Last week alone, the Biden administration has made at least five blunders that will set back prospects for Middle East peace. These unforced errors will only serve to isolate our traditional allies in the region (Israel and the Gulf States) and enable Iran and its proxies and the Palestinian Authority.
On February 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement saying that effective February 16, the Biden administration will revoke the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis, Iran’s proxy group in Yemen, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The Trump administration had also sanctioned Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in part for providing military expertise to the Houthis; it remains to be seen if the Biden administration will reverse this as well.
Ironically, the Biden administration admitted that the Houthis are in fact terrorists when State Department spokesman Ned Price called out “their reprehensible conduct, including… attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens, among other moves.” Houthi warfare tactics include conscripting child soldiers, intentionally targeting civilians, using civilians as human shields, and hostage-taking, all hallmarks of terrorists.
The removal of the Houthis’ FTO designation will not advance Middle East peace and will merely serve to enable Iran. This policy change will not stop the Houthis from terrorizing Yemeni and Saudi Arabian civilians. In fact, it only took one day to demonstrate the true worthlessness of Blinken’s statement: on Saturday, Saudi Arabia foiled a Houthi terrorist drone attack on one of its civilian airports.
President Biden has yet to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite calling the leaders of at least 10 other countries, including Russia and China. This stands in contrast to President Bush Sr. calling Israel five days after inauguration, President Clinton after three days, President Bush Jr. after a week, President Obama after one day, and President Trump after two days.
When asked, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki refused to confirm that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are “important allies” of the United States. Instead, Psaki responded with garbled nonsense that “there are ongoing processes and internal interagency processes” and that “we’ve only been here three and a half weeks.” Some believe that the “ongoing processes and internal interagency processes” mumbled by Psaki hint that the Biden administration is “reviewing” the U.S.–Israeli and U.S.–Saudi strategic partnerships.
Such distancing from Israel and Saudi Arabia will only damage relations with our allies, harm the prospects of more peace deals in the spirit of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, and appease Iran and the Palestinian Authority.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement opposing, among other things, “annexation” and “settlement building” in Judea and Samaria, known commonly as the “West Bank.” These remarks were in response to remarks by Israel’s Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), which is currently debating whether it should spend “millions” of dollars in purchasing land from Palestinians in and near Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria. Where the Biden administration has taken an early antagonistic stance against “annexation” and “settlement building,” the Trump administration was willing to effectively recognize Israeli sovereignty in about 30 percent of Judea and Samaria.
The Biden administration’s annexation/settlement stance is as much a non-starter for Israel as it is nonsensical. Israel has an inalienable right to exercise sovereignty in and build in Judea and Samaria, the heartland of the Jewish people. When then-Sen. Joe Biden chastised Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for Israel’s settlement policy in 1982, and Begin responded with his famous “I am not a Jew with trembling knees” speech, Judea and Samaria had fewer than 22,000 “settlers,” with an additional 76,000 or so living in eastern Jerusalem. Now, Judea and Samaria has over 460,000 “settlers,” with an additional 220,000 or so living in eastern Jerusalem. These “settlers” are here to stay, and any future peace overtures should acknowledge this reality.
When asked during a CNN interview whether the Biden administration seeks the Golan Heights as a part of Israel, Secretary of State Blinken, while recognizing that “the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” also said, “Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near as that [sic].” The Biden administration is thus poised to upend the Trump administration’s unequivocal recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. More specifically, this reveals that the Biden administration is amenable to pressuring Israel to relinquish sovereignty of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria.
While the United States and Israel should always be open to a long-shot possibility of a normalization agreement between Israel and Syria, denying Israel’s permanent sovereignty over the Golan Heights will be a non-starter for Israel. In response to Blinken’s comments, Netanyahu said, “The Israeli position is clear. In any possible scenario, the Golan Heights will remain Israeli.” As I have argued elsewhere, Israel’s claim to the Golan has ancient roots, its claim on the territory is in fact stronger than Syria’s, and the Golan is of immense strategic importance to Israel and the West, especially given Iranian investment in the Syrian Civil War and Iranian military assets just beyond the Israeli-controlled Heights.
Perhaps as a vote of no confidence in Biden administration statecraft, Oman’s foreign minister recently stated that Oman is “content” with its current relationship with Israel. This remark has greatly deflated hopes that the Biden administration can close on an Israel–Oman normalization deal, which the Trump administration had made significant progress towards clinching. The Biden administration’s growing overtures to Iran to re-negotiate the Iran nuclear deal will likely further cool prospects of an Israel–Oman deal, as Oman is an ally of Iran as well as the Gulf States, and a nuclear deal will give Iran more leverage to pressure Oman.
As it enters its fourth week in office, the Biden administration has dropped the baton on Middle East peace. And unfortunately, a course correction appears unlikely.