Q- Joe Biden's diplomacy has so far proven effective in containing the conflict in Gaza. While the escalation is gradual, to what extent can the United States continue to play its role of deterrence?
A- The main goal of the US deterrence has been dual - both deterring the more extreme wing of the current government from provoking a major expansion of the conflict through major escalatory strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and possibly even strikes against Iran, as well as deterring Iran, Hezbollah and their affiliated militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen from opening other major simultaneous fronts against Israel, beyond the usual threshold of attacks. The swift massive US deployment of two carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean in addition to other additional reinforcements of its posture took the region by surprise given that for more than a decade the US has been retreating from the region and abandoned much of its deterrence. The current posture has had the desired impact so far, though US officials are worried about the signs of steady escalation on the Israeli-Lebanese border and the deterrence’s continued effectiveness will require careful close management, and kinetic adjustments including in US retaliation for attacks on its troops in Iraq and Syria which have continued, coupled with diplomacy. The US is the only country that can play this role and as such it will have to continue to play it. An expansion of the war does not serve the interests of the US, its Arab or European partners and allies.
Q- What pressure can Washington exert on the different parties involved in the conflict?
A- There are multiple daily conversations at various levels of the US government with counterparts in Israel. The US has the most leverage over Israel but is also struggling to rein it in. US military support is uniquely crucial for Israel especially in times like these. It supplies vital munitions for its air defenses for example, in addition to other military support. The US is also Israel’s biggest diplomatic cover, consistently vetoing resolutions denouncing Israel in the United Nations Security Council, and refusing, so far, to call for a ceasefire. But the US has applied pressure on Israel in an unprecedented way. US officials got unusually involved in the planning for the Israeli operation in Gaza, to avoid an even more destructive assault on Gaza’s civilian population. The US Secretary of State Tony Blinken took the unusual step of spelling our red lines for Israel not to forcibly displace the Palestinians from Gaza, or reoccupy it or attempt to blockade or besiege it or reduce its territory. But that message has been muddied by other statements from the White House such as Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby affirming there would be no red lines for Israel. As well as the US shying away from exacting a price for Israel’s refusal to heed its advice on the conduct of the operation in Gaza, or on the need to stop settler violence in the West Bank or tensions in Jerusalem as well as the repeated statements by current Israeli cabinet and Knesset members openly talking about dropping an atomic bomb on Gaza, massively expelling Palestinians from Gaza, reoccupying it and building settlements there.
And Netanyahu has openly and bluntly rejected a US proposal that would see the Palestinian Authority take over Gaza after this war ends to organize new elections, without public rebuking by the US.
The US has less leverage on Iran and its network of influence, but it does hold some sway when it comes to its military threat, its ability to disrupt logistical weapons supply routes, and financing networks. It is able to freeze billions in dollars of Iranian money and impose new sanctions, though it has refrained from doing so so far. The US has been sending messages to Iran and its network of influence through various intermediaries including Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Oman and Qatar.
Q- What is the United States' strategy concerning its Arab partners?
A- The US has been keen to showcase its deterrence posture and its reckoning with the need to make real progress toward a real viable Palestinian state. It deployed air defense batteries in the Gulf, which serve as reassurance measures for its closest partners in the region who still have not forgotten that when Iranian-linked militias attacked their oil installations, the Trump administration did not deter or respond. There are arduous painstaking quasi daily discussions between Washington and the Arab capitals most active on this issue, namely Cairo, Amman, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat and Abu Dhabi, to conceive of governance in Gaza after the end of this war, and how to revive a quick political track to achieve viable statehood for the Palestinians.
Q- The Saudi-Israeli normalization was at the heart of the American project for regional security architecture. Where do we stand regarding this objective?
A- In the discussions about Saudi-Israeli normalization, the central strategic goal for Riyadh has been obtaining a recommitment from Washington to its security, with the formalization of ties with Israel an addition. Those discussions between the KSA and the US are still ongoing, and Saudi Arabia has a stronger hand to play today both in terms of re-anchoring the US security guarantee in the region, as well as its demands related to the Palestinian state. The question will be what the Biden administration will deem politically beneficial for it to commit to in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.