The brutal war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has propelled the broader Middle East into a new, dangerous, and uncertain phase. The initial Hamas attack on 7 October killed more Israelis in one day than in the more than four years of the second intifada from 2000 to 2005.
More Palestinians were killed in the three weeks of Israeli air strikes on Gaza than the numbers who lost their lives in all of the conflicts combined between Israelis and since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
A series of stepped-up strikes against Israel from Hezbollah and other Iran-affiliated groups from the north in Lebanon and Syria, along with increased attacks and threats against the US military presence in the Middle East, risk a wider conflagration.
No one knows how this all ends.
But the dreams of a new Middle East that dominated the conversation before 7 October – a Saudi-Israel normalisation deal, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor announced at the G20 meeting in India earlier this fall, and the efforts to de-escalate tensions across the Gulf and many other parts of the region are on hold for now.
The Biden administration had made US policy in the Middle East a lower priority in its overall agenda during its first two and a half years.
Compared to the overwhelming challenges America faced at home with President Joe Biden coming into office in 2021, including the pandemic and massive widespread unemployment and other priorities in the world like China, climate change and Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East was placed on the back burner.
Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July 2022 was primarily motivated by external factors – the Ukraine war had resulted in a sharp increase in energy prices at a time when Biden was facing lower approval ratings driven by inflation, among other issues.
It was good to attend a first-of-its-kind “Jeddah Security and Development Summit” with the leaders of the GCC, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. The U.S. is committed to a Middle East that is prosperous, peaceful, and integrated. We are invested in building a better future for all. pic.twitter.com/tZGqvturIf— President Biden (@POTUS) July 17, 2022
Before this Middle East war, the Biden team had stepped up its diplomatic engagement focused on the region in the hopes of reinforcing the 2020 Abraham Accords and expanding the zones of regional normalisation and integration.
The big idea of a “silver linings playbook” that would result in new peace and normalisation accords and a region that was more tightly stitched together by roads, trains, green energy infrastructure, and increased commerce will sit on the back burner while the United States and the world deal with a burning fire that threatens to spread.
Five new US policy priorities in this new Middle East crisis
The Biden administration sprung quickly into action in reaction to the war that Hamas started on 7 October with its attack. It quickly jumped into the tactical, reactive crisis management mode that, in many ways, is the comfort zone of US Middle East policy across successive administrations, Democratic or Republican.