Foreign Affairs
Washington’s Ongoing Diplomatic Woes in Middle East

In the summer of 1990, President George H. W. Bush, recognizing the urgent need for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, tasked his Secretary of State, James Baker, with organizing ambitious peace talks that would include Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel’s longstanding adversaries across the Arab world. The journey toward these negotiations was fraught with challenges and characterized by high-stakes diplomacy, moments of public confrontation, and incremental progress that ultimately faltered.

By June 1990, Baker had grown exasperated with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s steadfast refusal to engage in negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was then viewed by Israel as a terrorist entity and its principal foe. In a remarkable display of public diplomacy, Baker rebuked Shamir during a congressional hearing, questioning his commitment to peace and sarcastically offering the White House phone number, stating, “When you’re serious about this, call us. The phone number is 202-456-1414.”

Concurrently, Baker endeavored to persuade the PLO to abandon its goal of eliminating the Jewish state and replacing it with a Palestinian sovereign nation, urging an end to terrorist attacks on Israelis. This push for a diplomatic breakthrough culminated in the Madrid Conference of 1991.

The Madrid Conference, convened in October 1991, marked an unprecedented step forward. It brought together representatives from Israel, the PLO, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. These negotiations, followed by numerous meetings in various capitals, addressed a wide range of security and economic issues. Despite the initial momentum, the process gradually lost steam. However, a significant milestone was achieved through secret negotiations in Oslo, leading to the Oslo Accords of 1993.

The Oslo Accords represented a groundbreaking agreement between Israel and the PLO, outlining a framework for the establishment of a Palestinian state within five years. Yet, the anticipated statehood and lasting peace were derailed by escalating violence and mutual distrust. The years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensued effectively nullified the Oslo Accords, seemingly for good.

Fast forward to October 2023, the Middle East was once again engulfed in turmoil following a brutal attack on Israel orchestrated by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. This devastating assault, which claimed around 1,100 Israeli lives, reignited discussions about a two-state solution, albeit more in theory than in practice. The US-led efforts to revive peace talks faced immense obstacles, compounded by the horror of the October 7 attack and its aftermath.

Unlike his predecessors who managed to overlook the PLO’s past terrorist activities, President Joe Biden refused to dismiss the October 7 attack. He emphasized that a genuine Israeli commitment to a two-state solution was crucial to alleviate Arab anger over Israel’s extensive retaliatory campaign, which resulted in over 30,000 Palestinian deaths.

In the aftermath of the attack, Biden dispatched US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East multiple times to promote proposals for a ceasefire, the release of hostages held by Hamas, and the establishment of a negotiation framework leading to a Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading the Likud Party once headed by Shamir, resisted American proposals. He rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood, instead offering only a temporary ceasefire and demanding the release of hostages before continuing military operations unabated.

Biden’s public statements have at times appeared contradictory. He has pledged unwavering support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas while simultaneously advising Netanyahu to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties. He warned that an Israeli invasion of Rafah, Hamas’ last stronghold in southern Gaza, would cross a “red line” and lead to unspecified consequences, though the only action taken was the cancellation of particularly heavy aerial bomb shipments.

Hamas, for its part, appears unwilling to accede to demands that would ensure its demise. It has called for an end to Israeli aggression, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and the reconstruction of the enclave as prerequisites for discussing hostage release.

Biden’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is influenced by domestic political considerations as he seeks to balance the support of Jewish-American voters who defend Israel and Arab-American voters outraged by the devastation in Gaza and the ongoing failure to establish a Palestinian state. This political tightrope reflects the diminished US ability to pressure either side effectively, a stark contrast to the 1990s when American influence in the region was at its zenith.

During the 1990s, the US had unparalleled influence in the Middle East. The successful expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 had made Arab states indebted to Washington. Israel, excluded from the Gulf War at the behest of the US, was hesitant to oppose an ally that had decisively defeated Iraq, one of its most formidable adversaries. Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, had backed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and was eager for political rehabilitation, culminating in his transformation from a terrorist leader to a Nobel Peace Prize laureate alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for their roles in the Oslo Accords.

In the 21st century, the US’s role as the regional powerhouse has waned. Protracted and ultimately unsuccessful conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the rise of a belligerent Iran and its network of proxies in Lebanon and Yemen, have complicated American Middle East policy. Additionally, the US is now preoccupied with challenges to its global power in Asia, where China’s military prowess is growing, and in Eastern Europe, where Russia seeks to reassert its influence by challenging NATO’s expansion.

Despite these challenges, the Biden administration remains committed to seeking a resolution. Veteran US diplomat Aaron David Miller notes that negotiations typically succeed only when the parties involved experience enough pain and see potential gains that generate urgency. Currently, the only party displaying a sense of urgency is the Biden administration.

Netanyahu appears focused on achieving military success as a means of retaining power and redeeming himself following the unprecedented Hamas attack. For Hamas, survival is paramount, and the hostages it holds serve as its primary leverage in negotiations with Israel.

According to Robert Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO, the US must demonstrate clarity of purpose and exert sustained diplomatic pressure on all parties involved. “The President must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends,” Hunter asserts. He emphasizes the need for the US to rebuild trust in its strategic competence and its role as an honest broker, placing American interests first.

As the situation evolves, it is clear that achieving peace in the Middle East remains a complex and elusive goal. The lessons from past efforts, the current geopolitical landscape, and the interplay of domestic and international politics all shape the path forward. Whether the US can navigate these challenges and bring about a lasting resolution remains to be seen, but the stakes have never been higher.

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