Four years of relative peace in the Middle East have been shattered by a conflict between Hamas and Israel, which began when Hamas bombarded Jerusalem. The Iranian-backed force that rules Gaza then expanded its target list to other Israeli cities.
Why now? The Middle East and particularly the Levant had been on the mend since then-President Donald Trump took the handcuffs off U.S.-led forces in 2017 and allowed them to all but obliterate ISIS. Trump also knocked off balance the terrorism-exporting Iranian regime by curtailing its finances and confronting it with an aggressive military posture in the Arabian Gulf.
The biggest Trump breakthrough came with the Abraham Accords, which achieved a historic breakthrough between Israelis and Arabs, with the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.
Unfortunately, the new Biden administration refused simply to accept this new and beneficial status quo upon entering office. Biden officials set about immediately to let Iran out of the doghouse. The administration is set on resurrecting the 2015 nuclear deal that showered Tehran with money and still allowed it to keep the key parts of a nuclear program it today is using to enrich uranium far beyond what is necessary for peaceful purposes.
Biden officials also put the Palestinians, and therefore Hamas (aka, the Muslim Brotherhood), back on the payroll with $235 million in payments. Trump had cut them off in 2018, realizing they funded terrorism. In restoring the funds, the administration said it “wanted to restore credible engagement” between the Palestinians and Israelis. Certainly, it did: nothing is more credible than a rocket attack targeting civilians in one’s capital.
Beyond the money, malevolent forces throughout the Middle East, the chief of which is the Iranian government, saw that Biden wanted to turn back the clock to before Trump. Biden aides and the rest of the failed foreign policy establishment never stopped believing that “solving” the Middle East required peace between Palestinians and Israelis first, which in their minds required strong-arming Israel into a conciliatory agreement. Trump proved instead that suppressing Iran would create the conditions by which Arab governments would feel politically secure enough to formalize diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel. This approach also correctly assumed that Israeli-Palestinian peace could never come first because the Iranian regime and its Hamas proxies justified their existence on conflict with Israel and were interested only in total victory: Israel’s destruction.
Biden has sought to make the establishment’s failed view great again. Today, the Austrian government of Sebastian Kurz sided unequivocally with Israel, raising the Israeli flag over its chief government building is a clear sign of moral clarity. Not so from Washington. Biden officials have implied moral equivalence between the Israelis and Palestinians by only vaguely saying Israel has a right to defend itself and urging de-escalation rather than victory over the Islamist aggressors.
Israel is having none of it. The government there led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who only last week appeared to be on the way out as prime minister, is seeking to deal Hamas a decisive blow and deter future aggression. In addition to targeting Hamas’s leadership throughout Gaza with air strikes, Israeli forces signaled that a ground invasion of Gaza was in the works. This feint led Hamas to send fighters into tunnels in the border area intended to protect its fighters and ensnare Israelis who could be killed or taken hostage. Instead of invading, Israeli forces have been plastering these areas with artillery, undoubtedly taking a high toll on Hamas with limited risk to themselves.
Netanyahu realizes what really is at stake in the conflict, and that Israel faces a military and political onslaught from Iran brought on by Biden’s weakness. As Allen Roth of Secure America Now observed, “This is an attempt to unmake the Abraham Accords.” It is a proxy war with an Iran that sees an opening with Biden.
Netanyahu’s political fortunes have changed as a result of the conflict. Prior to the first Hamas attacks, Netanyahu’s opponents across the political spectrum were close to forming a new coalition with two Arab parties and ousting him. Since the shooting began, Naftali Bennett, leader of a right-wing religious party that has been a partner of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, has said the coalition with Arab parties is off the table. It looks like either Netanyahu will prevail with a renewed premiership or Israelis will go back to the polls.
What that means is that the region will not meekly accept outdated assumptions by Biden officials about how to manage the Middle East. None of our Arab and Israeli allies—whom Biden officials have all but ignored—want a return to an ascendant Iran, and few believe that returning to the pre-Trump method of talking up the Palestinian cause will produce anything but the conflict we are seeing today. It has taken the Democrats all of four months in power to screw up the Middle East, and the good guys in the region are not pleased or inclined to play along.
Christian Whiton was a senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.