The irony of Middle Eastern geopolitics is that Israel makes it increasingly difficult for US President Joe Biden to support it, while Iran strengthens domestic US anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli hardliners.
US President Joe Biden at the United Auto Workers conference in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, January 24, 2024. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images
by James M Dorsey 1 February 2024
The hardliners are emboldened by the failure of calibrated US strikes in response to numerous attacks on US forces in the Middle East and on shipping in the Red Sea to deter Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
The deaths this week of three American soldiers in an attack on a US military base on the Jordanian-Syrian border by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia alliance potentially mark a watershed that could send regional tensions spinning out of control.
American anti-Iranian hardliners and pro-Israeli forces pressure Mr. Biden to strike back hard, possibly by targeting Iran directly.
Iran may not direct or plan the attacks but likely can persuade its non-state allies, who justify their attacks with the Israeli assault on Gaza, to step back. Iran and its non-state partners have publicly affirmed that various militias benefit from Iranian funding, weapon supplies, and training.
Iran would like to keep the Middle East at a boiling point without tensions expanding Gaza into a regional war. Iran benefits from Gaza fuelling popular anti-Americanism in the Middle East
So far, rather than use its leverage, Iran cloaks itself in the mantle of plausible deniability. Iran insists that its allied militias independently decide whether to attack US facilities.
In a surprise move, Kata’ib Hezbollah, a constituent member of The Islamic Resistance if Iraq, the alliance that said it attacked the US base in Jordan, announced this week that it had suspended attacking US targets.
Denying that Iran was involved in the group’s decision-making, Kata’ib Hezbollah said the suspension was intended to avoid putting the Iraqi government in a difficult spot.
The group likely does not want to complicate negotiations with the United States over a US troop withdrawal from Iraq.
“We recommend to the brave Mujahideen of the free Hezbollah Brigades to commit to passive defense temporarily. If any hostile American action occurs towards them, then may Allah decide,” the group’s leader, Abu Hussein al-Muhammadawi, said in a statement on the group’s website.
Mr. Muhammadawi’s statement came on the heels of a message sent to the Iraqi government, warning that the United States would have an “appropriate response” to groups that attack its forces in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Muhammadawi’s predecessor, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in 2020 in a US strike in Bagdad that targeted Qassim Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds force that manages Iran’s ties to non-state militias in the Middle East.
Iran has more than one reason to tread carefully. With Russian troops in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, that he does not want to see Syria embroiled in a regional conflagration.
Similarly, China has advised Iran to avoid the risk of a broader Middle East war.
“The Iranian regime has been emboldened by the crisis and seems ready to fight to its last regional proxy,” said CIA director William J. Burns.
Mounting anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States benefits Israel.
Like, Iran Mr. Biden struggles to contain conflict in the Middle East, while maintaining support for Israel.
The president’s problem is that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes it increasingly difficult for the president to back Israel unconditionally, not only because of Israel’s conduct in Gaza and the West Bank but also due to the extremism of his coalition partners and Likud Party members.
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to visit Jerusalem this week, his sixth visit since the war started, to persuade Israel to change its brutal Gaza and West Bank tactics, help deescalate regional tensions, and plan for a transition in Gaza towards restored Palestinian rule.
Mr. Netanyahu is unlikely to be very cooperative.
This week, he was quick to pour cold water on optimism that further Hamas-Israeli prisoner swaps were in the offing. Mr. Netanyahu rejected a permanent ceasefire, insisted that Israeli troops would remain in Gaza, and vowed not to release “thousands of terrorists” in exchange for the Hamas-held hostages.
An Israeli Channel 12 opinion poll suggested that 50 per cent of Israelis supported Mr. Netanyahu’s rejection.
A plan crafted this weekend by Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Mr. Burns, and the Israeli and Egyptian intelligence chiefs envisions a prolonged ceasefire and Hamas-Israel prisoner exchanges. Mr. Al-Thani discussed the plan in Washington a day later with Mr. Blinken.
The plan is reportedly a fusion of an original Qatari and Egyptian plan and an Israeli counter proposal.
The deal involves an initial 45-day ceasefire during which up to 40 women, elderly and ill Hamas-held hostages kidnapped during the group’s October 7 attack on Israel would be exchanged for 4,000 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel.
A second and third phase to be negotiated towards the end of the 45-day truce would see swaps of first Israeli women soldiers and then male military personnel and the remains of hostages killed in captivity for an unspecified number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
Hamas holds 136 hostages and bodies captive. In November, the group freed more than 100 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.
Mr. Netanyahu, speaking out of both sides of his mouth, rejected key elements of the plan at a religious seminary in a West Bank settlement. His remarks appeared designed to pacify Israel’s far-right who populate his cabinet.
Mr. Netanyahu spoke as Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, winged his way to Cairo to discuss the latest proposal with Egyptian spy chief General Abbas Kamel.
Before leaving for Cairo, Mr. Haniyeh said Hamas “is open to discussing any serious and practical initiatives or ideas, provided that they lead to a comprehensive cessation of aggression.”
Stressing that “a permanent ceasefire is our goal,” Hamas political bureau member Mohammad Nazzal told Al Jazeera that “we can do the permanent ceasefire in the second stage, the third stage” of a prisoner exchange agreement. He warned that “otherwise the battle and the war between us and the Israeli forces will continue.”
The trick in bridging the gap between Hamas and Israel is a formula that would allow both parties to claim they had achieved their irreconcilable goals, a permanent ceasefire vs a continuation of the war.
One formula under consideration is a lengthy ceasefire with no formal end to the war. This would allow Hamas to bet on Israel not getting Western support for a revival of hostilities.
Some diplomats suggest that describing the ceasefire as ‘transitional’ could make it easier for Hamas to back down from its insistence on a permanent ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces.
Even so, it’s a formula that Hamas’ Gaza-based leadership, as opposed to the group’s exile leaders, is likely to reject.
Gazan Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar tops Israel’s most wanted list. He is widely viewed as a hardliner, whose term is slated to end under the group’s term limits if Hamas were to move ahead with elections scheduled for later this year. Mr. Haniyeh, the hostage negotiator and Mr. Sinwar’s predecessor, is widely viewed as a frontrunner in an election.
Senior Israeli military figures argue that Israel needs to translate its on-the ground achievements in Gaza diplomatically to prevent Hamas from filling the vacuum in Gaza.
Like elsewhere in Gaza, Hamas’ ability to rebuild a system of governance and law and order, was evident in Gaza’s Shaila refugee camp to which the group returned as soon as Israeli troops left.
Mr. Netanyahu made his remarks as not only as Hamas but also Israel’s far right asserted itself.
Hours earlier, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted, “Reckless deal = dissolution of the government.”
The far-right, including 12 of Mr. Netanyahu’s ministers, and 15 coalition lawmakers, gathered in Jerusalem last weekend in what a Haaretz newspaper headline called, “An Orgy of Jewish Supremacy and Antidemocratic Euphoria, Encouraged by Netanyahu.”
The conference called for Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, expulsion of Palestinians, and Israeli settlement of the Strip. The Channel 12 opinion poll suggested that 38 per cent of Israelis favour Jewish resettlement of Gaza.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described statements by Israeli ministers at the conference as “irresponsible, reckless, incendiary… We have made clear that there can be no reduction in Gazan territory.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic difficulties, enhanced by the Channel 12 opinion poll suggesting he and his far-right coalition partners would lose a next election, have fuelled speculation that the prime minister has no interest in a prisoner deal, let alone in ending the war.
“What you saw Sunday wasn’t ‘Startup Nation’ Israel. It wasn’t ‘13 Nobel Prizes’ Israel. It wasn’t ‘Weizmann Institute of Science’ Israel, nor ‘Iron Dome technology. Israel. It was not liberal-democratic Israel. What you saw was messianic ecstasy and religious fervor in a position of power,” said Israeli journalist Alon Pinkas, addressing Mr. Biden directly.
“What you saw was not just the far-right elements in Netanyahu’s government trying to make a point by demonstrating that they completely control him politically. This is him. Unadulterated, unhinged Netanyahu,” Mr. Pinkas added.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.