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Biden’s Three-Pronged Approach to the Middle East Gives Peace a Chance

The outlines of a Biden peace plan have come into view. Once again, a little experience sure doesn’t hurt.

Biden at Dover Air Force Base
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Biden at Dover Air Force Base last week for the dignified transfer of soldiers killed in a drone strike in Jordan

The Israel-Hamas war has posed a giant political challenge for President Joe Biden. His early embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and support for Israel brought passionate opposition from both young progressives and the Muslim American community.

Lost under the fierce demonstrations on both sides has been the multipronged, nuanced approach Biden and his team have implemented, one now unfolding in a way that, if successful, should help counter the stereotypes and misconceptions and create a new and better dynamic in the region while avoiding even more escalating violence.

The weekend’s news was Biden’s forceful retaliation against Iran’s militant Mideast proxies for the killing of three GIs by drone attack on America’s Tower 22 outpost in Jordan—a signal that should make clear that there will be a bigger price to pay if the attacks continue or expand. But that is just one branch of the carrot-stick-and-horsewhip actions that Biden, a seasoned world leader, is taking.

It’s easy to miss that Biden’s embrace of Netanyahu was a considered tactic—the way to sustain U.S. influence to keep Israel’s attacks on Gaza, massive as they have been, from being far worse. After the shocking brutality of Hamas’s October 7 assaults, the sentiment of many in Netanyahu’s coalition was to level Gaza and choke off all supplies and water.

The Biden team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, worked overtime to keep supply chains to Gaza open, despite pushback from right-wing Israeli ministers. Blinken, working with Israel and Qatar, also brokered hostage exchanges and temporary cease-fires.

The outcome was far from ideal, but Biden took on significant political hits from his base as he worked privately to limit the damage as much as possible. And his efforts were not popular with Israel’s right wing, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has charged Biden with being too soft in his support for Israel. “Instead of giving us his full backing, [President Joe] Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel, which goes to Hamas,” Ben-Gvir declared in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published on Sunday. “If Trump was in power, the U.S. conduct would be completely different.”

Now, the next phase of a more comprehensive approach emerges. The carrot of negotiations and the stick of sanctions on Israel’s terrorist “settlers” the White House announced last week are at least of equal long-term consequence to the retaliatory bomb and missile strikes carried out against Iranian proxies.

The sanctions signal to Netanyahu that America is going to take a very different approach in coming weeks. They are a clear sign that the United States will not tolerate radical right-wing lawlessness by Israelis that is ignored or given a green light by ministers and the government. The sanctions will almost certainly be followed by a peace plan that will include restoring the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement that the brutal Hamas October 7 attack forestalled.

As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported, Biden and his team have worked assiduously with the leaders of Saudi Arabia to create a proposal for normalizing relations with Israel—a major goal of Bibi’s. The kicker, of course: Saudi agreement would be contingent on Israel’s acceptance of a clear path to a Palestinian state.

For Israel to embrace this plan would likely destroy Netanyahu’s current coalition, but to reject it would eliminate his long-standing dream of a broad alliance with Arab states in the region, leaving a far more isolated Iran, further fracturing Israel’s relationship with the United States, and expanding Netanyahu’s isolation from other allies. If his coalition collapsed, Bibi would have two choices—lose his prime ministership (probably for the last time), or form a new, centrist coalition with a very different approach to the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, and even the conflict in Gaza.

The Biden administration has accelerated movement in that direction as part of last Friday’s bold and unpredicted executive order that imposed an intricate set of sanctions on violent settlers. It carried a threat of ramping up economic pain on others, including far-right Israeli Cabinet members and backroom funders, if settler terrorists persist in violent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

For now, the sanctions apply only to four Israeli settlers, including 22-year-old David Chai Chasdai. According to The New York Times, he led a 2023 attack in which “Israeli settlers burned and vandalized homes, businesses and vehicles,” and one Palestinian was killed.

If settler terrorism continues, the four initial targets are just the beginning. And the executive order expressly states that settler violence undermines “the foreign policy objectives of the United States including the viability of a two-state solution.” By including this phrase in the executive order, Biden signaled strongly to Netanyahu that his continuing failure to acknowledge a path to a Palestinian state would complicate the relationship between the two allies.

Also note that “the stick” of sanctions on Israel coincides with a diplomatic carrot, a cease-fire proposal developed in Paris by CIA director and former State Department diplomat William Burns and his Israeli, Qatari, and Egyptian counterparts. The plan reportedly “involved a three-stage truce, during which [Hamas] would first release remaining civilians among hostages it captured on Oct. 7, then soldiers, and finally the bodies of hostages that were killed.”

The multidimensional plan is that of an experienced actor on the world stage working to avoid a global war while letting Iran know that its proxies will endure enormous pain if they persist in attacking U.S. troops and world shipping interests.

The strategy may already be bearing fruit. On Saturday, the AP reported that one Iran-backed militia group said it did not want a wider war. Iran avoided inflammatory statements about striking back.

Biden’s balanced approach contrasts sharply with that of Trump, who embraced Israel’s turn to the far right and took a jackhammer to diplomacy.

Currently, Trump has, in the words of The Independent, “wasted no time in attempting to make political capital out of the tragedy” of three American GIs’ deaths. He posted on Truth Social that “it would never have happened if I was president.” (Note the admission that he is not!)

Trump is focused, as usual, entirely on himself. If his goal of regaining power means an unleashed Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir, with even more bloodshed in the Middle East, Trump will not bat an eye. Remember, this is a man who hopes and acts against what’s good for America if it helps him get elected. Last month, he said he wanted a recession or depression and worked to kill a deal to create new border policy in return for aid to Ukraine and Israel.

As for Trump’s current, shameless attacks on Biden, as CNN’s senior White House reporter Stephen Collison wrote, they “represent gross simplifications of complex problems and an inflated sense of his own foreign policy.”

By contrast, Biden’s policy involves the ability to deal effectively with complexity.

The recent movement toward a cease-fire, combined with the bold sanctions against settler violence, tell us that Biden will work in every avenue he can to create a different dynamic in the Middle East. His actions, including the raining of bombs and missiles on Iran’s proxies, also tell the world that he will not be pushed around or tolerate terrorism.

There are no guarantees that the carrot, stick, and buggy whip will produce quick results. But to borrow a phrase, they give peace a chance, along with America’s future as a democracy.