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Avi Melamed Special for THE HILL | “Reclaiming America’s leadership in the Middle East | Biden’s success and the danger of its erosion as Originally published in The Hill | December 17, 2023.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
After a month of the Israel-Hamas conflict, the United States has — for now — restored its standing as the preeminent power in the region. This reestablishment of influence stems mainly from two strategic moves by the Biden administration.
First, the administration firmly declared that Hamas’s rule in Gaza must end. This position appears to have received support from influential Arab nations, notably U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority.
Second, the Biden administration issued a stark warning to Iran and Hezbollah against interfering in the conflict. This warning, reinforced by the deployment of significant U.S. military forces in the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, effectively deterred Hezbollah thus far from fully engaging in the war.
However, it cannot take its foot off the pedal or it risks moving everything backward.
This support for Biden’s policy was hinted at in the concluding statement of the emergency meeting of the Nov. 11 Arab Islamic Summit conference convened in Saudi Arabia to discuss the war in Gaza. The statement does not mention Hamas even once. In addition, Article 28 of the declaration states that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and that all Palestinian factions must act within its framework and under its authority.
For Hamas, which claims the throne of the Palestinian leadership and refuses to be part of the PLO, this clause is a political blow: The declaration was signed by 57 heads of Islamic and Arab states, including Iran and Turkey, which support Hamas.
In recent years, there has been a clear decline in America’s image in the Middle East. This decline primarily resulted from the failure of U.S. administrations to develop clear, effective policies on major Middle Eastern crises over the last decade. These include the Iranian nuclear program, the war in Syria, the growing Iranian threat evidenced by attacks on regional U.S. allies and Iran-backed disruptions of international shipping in the Red Sea. The U.S. has also suffered from a perception of weakness, particularly in response to Iran’s proxy attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria.
This decline in American deterrence and influence has allowed rivals like Iran, China and Russia to deepen their footprint in the region. Notably, China’s mediation in the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement signaled a critical wake-up call for the U.S.
The Biden administration has made significant strides in restoring America’s image in the Middle East. However, this progress risks being undermined for two main reasons.
First, since the outbreak of the war, Iran’s proxies intensified their attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, with rockets, missiles and attacking drones. In parallel, the Houthis have launched attacks against Israel using ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and attack drones. Thus far, the Houthi attacks have been intercepted by the defenses of Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia. Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. assets are intensifying, and accordingly, the number of casualties is increasing. The dozens of attacks since Oct. 7 have injured dozens of American civilians and U.S. military personnel.
The United States has responded with restrained, small-scale strikes targeting Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria. The restrained U.S. retaliation is driven by an understandable — and correct — interest to avoid escalation. However, as of now, the U.S.’s mild reaction is emboldening Iran, evidenced by the continuing and expanding attacks on U.S. military bases. This increases the risk of the loss of American lives and erodes American deterrence vis-à-vis Iran.
Inside the administration, there is a growing push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Failing to end Hamas’s rule in Gaza would not only be a strategic setback for the U.S. and its allies but also a victory for Iran and its proxies. Such a failure will inevitably escalate Iranian aggression, pushing U.S. allies towards adversaries and endangering American strategic interests in the Middle East. This scenario could eventually force the U.S. into a direct military confrontation with Iran.
To preserve its achievements, the U.S. must resolutely continue its efforts to end Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Moreover, should attacks on American bases persist and escalate, the U.S. should consider delivering a substantial strike against Iran’s militias in Syria. I believe such action would effectively halt the escalation process and preserve and reinforce American deterrence.
Unwavering commitment to this policy would not only further the U.S.’s restored status and image but also reinforce its influence in the region, counteracting rivals like Iran, China and Russia. Equally important is the opportunity this presents for the U.S. to lead a positive and effective path in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Avi Melamed is a former Israeli intelligence official who went on to serve as deputy and then as senior Arab affairs adviser to Jerusalem Mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, operating as a negotiator during the first and second intifadas. He is the author of “Inside The Middle East — Entering A New Era,” and his latest docuseries, “The Seam Line,” available on the Izzy streaming platform, focuses on Jerusalem’s flashpoints and his work during the intifadas.
Avi Melamed Special for THE HILL | “Reclaiming America’s leadership in the Middle East | Biden’s success and the danger of its erosion as Originally published in The Hill |November, 22 2023.
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