The danger of leaving things be: how the world ‘failed miserably’ in the Middle East

Amid Israel’s turn to the right and the resurgence of armed groups in the Palestinian territories, recent horrific events highlight the dangers of diplomatic inaction

17 October 20233// The Guardian

Joe Biden’s high-stakes visit to the Middle East to avert an all-out war raises serious questions about the level and nature of the president’s previous engagement in the region.

Just as Israel suffered a total intelligence breakdown over the horrific Hamas attacks, diplomats stand charged with their own collective system failure, at the heart of which was treating the Palestinian issue as best managed, not solved.

While the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said “the world has failed miserably” in the Middle East, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was forced to deny the Biden team took its eye off the ball, when asked about his claim three weeks ago that the region was “quieter” than it had been in two decades.

The case for the diplomats’ defence will be that their hands were tied once the dominance of the Hamas military wing in Gaza came to be mirrored by the election of Israel’s most rightwing government in history.

Coupled with that was Donald Trump’s focus on bribing Arab states to make peace with Israel while ignoring the political crisis, which only further sidelined Palestinians while emboldening their occupiers.

With hardliners in Tehran pulling the strings of myriad proxy militias, notably Hamas, the diplomats simply had no partners for peace, save the ineffectual 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the unpopular and under-funded Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.

Nor it is argued that everyone in the Biden administration regarded the Middle East with such nonchalance as Sullivan. For instance, an alarmed assessment was given by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in June when Richard Haass, the departing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it to him that, based on his 40-plus years of experience, he feared the region “was not that far from blowing”.

Haass continued: “You’re seeing now the considerable expansion of settlements, considerable expansion of violence, a real absence of centralised Palestinian authority, the most rightwing government we’ve seen in Israeli history.”

Blinken, to the surprise of Haass, entirely agreed: “It’s a conversation I’ve had with the [Israeli] prime minister on a number of occasions.”

Brian Katulis, the author of a study of Biden’s approach to the Palestinian issue and a Middle East Institute policy scholar said it was “wrong to say that no effort was made, but they looked for ways to displace the issue”.

Nor was the Biden team alone in its failure. The EU, crippled by internal divisions on the Middle East, had also lost traction and trust, so much so that last week’s meeting of the EU Gulf Cooperation Council was the first in eight years.