A Biden Doctrine for the Middle East? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- February 5, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. NYT Times columnist Tom Friedman last week unveiled a “Biden Doctrine” for the Middle East--from Iran to Gaza. Friedman is known to have close access to the views of President Biden, and the ‘doctrine’ draws together known Biden positions. How viable and relevant is it?

A. It is relevant insofar as it reflects President Biden’s thinking regarding the Middle East. As a ‘package’ it does not appear to be viable in the short term. But some of its dimensions may be at least partly applicable, and that is notable. After all, as matters currently stand in and around Israel, an American initiative is vital for enhancing regional security. That helps explain US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s sixth visit to the region, starting this week, since the Gaza War began four months ago.

But note: greater American activism in the region can affect Israel in more ways than one.

Q. The Biden Doctrine reportedly comprises three dimensions: deterring Iran and its proxies, ending the Gaza War and promoting a Palestinian state, and a US-Saudi security alliance that includes Saudi-Israeli normalization of relations. Regarding Iran, the administration has already followed through with extensive strikes against proxy militias. Effective?

A. Friday witnessed American attacks against some 85 targets in Iraq and Syria. They were described as a response to an earlier Iranian-sponsored militia attack on a US supply base near the Jordan-Iraq-Syria border junction that killed three US soldiers and wounded dozens. This was followed by more US and UK attacks against Houthi targets in Yemen.

The big question here is how, if at all, this dynamic affects Iran’s aggressive pose toward the US in the region. In other words, do US attacks deter Iran sufficiently to allow Washington to proceed with the other two dimensions of the doctrine: winding down the Gaza War and promoting a Palestinian state; and enhancing Saudi security and advancing normalization with Israel?

My own take on these questions is that Tehran is not particularly perturbed by US attacks on its proxies in Iraq and Syria. After all, Israel’s “campaign between wars” has targeted Iran’s proxies and allies for years without unduly affecting Tehran’s regional hegemonic strategy. Besides, President Biden in an election year is presumably hesitant to risk escalating tensions with Tehran any further by attacking Iranian targets directly.

Still, the questions remain. First, are these US attacks on Iranian proxies enough? Second, if not, will Biden take even greater escalatory risks? And third, given that it is convenient for Iran to respond to the US by targeting Israel, what effect will further escalation have at a time when Israel is already engaged in confrontation with Iranian proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Yemen? In other words, could Israel end up paying a price for the Biden administration’s anti-Iran escalation?

(Note, apropos the Palestinian issue, that the Iranian-proxy attack that killed three US soldiers was explained by the pro-Iran camp as payback for American support for Israel since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel’s Gaza periphery kibbutzim and towns. In fact, Iranian proxies have been attacking US forces in the Middle East for more than a year, and in any case long before October 7. They don’t need a Palestinian rationale.)

Q. Let’s move on to the Biden Doctrine’s second objective (according to Friedman): creating “a demilitarized Palestinian state . . . with credible institutions and security capabilities”. Even to moderate Israelis this seems somewhat divorced from current reality. . .

A. It is indeed challenging to contemplate how such a state can be promoted now, given that in Israel the Netanyahu government and in Palestine both Hamas and the PLO are all either extreme or incapable of embracing this goal realistically. Biden is following a long line of US presidents who tried to promote a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His predecessors did so in ostensibly more favorable circumstances--and still failed.

So why bother? Because never has there been an Israeli-Palestinian war like that in the Gaza Strip. Because never have both Israel and a portion of Palestine, the Gaza Strip, been ruled by such messianic extremists, Jewish and Muslim. Never have such brutal and awful casualties been recorded on both sides. Biden is right that, given the enormity of the crisis, an extreme and ostensibly distant vision for a solution is called for.

Yet to even begin to make progress toward that solution will require directing extreme measures toward all parties. That does not seem realistic in an American election year. From now until November 2024, expect only preliminaries.

Then too, don’t get carried away by Friedman’s over-simplification of the Middle East, where everything seems to be divided into three convenient steps. And don’t be misled by another prominent columnist, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who buys into the Biden Doctrine by advocating “relocating as many as 200,000 Israelis from a future Palestinian state” and presents administration sanctions against four West Bank settlers--who could not care less--as “a strong step” in that direction. Seriously?

Q. Would a more realistic preliminary be the Biden Doctrine’s third track, an expanded security relationship with Saudi Arabia involving Saudi normalization with Israel?

A. Yes. After all, of the doctrine’s three tracks this is the one that is doable now. This is where Israeli PM Netanyahu can contribute by at least paying lip service to the administration’s long-term goals for Iran and the Palestinians. This is where Israel can be incentivized by the lure of relations with Saudi Arabia. And where the Saudis can be lured by enhanced American security guarantees together with the prospect of a winding down of the Gaza War. This too, is where Riyadh can be encouraged by the fact that not a single Arab state has broken ties with Israel despite the war.

And just as a US-Saudi-Israeli deal may be relatively feasible now, it is also in many ways the most urgent of Friedman’s three Biden-doctrine dimensions. The threat by Iran and its proxies to Saudi Arabia is far more salient than any threat Tehran poses to Israel. The Saudi armed forces are paper tigers. They need genuine back-up from the US and Israel. But Riyadh needs to be able to cite the rationale of some sort of Palestinian progress toward sovereignty.

Q. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian issue: it looks like Hamas still holds the key to progress. . .

A. Indeed, and it looks like this is where Israel is going to be pressured by the Biden administration as well as by the moderate Arabs to introduce greater flexibility to its war aims vis-a-vis Hamas. As matters stand, a pause in the fighting to facilitate release of hostages and deliver greater humanitarian aid appears imminent, and unfortunately will benefit Hamas, which will trumpet the release by Israel of thousands of Palestinian prisoners. By the same token, the establishment of some sort of interim Palestinian administration for the Gaza Strip is likely to rely at least to some extent on the existing Hamas infrastructure there.

The Israeli war aim of destroying or completely dismantling Hamas is no longer emphasized in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Hamas’s October 7 atrocities and subsequent tunnel and guerilla tactics are costing it and Gazan civilians dearly in human and material losses. But so far Hamas is surviving. Israel increasingly will have to deal with this unpleasant fact, which bodes ill for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations yet paradoxically may hold some promise for the future of a Palestinian state, at least in Gaza.