OPINION / VIEWPOINT
Israel-Palestine conflicts distract US attention from Mid-East retreat
Published: May 16, 2021 08:06 PM
Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike on Jala Tower, which housed offices of Al-Jazeera TV and Associated Press as well as residential apartments, in Gaza City, on May 15. Israel said Saturday it struck the high-rise building in Gaza City housing offices of international media outlets because it contained assets of Hamas intelligence agency. Photo: Xinhua

Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike on Jala Tower, which housed offices of Al-Jazeera TV and Associated Press as well as residential apartments, in Gaza City, on May 15. Israel said Saturday it struck the high-rise building in Gaza City housing offices of international media outlets because it contained assets of Hamas intelligence agency. Photo: Xinhua

Washington is facing a tough choice now. This past week has seen the worst violence in Gaza and Israel since 2014. US President Joe Biden has made diplomatic phone calls to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A US envoy has arrived in Tel Aviv for de-escalation talks. 

The Biden administration is trying to strike a delicate balance between engagement and intervention. It wants to reshape US influence across the world including the Middle East. But it does not want this process to be impaired by hot potato regional issues such as long-standing Middle East conflicts. 

Substantial pressure is being piled on Biden to act by both political parties in the US. Within the US, supporting Israel is the mainstream. Israel is the US' most important ally in the Middle East. This is something that both the Democrats and Republicans unanimously agree about. 

In the latest conflicts, the Biden administration has acted slowly, because it actually supported Israel by leaving it enough time to strike Hamas. During three emergency sessions on May 10, 12 and 16, United Nations Security Council members failed to agree on a unified position, as the US blocked a joint statement. This stance is not different from Biden's predecessors. But although Biden reiterated America's backing for a two-state solution between both sides, he does not want to invest in the conflict anymore. He knows that the issue cannot be solved easily.

Biden's present focus in the Middle East is to resume the Iran nuclear deal. Nothing else. Iran is a strong backer of Hamas. Israel's attack on Hamas is actually another attack on Iran. At the same time, Israel is showing its dissatisfaction with the US. This is creating obstacles for Washington and Tehran to negotiate the nuclear issue. If the Iran nuclear deal resumes, this will mean an improvement of US-Iran ties. 

Last month, Israel allegedly attacked Iran's nuclear facilities. It also expanded air strikes against Iranian forces in Syria. These moves are aimed at intensifying tensions with Iran in a bid to slow down US' negotiations with Iran.

Former US president Barack Obama had started to retreat from the Middle East, but this did not materialize as regional conflicts kept cropping up. Now, it has been more than a decade since Obama's decision to pull the US out from the region. For the US, the importance of the Middle East has now declined significantly. In terms of energy, the US does not need Middle East's oil as much as it used to. In terms of geopolitics, the global center stage has already shifted to Asia. The rise of Asia took place when the US was mired in the Middle East. Washington is clear about this.

Now, Biden is determined to leave the Middle East. Conflicts there have cost the US enormous diplomatic resources. But it has not helped the US much in terms of its cherished global leadership. 

Coming out of the Iraq War (which many US strategists believe is a failure), the US has realized that getting involved too much will only hurt itself - miring itself and being held hostage by regional conflicts. This also gives its "opponents" a chance to develop more. 

For a long time, the US has been supporting Israel. But now, Israel has triggered conflicts with Palestine, jeopardizing the US' global strategic plans. As Washington devises a military pullout from Afghanistan and eagerly promotes the resumption of the Iran nuclear deal, it is eyeing on China and Russia. But Israel is trying to prevent the US from leaving.

Yet departing from the Middle East is the US' strategic priority. This is in line with the strategies of both Obama and Trump administrations. But Biden is trying to play in a balanced way by resuming the Iran nuclear deal and correcting the partiality of Trump in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The US disengagement in the Middle East will be a long process. It is too early to tell how long this process might take. US plans will be derailed by regional issues. At the same time, this may distract US attention from other regions. 

The author is a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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