US policy fail

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 14 May 2024

Washington has admitted to uncertainty about Israel’s precise intentions in Rafah, reports Manal Lotfy

US policy fail


The United States is uncertain about Israel’s precise intentions regarding a major ground invasion of Rafah, a densely populated area where approximately one and a half million Palestinian civilians have sought refuge from north and central Gaza in recent months. This admission can only be construed as a humiliation to the superpower leading the international order.

It suggests one of two possibilities: either the Biden administration has lost its influence over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, or it is deliberately distancing itself from the large-scale ground assault on Rafah in southern Gaza, expected to lead to substantial civilian casualties. In addition, there are concerns about the far-reaching political and security ramifications of such an invasion, which could destabilise regional dynamics in the Middle East. Signs of this instability are already beginning to emerge. Both scenarios are a major blow to the Biden administration internationally and at home.

US officials believe that Israel has amassed enough troops to launch a full-scale assault on Rafah. However, two senior administration officials stated that the Biden administration is uncertain if Israel has made a final decision to proceed with the invasion, which would defy Washington warnings, CNN reported. One official noted that Israel has not adequately prepared for the evacuation of Palestinians in Rafah.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also stated Israel lacks a “credible plan” to protect civilians in Rafah, warning that an attack could spark an insurgency in the area due to the vacuum and chaos in Gaza which could help Hamas re-emerge. He said that Washington has worked with Arab countries and others for weeks on developing “credible plans for security, for governance, for rebuilding” in Gaza, but “we haven’t seen that come from Israel. ... We need to see that, too.”

For the first time Blinken also publicly acknowledged that Israel’s use of US weapons in Gaza likely violated international humanitarian law, a conclusion presented in a report by the administration to Congress on Friday. In response to the report, Biden said his administration would not provide offensive weapons that Israel could use for an all-out assault in Rafah.

Blinken’s explicit criticism and Biden’s threat to halt the supply of offensive weapons to Israel reflect the administration’s increasing awareness of the serious repercussions the Israeli ground offensive will have on the Palestinians and the region as well as domestically, while the movement against the Israeli war on Gaza is growing in the US which led to a significant decline in support for the Biden administration.

Information released on Monday indicates that former president Trump leads President Biden in five out of six key battleground states according to an opinion poll conducted by The New York Times, Siena College, and Philadelphia Inquirer from 28 April to 9 May. In Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Nevada, Trump holds leads among registered voters, with Biden leading in Wisconsin.

Given the Biden administration’s apparent reluctance to exert substantial pressure on Netanyahu and considering the growing likelihood of escalating conflict in the weeks leading up to the US elections, the situation becomes even more concerning. The Biden administration has also been lacking a coherent strategy since 7 October, resulting in a conflicting statement, thus weakening the American position.

Shortly after Biden stated that his administration could halt the sale of ammunition to Israel due to concerns about its conduct in the Gaza conflict, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated that the administration does not believe Israel has committed genocide in Gaza.

“We do not believe what is happening in Gaza is a genocide. We have been firmly on record rejecting that proposition,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House Monday. Sullivan also expressed concern about Israeli settlers attacking humanitarian aid convoys on their way to Erez Crossing in northern Gaza. “It is a total outrage that there are people who are attacking and looting these conveys,” Sullivan said. “It is completely and utterly unacceptable behaviour.”

Yet the assaults on humanitarian aid convoys by Israeli settlers are deemed by numerous international humanitarian organisations as genocidal acts aimed at destroying, in whole or in part, the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.  A severe famine has already struck northern Gaza, with civilians in the region bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Nonetheless, the evident failure of the US to influence Israel’s conduct in the Gaza conflict has far-reaching consequences, extending beyond the discontent among various segments of American society, including the young, Arabs, Muslims, and progressives, potentially jeopardising Biden’s re-election bid in November.

These repercussions extend to the dismantling of the American hegemonic structure in the Middle East, established since the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Agreement. Egypt’s decision to join South Africa’s case against Israel before the International Court of Justice in the Hague is a significant move that reveals tensions between Cairo and the Netanyahu government.

“One cannot underestimate Egypt’s involvement in the South Africa case. It is a blow to Israel’s standing in the region,” an Arab diplomat based in London told Al- Ahram Weekly. “Egypt serves as a key mediator between Israel and Palestinian factions, a pivotal Arab state in the Arab Israeli conflict, a close ally of Washington’s, and a central player in the axis of moderation. By aligning with South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, Cairo shows a lack of confidence in Tel Aviv’s intentions and America’s ability to exert pressure on Israel. This could mark the onset of a significant deterioration in America’s standing in the Middle East,” he added.

There are fears that the situation in the region could escalate dramatically if Israel proceeds with an invasion of Rafah without considering the humanitarian consequences for Palestinians. Continued control over the Rafah Crossing and the Philadelphi Corridor is likely to lead to a deterioration in Egyptian Israeli relations as well.

“The Arab populations are deeply outraged by the plight of the Palestinians, and any ground invasion by Israel, along with attempts to forcibly remove Palestinians from their land, may fuel political and social unrest across Arab countries,” cautioned the Arab diplomat.

In such an event, Biden’s entire strategy, centred on the grand normalisation deal between Israel and Arab countries in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state, would collapse. Without an alternative plan, leverage or ideas for de-escalation, Biden would be left without recourse, and the situation could spiral out of control.

Yet it is evident that Netanyahu is willing to proceed with his invasion of Rafah, regardless of the cost to Palestinians, the region, or the Biden administration. Many believe Netanyahu is counting on time, which does not favour Biden. With the US elections nearing, the conflict in the Middle East could be a major disadvantage for the Democratic administration. Biden’s attempts to exert pressure have so far been unsuccessful, further aiding the Republican Party.

If the Republican Party takes the White House, Israel might face less pressure, as current indicators suggest. On Sunday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated that Israel should do whatever it takes to achieve victory over Hamas. He compared the situation to America’s use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, asserting that it would be the right course of action.

“Give Israel the bombs they need to end the war. They can’t afford to lose,” Graham said during an interview on NBC News’ Meet the Press. When asked by the moderator why it was acceptable for president Ronald Reagan to withhold certain weapons from Israel during its war in Lebanon in the 1980s, but not for Biden to do so now, Graham again referenced World War II. “Why is it OK for America to drop two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end their existential threat? Why was it OK for us to do that? I thought it was OK.”

Reagan was not the only US president who tried to place restrictions on military and financial aid to Israel to influence its actions. During the 1950s Suez Crisis, president Eisenhower threatened sanctions to prompt Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. In 1983, Reagan insisted that F-16 deliveries would resume only after Israel withdrew from Lebanon. In 1992, president George H W Bush threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees if Israel continued building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

The current failure of the Biden administration stands in stark contrast to the actions of previous American administrations, and this misstep will have significant repercussions for both the Middle East and the United States. America’s long-term interests, both regionally and globally, may be severely compromised by its complicity in the war crimes committed by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Future American assertions about international law and institutions will appear hollow and hypocritical.

The foundational elements of the international system established post-World War II are collapsing. The principles and institutions of the United Nations, the laws of war, human rights treaties, and judicial institutions like international courts are all under threat. Additionally, the structure of the Middle Eastern system is in disarray. It is a moment full of dangers and challenges.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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