Soon after assuming office as the United States president on January 20, 2021, President Biden started his presidency with two foreign trips. His first visit was to Asia. He went for three days and met with the leaders of two countries, South Korea and Japan. While on that visit he signed off on a framework that brought together a dozen Asian countries. Pakistan was not included. His second visit was to the Middle East where he also visited two countries — Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While in Saudi Arabia he hosted eight Arab nations – those of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) along with Egypt and Iraq. Of the two visits, the one to the Middle East offered the American president real challenges.
The geographic area generally known as the “Middle East” has long been of interest to the world’s large powers. The name the Middle East leads to the question: “East of what?” The answer is simple: it got that description from those who minded in London the external affairs of Britain when that country was the most powerful nation on Earth. The geographic space that was to the east of Britain was given three separate nomenclatures: the Near East meant the cluster of nations in the north of the African continent. Beginning with Egypt and going south and east of that country, the area came to be called the “Middle East.” China and the countries in East Asia came to be known as the “Far East.” South Asia, at one point the largest colony over which Britain ruled for two hundred years, was not included in the description of the East.
Oil was the main reason for the large-power interest in the Middle East. It was discovered in large quantities in several Middle Eastern nations. The largest reserves were found in Saudi Arabia, followed by Iran. What is today known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also had large deposits. Qatar, a small state in the Persian Gulf next to UAE, was found to be sitting on one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. Most of these discoveries were made by explorers from Britain but as London lost power and was replaced by Washington as the dominant global player, American oil companies became prominent players in the region.
What has complicated America’s involvement in the Middle East is the arrival of the Jewish state of Israel in the region. The Jewish people had suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis in Germany who, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler undertook a program to exterminate Jews who lived in the country. The resulting holocaust resulted in the deaths of six million Jews. The community also suffered in the eastern part of Europe, in particular in the country that was known for half a century as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, the USSR. This ill-treatment led to the Zionist movement that aimed to return the Jews to Jerusalem which had been the center of the religion for centuries. A large number of European Jews had migrated to the United States where they succeeded in gaining economic and political power that was far in excess of their proportion in the American population. Since Jerusalem was now in the middle of the land in which Arabs had lived for a long time, the Zionist moves and the creation of the Jewish state of Israel led to often bloody conflicts between Arabs and the Jewish settlers. The United States sided with the Jewish community. In the wars that were fought for twenty years before 1967, Israel conquered a lot of land which was on the west of the Jordan River.
The Jews established in the occupied land several “settler communities.” The ownership of this land remains an unresolved issue between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish state of Israel. The Arab states, being strong supporters of the Palestinian cause did not recognize the Jewish state of Jewish until the Americans worked with the Egyptians and the Jordanians to sign the “Oslo Accords” which brought recognition of Israel by these two Arab nations while the Israelis withdrew from some of the land they had occupied in the 1967 war. Jared Kushner, the Jewish son-in-law of President Donald Trump, worked with Israel and several Arab states to have more Arab states give recognition to the Jewish state. He pushed for the acceptance of the Abraham Accords which marked the normalization of relations between Israel and two Gulf states, the UAE and Bahrain. While persuading some of the Arab states to work with Israel, Trump pulled the American troops from some of the Arab states to which they had gone under President George W. Bush.
Policymakers don’t as yet see it that way: the United States’ withdrawal from parts of the Middle East created an opportunity the Chinese were not only willing but eager to exploit. Some of the pullbacks left Washington with an impression that did not serve it well: the way it pulled out of Afghanistan was seen as a clumsy effort not expected of a superpower. The departure from Afghanistan was not the only recent episode involving the United States but there was also what President Barack Obama, while he was in office, called the pivot to Asia. The rapid rise of China was the main reason why the Americans believed they needed to have an effective presence in the Indo-Pacific area. To help it in this endeavor, Washington pulled in Australia, Japan, and India as its partners in an arrangement called the Quad. However, no effort was made to pull Pakistan into any of the arrangements in Asia the Biden administration was working on. The reason was presumably Pakistan’s close relations with China.
What did Biden achieve in the Middle East? According to some “America’s greatest strength in international relations has always been its combination of high ideals and a readiness to engage with almost anyone when it served to advance peace and American national interests. This doesn’t mean the kind of amoral pandering to dictators by Mr. Trump. Rather it means building on areas of agreement, however small, that can be used to move toward a more peaceful, free, and open world.” President Biden’s fist-bump with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) was not received well in the United States since it was believed that the prince was involved in the decision to murder the journalist Jamal Khashoggi but as The New York Times put in an editorial published on July 17, 2022 after the president had concluded his visit, “while there is a natural impulse for grand gestures on every presidential visit abroad, there are other places and other issues where this administration needs to advance a broader and more ambitious agenda – especially climate change, Ukraine and China. This is not the moment for bold new Middle East policies. Mr. Biden is doing the right thing by treating the region’s issues as part of a bigger picture.”
The journalist Thomas Friedman who writes columns for The New York Times and calls the Middle East his second home, was impressed with the change that is coming to the area when he revisited it in June 2023. “This journey was unlike anything I’d experienced in a region that has long been my home,” he wrote in a long column published by the newspaper on June 11, 2023. “It allowed me to grasp something quite remarkable: how one-time enemies and rivals across the Middle East are on the cusp of becoming so much more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. It’s creating previously unthinkable partnerships, as well as huge internal stresses, as people in the neighborhood are trying to figure out just how modern, secular, open, entwined, and democratic they want to be. No two countries exemplify this moment better than America’s two most important Middle East allies, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.” The two countries were going through enormous social and political change. In both getting closer to each other religion plays an important role.
This is not the place for a detailed account of the founding of the state of Israel but a brief account of the way the displaced people of Palestine were moved out to accommodate the Jewish population of the United States, Russia, and Europe. Thrown out of their family homes they were moved to the empty land on the western bank of the Jordan River. Settled in the West Bank, the land they occupied remained in the eyes of Jerusalem. As more Jews migrated to Israel, the authorities built new settlements in the West Bank scorching up the land the Palestinian occupied.
On October 7, 2023, fighters allied with the group called Hamas that runs Gaza attacked several places in Israel. They were able to break through the barrier Israel had erected which was believed to be impregnable. Some penetrated Israel using paragliders. The attacks left some 1,400 Israelis dead. As they withdrew to Gaza, the Hamas soldiers took almost 200 hostages with them, some of them Americans. Israel promised reprisal. it started an intense bombing that killed hundreds of Palestinians. It also called to service hundreds of thousands of reservists and massed them on the border, announcing that an attack on Gaza was imminent. The bombing’s initial toll was estimated at 2,500, a third of them children and 6.600 wounded.
That the restless citizens of Gaza were desperate to find relief for their deteriorating situation had begun to be recognized by the leaders of the Arab world. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, King Abdullah II of Jordan, said, “Without clarity on where the Palestinians’ future lies, it will be impossible to converge on a political solution to this conflict. Five million Palestinians live under occupation – no civil rights; no freedom of mobility; no say in their lives.” And recently, Egyptian intelligence had warned that something would give unless there was hope from which the Palestinians could draw some comfort.
“Pro-Palestinian demonstrations reverberated across the globe and in the United States on Friday (October 13), after a former Hamas leader called for a worldwide ‘day of rage’ in the wake of a Hamas attack and in Israel that sparked the worst conflict in the region in 50 years,” wrote Tim Craig and his colleagues in a report published by the Washington Post on October 14, 2023. “Hundreds of protesters marched in Times Square, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Washington on Friday with other rallies planned in Los Angeles and elsewhere through the weekend.” Some of the reactions to the conflict in Israel-Gaza translated into Islamophobia. An American Christian citizen stabbed to death a six-year-old boy and severely injured his mother. They were renting rooms in his house.
Israeli commanders said they’re readying a ground invasion of the territory in a bid to end Hamas rule there. Israel ordered one million Palestinians from Gaza to leave their homes and hundreds did but were not sure where they should go. Israel delivered the message by dropping leaflets from aircraft.
The Center on Extremism at the Jewish organization, Anti-Defamation League, said that at least 140 protests were counted around the United States. The United Nations described a ground evacuation as a potentially “calamitous” human rights crisis amid the deteriorating security situation in the area. The United States and world economies were likely to feel the consequences of the Hamas-Israeli conflict. According to JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon, “This may be the most dangerous time the world has seen in decades.” He issued a statement accompanying the bank’s report on quarterly earnings. He warned of “far-reaching impacts on energy and food markets, global trade, and geopolitical relationships” if the war intensified.