President Biden is probably very relieved that the Israelis and Hamas have agreed to stop fighting — at least temporarily. Mr. Biden played an important role in pressuring the Israelis to participate in the ceasefire. But he would be well advised not to wander farther into that minefield for several reasons.
First, there is no compelling U.S. national interest in the region that would argue for deeper American involvement. The Middle East has become what the military would call an “economy of force” theater. Keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons remains a U.S. interest as is limiting Iranian mischief in the region, but the Israel-Hamas brouhaha does not pose an existential threat to our nation.
Second, Democrats are deeply divided on which side we should weigh in on. The moderate, establishment wing of the party has always been pro-Israel while the new left wing is increasingly pro-Palestinian. Mr. Biden would increasingly find himself in the middle of a very divisive issue within his own ranks if he appeared to be choosing sides.
The far left “Squad” leads the pro-Palestinian wing of the party. Not surprisingly, the Republicans are accusing them of being terrorist sympathizers since the United States has identified Hamas as a terrorist organization. Taking a strong stand on this issue one way or the other is a lose-lose proposition for Mr. Biden as he is running into increasingly strong bipartisan opposition to his domestic agenda’s cost.
Third, the conflict benefits both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the leadership of Hamas. Mr. Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, and the fighting with Hamas was both a distraction and an opportunity to play to his strong suit which is national defense. Hamas has been gaining political points with West Bank Palestinians in its competition with Mr. Abbas who leads the Palestinian Authority. Having recently cancelled elections, Mr. Abbas looks vulnerable.
In addition, the latest round of fighting strengthened Hamas in the estimation of its Iranian sponsors; it is entirely possible that the riots in Jerusalem that set off the current round of fighting were merely a pretext for a proxy assault on Israel for its recent cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Whatever the case, any attempt by the United States to intervene decisively in a dispute where both sides find political advantage in fighting would be both futile and foolish. The conflict petered out when both sides believed that their political ends had been achieved, but it will no doubt resume if one side or the other decides that there is internal political advantage in renewed fighting.
The United States can be useful in acting as an honest broker in helping to negotiate a continuation of the truce, but tilting toward one side or the other or — God forbid — intervening militarily would be a tremendous mistake. The United States has always supported the existence of Israel and views Hamas as a terrorist organization. The recent conflict has not changed any of that. Hamas and Iran are the last hardline actors in the region calling for the destruction of Israel, and any softening of the current U.S. position would — and should — be opposed by Republicans and moderate Democrats as well.
The United States can help with humanitarian aid if requested by either side, but any aid to Gaza should be filtered through the Palestinian Authority which both Israel and Washington recognize as legitimate negotiating partners.
The first thing that I learned early on as a U.N. military observer in the region is that none of the actors have entirely clean hands. Israel’s treatment of both Palestinians and its own Arab citizens leaves a lot to be desired, and that is an understatement. However, internal Israeli politics preclude any major change in the near term. Nothing the United States can do will change that. With its uncompromising refusal to recognize the State of Israel, Hamas merely strengthens the position of Israeli hard liners.
At some point, we Americans need to realize that there are some situations that we cannot and should not try to solve, and Israel-Palestine is only one of them. Regional actors need to resolve their own mutual disputes if those problems do not pose existential threats to the United States.
The absolute worst thing that our nation can do is to agree to participate in any peacekeeping force that attempts to enforce any temporary truce in an attempt to make it permanent. The second thing I learned, as a U.N. observer, is that you don’t want to get between two dogs when they decide to fight.
• Gary Anderson lectures on Wargaming and Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.
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