported that Riyadh would be willing to settle for a mere political commitment from Israel to establish a Palestinian state.

According to two regional sources, Saudi officials told their colleagues in Washington that Riyadh would not insist that Israel take concrete steps to establish a Palestinian state and would settle instead for a commitment to a two-state solution.

However, Riyadh is insisting that the first step to pave the way for negotiations is a ceasefire in Gaza and the delivery of humanitarian aid. So far, Washington has failed to convince Israel to implement either demand.

But the obstacles to the US plan go beyond differences over the extent of the Israeli commitment to establishing a Palestinian state. There are also many difficult questions about the role of the PA in managing the Palestinian territories after the war, the role of Hamas, and Israel’s plans for Gaza.

“These are not real efforts to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East. This is a sham and a fictitious project that aims to serve Israel’s interests by normalising relations with Saudi Arabia without concrete, binding steps to establish a Palestinian state,” an Arab diplomat based in London told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“First, the Palestinians are not participating in these talks. They are only informed of developments. They have no weight or opinion in the proceedings. Worse still, the legitimate demands of the Palestinians are treated as a tool for normalisation between Riyadh and Tel Aviv,” he said.

“Where is the Palestinian agency? If you build a peace process based on giving the Palestinians small, scattered, separate plots of land without sovereignty, control, army, dignity, or real self-determination, then you are not achieving peace, but rather planting the seeds of a new war.”

US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller’s account of the meeting between Blinken and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman on Monday did not contain any specific references to the grand bargain efforts but said that the two men had discussed “building a more integrated and prosperous region and reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

It is possible to understand the US reluctance to speak out about its potentially transformative plan for the Middle East.

Every time a US official, including Biden, talks about the possibility of Israel supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu appears minutes later to deny it and to confirm the impossibility of his approving such a step, describing it as an “existential danger” to Israel.

Netanyahu is making complex internal calculations, and ideologically he is one of the most ardent opponents of a Palestinian state. He hopes for normalisation without making political concessions within the framework of the “peace for peace” formula that he endorsed during Israel’s normalisation with countries including the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco.

He also believes that in the year of the US elections, Biden cannot push Israel too hard on this sensitive matter.

“All these issues have bedevilled policymakers, so I won’t be overly optimistic. Probably the best that can be achieved in the next few months is a long-term ceasefire and massive infusion of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Then we will have to see if Israel can rouse itself to call for new elections that will finally push Netanyahu off the political stage and allow for a new Israeli consideration of Palestinian rights,” Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington DC, told the Weekly.

After the 7 October attacks, the Biden administration tried to ease Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state by talking about a “Revitalised Palestinian Authority” (RPA) that would control the West Bank and Gaza under new rules. But Washington has so far failed to explain to its allies in the region what this means, said the Arab diplomat.

“The only obvious part of this revitalised PA plan is a US-backed mission to train PA security forces which could take a year. But to do what exactly? No one is sure,” he said. “Questions about the goal of retraining these forces, what their tasks are, and how they will work are still unanswered.”

The other problem with Biden’s plan is that it is widely portrayed as a potential regional alliance against Iran, and this could inflame the region even more and hinder the recent rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran.

“Iran has recently signed off on several multilateral communiques supporting a two-state solution, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has denied he wants to push Jews into the sea. A real game-changer would be a Saudi-Iranian understanding on Palestine, perhaps backed by China. All of this looks incredibly optimistic now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for it. The alternative is just more death and suffering,” Slavin told the Weekly.

The road to peace in the Middle East has always been bumpy, and it is bumpier today than ever. Therefore, peace plans must be formulated with patience, insight, and realism. All of these seem to be absent from the ambiguous US plans that are currently being proposed.

“If the Biden administration wanted to start a real peace process in the Middle East, the approach should have been realistic, and that means not dividing the region into opposing camps. Firstly, that is not pragmatic, and it is also immoral. Peace is easier to achieve if there is a collective interest in achieving it and if its goal is not to achieve the interests of one party at the expense of another,” said the Arab diplomat.

However, the unprecedented humanitarian and political crisis that the Palestinians are suffering from, which may lead to the explosion of the region, may force all the parties, including Washington, to reconsider their positions.

“A credible path to a Palestinian state coupled with massive humanitarian aid to Gaza and a freeze and potential rollback of Israeli settlements in the West Bank would be a good formula. Obviously, it will be difficult to achieve and impossible while Netanyahu is in power with his current cabinet,” argued Slavin.

“The US will be embroiled in the election campaign, so major progress in the Middle East is unlikely until we know if Biden will get a second term. If it’s Trump that is elected, I doubt the Palestinians will get much attention,” she added.

So, despite all his shortcomings, a Biden second term could be the best the Palestinians can hope for during one of their most difficult times since the Nakba of 1948. But in order to achieve historic peace in the region, Biden’s approach must change significantly.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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