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Arab leaders’ Gaza demands give Biden another election-year headache

Can conflict be solved by November? 'The answer is probably no,' former official says

National security adviser Jake Sullivan at a White House briefing last year. On Monday, he laid out President Joe Biden's view of the Israel-Hamas war.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan at a White House briefing last year. On Monday, he laid out President Joe Biden's view of the Israel-Hamas war. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Key Arab leaders’ desire for what one senior White House official describes as a new “political horizon” for Gaza is only complicating President Joe Biden’s fraught efforts in the region — and his bid for a second term.

Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, said Monday that is what some Arab leaders have told U.S. officials that is what they would need to see before making long-term commitments to help the Palestinian enclave after Israel’s war with Hamas comes to an end.

Biden administration officials and lawmakers from both parties have called on wealthy Arab countries to do more to improve humanitarian aid flows into the strip. But with U.S. officials making clear it is Israel that is blocking food, water and fuel, most of Washington’s outreach to Arab countries has been to lean on Hamas to release hostages and accept a cease-fire proposal — and help establish a new governing framework for post-war Gaza.

Sullivan called reports of Israelis attacking aid trucks bound for the strip, where White House officials have said a “famine” is underway, “a total outrage.” He said U.S. officials have been “looking at the tools that we have to respond to this, and we are also raising our concerns at the highest level of the Israeli government — and it’s something that we make no bones about.”

Biden administration officials, echoed by some Democratic and Republican lawmakers, also have made no bones about what they see as a governance vacuum in Gaza that Arab countries must fill to prevent an Israeli occupation — or the return of the Hamas government. But they’re getting pushback.

“But what they want to see is a political horizon. They want an answer to: ‘What does the long-term future look like for the Palestinian people?’” Sullivan said. “That’s something we’re talking about with the Israeli government as well.”

One influential Arab country is quick off the tongues of White House and administration officials when they are asked about or are delivering prepared remarks about Gaza’s future: Saudi Arabia.

“Israel’s long-term security depends on being integrated into the region and enjoying normal relations with the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia,” Sullivan said. “We need to consider the tactical battlefield situation in Gaza in light of the bigger strategic picture. We should not miss a historic opportunity to achieve the vision of a secure Israel flanked by strong regional partners presenting a powerful front to deter aggression and uphold regional stability.”

Sullivan said Biden’s long-term “commitment [is] to getting an outcome in Gaza, and across the broader Middle East, that protects Israel’s future security and paves the way for a future of dignity and security for the Palestinian people, as well — rather than Israel getting mired in a counterinsurgency campaign that never ends and ultimately saps Israel’s strength and vitality.”

He was referring to Hamas operatives reportedly moving back to Gaza’s northern areas, fighting Israel Defense Forces troops from the rubble of buildings obliterated in Israel’s response to the terrorist organization’s Oct. 7 attack inside the Jewish state.

Yet, White House and administration officials have rarely named any other Arab state as being pressed to make future commitments to help Gazans establish a new government, or to help provide livable conditions and security. A review of recent writings by former officials and think tank scholars this week turned up the same pattern, suggesting Biden, Sullivan and other American officials are at a negotiating table with many empty seats.

Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a Wednesday interview that six Arab countries would be key to a post-war Gaza plan.

“Geography is destiny here and the one Arab state that has the most critical and vital interest in what transpires in Gaza is Egypt,” he said of the strip’s southern neighbor. “For the [Persian] Gulf states, this is a political problem. For Egypt, it is a matter of national security. So the Egyptians are likely to be more demanding.”

Saudi Arabia also has a major role to play, largely because of “its vast wealth and what it can give to the Israelis, which is normalization” of diplomatic and economic relations, Miller said, adding Jordan also is among the most important Arab countries because it borders the West Bank, which also is a Palestinian territory. The leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain also “have a stake,” he said, “but those will not be core players.”

‘Presidential involvement’

So far, however, no leaders of those six countries are leading a charge to begin serious talks with the United States and Israel about Gaza’s future. Why?

“The sun, the moon and the stars have to align in a fashion which right now is very hard to imagine, much less see, because we’re no closer to a cease-fire, we’re no closer to a return of the hostages,” Miller said. “There has been no willingness nor any real incentives for the Arab states to even consider forming some sort of security force to secure Gaza post-war. And we’re certainly no closer to revitalizing and relegitimizing a Palestinian Authority, which would be needed to govern both Gaza and the West Bank.”

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, wrote recently on the institute’s website that Israel’s goals are also a major hurdle to clear.

“The Biden administration is quietly working with partners across the Middle East to develop plans for the governance and reconstruction of Gaza, but Israel has not yet offered a clear vision of what it seeks in a post-war settlement.” Katulis wrote. “In both the short term and long term, there may be more bumps ahead.”

Senior White House officials almost daily speak of “ongoing conversations” and state their collective commitment to delivering blunt advice and “alternative options” to their Israeli counterparts. But talk of Israeli officials heeding that advice is scant. For instance, on several occasions, White House officials several times in recent weeks have summarized talks with their Israeli counterparts by stating the other side would take Biden’s concerns about the conduct of the Gaza conflict “into account.”

These dynamics are playing out as Biden is ramping up his reelection campaign, with many Arab American and young voters disapproving of his handling of the conflict. Two-thirds (64 percent) of adult U.S. citizens polled May 12-14 by YouGov and The Economist said they strongly of somewhat strongly support a cease-fire that Biden, so far, has been unable to broker.

Doing so, Miller said, would take valuable time away from the diplomat in chief’s reelection bid.

But brokering a cease-fire before the November election would mean it would have to happen during months when the campaign will be most intense.

“This takes an enormous amount of energy because there are so many moving parts. And it’s going to require not just time by the secretary of State and the national security adviser, but it’s going to require presidential involvement at a time when the president is going to want to focus on his campaign,” Miller said. “Whether or not it can somehow be compressed into that time period? The answer is probably no. … It requires a certain harmony and a consensus on what the end state should be and how to get there. And right now, you don’t have that.”

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