Behind the scenes approach for President Biden’s first Middle East year

Experts weigh in on the key Middle East issues that made headlines and how the US president handled them

 US President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a package of economic relief measures to respond to the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2021.  (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
US President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a package of economic relief measures to respond to the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

As US President Joe Biden’s first year in office comes to a close, Middle East and foreign policy experts say the administration has so far opted for a “behind the scenes” approach. In Biden’s Middle East, they say, nuclear Iran is the main topic of interest, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which had preoccupied many past US presidents, has taken a backseat, at least publicly. The Media Line asked several of those experts to weigh in on the key Middle East issues that made headlines during Biden’s first year in office.

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Policy on Iran

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden made it clear that he would attempt to reinstate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which former President Donald Trump had abandoned during his term.

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden wrote in an op-ed for CNN prior to the election. He added that if Iran returned to strict compliance with the deal struck with the world powers, the United States would rejoin the agreement “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Several rounds of negotiations have been underway in Vienna since Biden took office to try to salvage the deal, which many, including Israel, had criticized for its loopholes. The talks have so far not succeeded in bringing back the agreement.

“On the positive side, while Biden has said that he’d like to revive the deal, he doesn’t look desperate and I think that’s a very good thing,” said Lawrence Haas, senior fellow for US Foreign Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council and former communications director for Vice President Al Gore. “He has made clear that the US has got certain bottom lines and if Iran doesn’t come around, we will live without a deal.”

 President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chat during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS) President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chat during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Hass, however, expressed concern about Biden’s intention to first revive the deal, and then “follow on” with new negotiations that would include issues such as ballistic missile development and terrorism sponsorship.

“I think that’s profoundly naive,” he said. “There is no reason why Iran would have any incentive to come back to the negotiating table to restrict even more of what they are doing.”Instead, Haas believes, the US should pressure Iran to come to the table for a broader discussion from the start.

With Tehran clearly moving away from compliance with the 2015 agreement, talks in Vienna appear more likely to fail with each passing day. The US administration’s messaging over the past weeks has been more and more focused on blaming the Trump White House for the inherited situation, as if to prepare for the imminent failure.

Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, told The Media Line that he would prefer to see the US force Iran to demonstrate that it is the more eager party to come to an agreement “since ultimately the US is in the more powerful position in every way – militarily, diplomatically and with more tools at its disposal.”

Koplow added that reestablishing a credible threat of military force, which he believes Biden seems to be “going further on,” is ultimately necessary in order to get Iranian concessions at the negotiating table.But, according to Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle East Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, the Biden Administration is far from being in a position of power in these negotiations.

The US, he said, simply dropped the ‘maximum pressure’ policy ramped up by the Trump Administration, and by doing so “squandered US bargaining leverage and emboldened Iran to take a hard line in negotiations from a much stronger position.”

Conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza

The eleven-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in May 2021 made headlines around the world. The violence erupted over an anticipated decision by Israel’s Supreme Court on the eviction of six Palestinian families living in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and escalated into hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and Israeli airstrikes against Hamas targets in response.In the United States, protests against Israel became a daily occurrence and an increase was recorded in antisemitic incidents citing the conflict.

The Biden Administration remained somewhat withdrawn on the topic, until the cease-fire was announced on May 21, 2021. “The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups that have taken the lives of innocent civilians in Israel,” Biden said in a statement. He also suggested the US had been working behind the scenes and had been in “intensive high-level discussions, hour by hour” with the parties as well as with Egypt and other countries in the Middle East.

According to Phillips, Biden should rethink this approach. He believes the administration’s policy of seeking to restore aid and rebuild ties with the Palestinian Authority, while distancing itself from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, “emboldened Palestinian militants” in May 2021.

The Biden Administration, he said, “needs to take a tougher stand against Palestinian terrorism and Hamas, which seeks to block any peace efforts by transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious struggle in which compromise is tantamount to blasphemy.”

In contrast, Haas told The Media Line that he is “perfectly fine with a president who allows Israel the time to respond aggressively while at the same time working behind the scenes to ensure that things don’t get truly out of control.”

“Joe Biden is not naive about the region,” he said. “Previous presidents have sometimes jumped in too quickly by framing the issue as another cycle of violence between Israel and some segment of the Palestinian people. But what had taken place was an act of aggression, at very least a breach of Israeli security, and then Israel taking action in response.”

Shira Efron, who serves as an advisor at both the Israel Policy Forum and the RAND Corporation in addition to being the UN consultant on the new Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, believes the Biden Administration simply based this behind-the-scenes approach to this conflict on previous experience.

“They were afraid that it could prolong this conflict,” she said. “What they tried to do is give Israel public support, and work behind the scenes as quickly as possible. I gotta say, it worked.”This approach, Koplow believes, shows that the Biden Administration wishes to “maintain stability and quiet as much as possible, which is the reason why they did not take a heavily active role unless forced to do so.”

“There is certainly an argument that the US should be more proactive on the question of Gaza writ large, but when it comes to fighting between Israel and Hamas and brokering a cease-fire, taking an approach in which Egypt and Qatar deal directly with Hamas and coordinate with the US is nearly always going to be the best and quickest way to put an end to the fighting,” he added.

Opposing Israeli settlements

Breaking with the Trump era, the Biden Administration has made clear that it strongly opposes Israeli settlement expansion plans. In October 2021, after Israel published its intention to build some 1,300 new homes in the West Bank, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the administration was “deeply concerned” and that settlement building is “completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution.”

Both Haas and Koplow agree that while Biden’s stance on settlements is similar to former President Barack Obama’s, the way the current administration goes about expressing it is much less aggressive.“Obama was willing to use international organizations like the UN to send a signal,” Haas said. “I just don’t foresee a Biden pressure campaign on Israel over settlements based on the view that if settlements stop, we have a pathway to peace.”

According to Koplow, there is an added layer to Biden’s approach on settlements: the administration wants to focus on “the most problematic areas for settlement growth rather than try to fight the Israelis on this issue on every front simultaneously.” This, he said, is “helpful.”

“Making it clear to Israeli leaders that the US has red lines that go beyond a general opposition to settlement activity is important if a two-state vision is going to be maintained,” Koplow added.Efron added that she knows “there is a lot of effort behind the scenes from this administration not to argue with the Israeli government over this but to urge them to not do things that are destructive for the possibility of a Palestinian state.”

“It’s best to resolve things quietly,” she continued.

The Palestinian-Israeli peace process, or lack thereof

While almost every US administration since 1948 has attempted to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians with no success, over Biden’s first year in office there has been very little talk of such an undertaking, apart from expressing support for the two-state solution and the intention to reopen a US consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. Biden, taking a much less ambitious approach than his Republican predecessor who claimed he would bring “the deal of the century,” has left Middle East peace on the back burner, at least during his first year in office.“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy,” he reiterated in May 2021. “My administration will continue our quiet and relentless diplomacy toward that end.”

According to Haas, Biden’s efforts are quieter and less relentless.

“I suspect that Biden and his people are saying that they are working on peace to assuage those, particularly within the Democratic Party, who lean towards the Palestinians and would like to see peace,” he said. “I don’t think they are really worrying very much at the end of the day about whether there is Israeli-Palestinian peace.”The current administration, Haas believes, has “much bigger regional priorities.”

While the administration doesn’t seem too preoccupied with the peace process, Koplow stressed that any realistic approach to the age-old conflict “has to start with the recognition that there is no deal to be had at the moment between Israelis and Palestinians given the lack of trust, stagnant leadership and unwillingness to make hard choices or painful concessions.”

“With that in mind, however, there is a difference between having a realistic goal in sight and taking oneself out of the game entirely,” he added.

According to Koplow, “quiet and relentless” can be a productive model if it advances the process in a helpful way despite limitations. However, he pointed out, the United States runs the risk of “standing by as harmful trends become irreversible.”

“At a minimum, having someone whose job is to manage and implement a larger American vision for Israelis and Palestinians beyond daily risk management would be wise,” Koplow advised.

Efron, too, says there is more Biden can do to “leave the door open for a peace process or a peaceful separation between Israelis and the Palestinians into two states.” She pointed to late appointments for Middle East-related positions, with many officials still awaiting their confirmations, but also suggested the administration should make moves to help strengthen the Palestinian Authority.

Biden officials “are not making a scene” over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, she said, “which is ok, but they are not making it a priority, which is fine for them, sad for people here.”

But in Phillips’ view “no progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is likely until (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud) Abbas has been succeeded by a leader willing and able to make compromises for peace, the Palestinian Authority has been reformed and stops inciting terrorism, and Hamas has been defeated and discredited.”

He believes that instead of letting the issue take a back seat, Biden should expand the Abraham Accords normalizing relations with Israel to include other Arab states.

“This would also pay dividends by encouraging Palestinians to become more realistic about peace negotiations,” he said.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan

On April 14, 2021, President Biden officially announced the US would withdraw from Afghanistan, after two decades of a military presence in the country.

“It’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home,” he said, promising that the move would not be “a hasty rush to the exit.”

By the set deadline of August 31, the Taliban had suddenly and swiftly taken over the capital, Kabul, causing hundreds of Afghans to rush to the airport in an attempt to flee the country. Chaotic images from the scene showed people desperately trying to get on airplanes, some lucky enough to make it onto US military aircraft. On August 26, the Taliban conducted a suicide terrorist attack outside Kabul’s airport killing some 170 people, including 13 US servicemen who had been deployed to help with mass evacuations. Biden immediately faced criticism for his handling of the situation, but defended an “extraordinary success” saying a Taliban takeover was expected, although not as fast as it happened.

Phillips describes the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a “self-inflicted stain on America’s reputation, a humanitarian catastrophe, and a major setback in fighting terrorism.”

According to him, the Biden Administration has “tremendously downplayed the security risks of withdrawing from Afghanistan, as well as the humanitarian and human rights costs of renewed Taliban rule.”“The global jihadist movement is likely to be energized and emboldened by the Taliban’s victory, just as it was by the initial success of ISIS,’ Phillips added. “President Biden will end up scrambling for the remainder of his administration to contain and offset the unintended toxic legacy of his reckless retreat from Afghanistan.”

Koplow believes that the Afghanistan withdrawal was “handled poorly,” in a manner that is not only “a disaster for Afghans” but also caused “downstream problems for the US in the region.”

“Nearly every actor in the region is convinced that the US is leaving the Middle East and, while that is a mistaken perception, it has caused greater Iranian belligerence while also incentivizing Sunni actors to bandwagon with Iran as a way of hedging their bets,” he said.

While Koplow agrees with the president that “there were clear limits to what the US could accomplish in Afghanistan, he believes leaving some US military presence in the country would have “gone a long way toward signaling to partners and adversaries that we plan on maintaining baseline commitments in the region.”

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the last week of August 2021, Americans were divided about Biden’s decision to withdraw: 54% of American adults say it was the right decision, while 42% say it was wrong. However, the survey also revealed that 42% of US adults think the administration had done a poor job with the withdrawal operation.

Conditioning aid to Egypt on human rights compliance

In September 2021, The Biden Administration announced its decision to withhold some of the annual aid it provides to Egypt over human rights concerns.Since 1978, the United States has provided Egypt with over $50 billion in military aid and $30 billion in economic assistance. The aid is vital for Egypt’s economic and military development, but also strengthened the alliance with this strategic partner for regional stability.

This, Haas believes, is a prime example of the delicate balance in American foreign policy between realism and idealism.

“We have competing priorities: regional stability versus human rights,” he said. “I don’t think there is a singular great answer here.” According to Haas, the move is part of a larger picture in which Biden is trying to “resurrect human rights” as an important element of American foreign policy.

Koplow agrees that the case of Egypt is “characteristic of the difficult foreign policy choices that Biden has to weigh against each other.”

“Part of having a more limited footprint in the region means relying on states that behave in ways that are unsavory and contrary to our values,” he said. “We saw a demonstration in May [with the conflict between Israel and Hamas] of how important a role Egypt plays in Gaza and maintaining regional peace.”