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Can Biden Pivot to Asia While Israel and Gaza Burn?

Authors: Emma Ashford and Matthew Kroenig

Affiliation: The Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: May 14, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Debate 

Word Count: 2860


Keywords: Israeli-Palestinian Escalation, Causes of Conflicts, US Foreign Policy Priorities, and Emma Ashford-Matthew Kroenig Debate


This article, a debate between Matthew Kroenig and Emma Ashford, reflects two different perspectives on post-Trump US foreign policy, focusing mainly on the renewed intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its impacts on the Biden administration’s determination to pivot attention and resources to Asia in order to deal with China’s rise. “Violence between Israelis and Palestinians is dragging the United States back into a conflict it hoped to avoid as it refocuses attention away from the Middle East.” In this debate, Kroenig believes that the US should just shift its focus toward Asia, while Ashford suggests that the US has some responsibility towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and can throw its weight to find a political solution. Kroenig argues that what is happening has been the fiercest in years, but it is not a high priority issue on the global agenda as it was two decades ago. For the US, the Middle East has become an “economy of force” theater while Washington turns its attention to the Indo-Pacific. The Abraham agreements show that Israel has the ability to make peace with its Arab neighbors without solving the Palestinian issue first. The author believes that the security fence and the “impressive” Israeli air defense system today demonstrate that Israel is very effective in defending itself against what he calls “terrorist attacks.” Thus, he sees the crisis as just a small civil conflict concerning Israel and the Palestinians that takes place in a small country, and Washington has nothing to do. The US invested enormous energy long ago to solve this conflict and its approach has been about right: “Condemn terrorism, support Israel’s right to defend itself, and call on all sides to exercise restraint.” Although the Palestinians have legitimate grievances, Israel’s policies are legal, albeit controversial, so the author says Hamas bears most of the blame for the bloodshed. Regarding the conflict resolution, Kroenig argues that the two-state solution died long before Trump came, bearing the greatest responsibility to the Palestinian leaders, as they “were unwilling to risk peace with Israel, in large part because they feared extremists on their own side.” Israel will also not accept a one-state solution with a non-Jewish majority, so it seems likely that the situation will continue as it is, especially given the unwillingness of Egypt and Jordan to adopt the Palestinian problem, he says. Amidst the crisis, Washington’s role “should not be to coerce a democratic ally to appease terrorist violence,” and it must keep the priority of containing Iran (the other evil that supports Hamas) the focus of its Middle East policy. Finally, Kroenig argues that support for Israel inside the US is still high, citing a recent opinion poll that confirms Americans sympathize with the Israelis more than they do with the Palestinians. So, “it would not be politically astute for Biden to blame Netanyahu for this crisis.”

Emma Ashford has a different perspective regarding the escalating conflict and its impacts. The escalation surprised the Biden administration, especially as it deliberately adopted a non-interference approach in the Israel-Palestine issue, realizing that it was no longer a prominent global issue. Ashford is one of the most vocal opponents of the US’ intervention in the Middle East, but she believes that the Americans cannot now pretend that they are not actually involved in this conflict, as Washington has spent years arming Israel and supporting one party politically, at a time when the Palestinian situation has worsened unacceptably. Any hope of a two-state solution has died. Also, the Abraham Accords announced by Trump also formalized the situation, so Washington is partly to blame and it should help solve the problem. Ashford advocates for a stop to condemning one party, and to start identifying the fundamental problems in order to find a solution, the first of which is the recognition that Israeli policies in recent years have created the current crisis, such as allowing Jewish settlers to seize lands located in Palestinian areas and denying the basic rights of Palestinians who are not granted rights by Israeli law and are not capable to legally claim the land on which they live today. It is a matter of political rights: The Palestinians do not have the right to decide their future, they cannot work or live in peace. The situation there has become a form of apartheid, “that’s a recipe for continued unrest”, as the author says. Then Trump’s plan came, which practically granted a large part of the West Bank to the Israeli settlers, leaving the Palestinians only a tiny rump state, surrounded and controlled by Israel. Washington was not an honest broker on this issue, so it must today pressure Israel to improve this situation, and it is able to do so. According to Ashford, the two-state solution is a difficult choice. She believes that the Biden administration should encourage both sides to move towards a one-state solution that is viable and based on equality. The author links the current conflict’s outbreak between Hamas and the Netanyahu government to political reasons related to Hamas’s desire to prove itself after the cancellation of the recent Palestinian elections; in return Netanyahu bets on the impacts of this crisis to undermine his opponents and prevent them in forming a coalition after the recent inconclusive elections. Nevertheless, Ashford holds the Netanyahu government responsible for stirring up the recent tensions, as “Israeli police overreacted to the protests… They used tear gas to clear a mosque during Ramadan prayers. That’s incendiary.” The solution will not be more violence, but rather a political solution, and just as Washington helped in the former Yugoslavia, it can help here as well. Finally, Ashford disagrees with her colleague about American domestic sympathy, arguing that the majority of American Jews support the two-state solution and back American pressure to resolve the crisis. They are willing to dismantle settlements in the West Bank to reach an agreement. Supporting a political solution could be a smart step, through which the US will be able to show the world that it “can still do diplomacy, not just use its military.” The debate also contains different viewpoints on other international issues that have been discussed briefly.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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