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Sometimes, U.S. foreign policy is what you see on the news. Increasingly, however, changes in policy are hidden from view because they are unpalatable to many Americans. The growing divide between the policies that America claims to be pursuing and the policies that it’s implementing on the ground poses a growing threat to America’s global standing, as well as to its democracy, which is supposed to exert oversight of foreign policy through Congress. In order to maintain key alliances, allies must believe that American commitments will endure regardless of changes in administration. In order for American commitments to be worth the paper they are written on, allies must believe that America has their backs.
Nowhere is the split between formal U.S. policy and the stealth agendas being implemented by U.S. policymakers more glaring and toxic than in the Middle East. This is true because the core of U.S. Middle East policy is the de facto alliance with Iran promoted by the Obama administration and enshrined in the JCPOA. Obama’s revisionist approach to Iran has in essence left the U.S. with two Mideast policies—one enshrined in our alliances and understandings with historic U.S. allies, and the other centered on dumping our commitments to our allies in order to appease Iran. Only one of these is truly U.S. regional policy, of course—the policy that seeks to establish Iran as the center of a new Middle East. As a result, American commitments now serve to gaslight our allies into going along by encouraging them to imagine that, sooner or later, things will go back to normal.
The focus of the split in U.S. policy and of gaslighting our allies is the Lebanese pseudo state run by Hezbollah, the terror army controlled by Iran. By dealing with “Lebanon,” the U.S. can help forward the objectives of its Iranian partner without ever dealing directly with Iran—and thereby can continue gaslighting its allies to the extent that they would prefer to believe that the U.S. is still their partner.
The latest act in the Biden administration’s Middle Eastern Kabuki theater is the use of Lebanon to rescind America’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. No formal announcement of this major policy shift was made, of course. Instead, it was buried in the fine print of the U.N. Security Council’s reauthorization of UNIFIL, the force that ostensibly secures Lebanon’s border with Israel. In a reprise of Barack Obama’s passage of Security Council Resolution 2334 in the final days of his second term, Team Obama-Biden on Aug. 31 again used the route of the Security Council to abandon a formal American commitment and implement a new policy with extreme repercussions for Israel’s security.
With UNSCR 2334, Obama adopted the so-called 1967 lines as the official U.S. position on Israel and its conflict with neighboring Arabs. The resolution called upon all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967,” and reaffirmed that all Israeli communities established in territory “occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, have no legal validity.” It meant that the U.S. had adopted the position of Israel’s enemies on East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, as well as on the Golan Heights.
UNSCR 2334 was the twin of UNSCR 2231, the resolution Obama used to lock in his deal with Iran at the Security Council. Obama’s objective in both cases was to bypass Congress and to tie the hands of his successor by etching his preferences—what people like to call his “legacy”—in Security Council resolutions.
Both planks of Obama’s “legacy” were cracked by Donald Trump, who made two historic moves of his own: moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
When Trump made his move, officials from Team Obama (who now serve in the Biden administration) publicly opposed it. Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, who is currently the Biden administration’s senior adviser for “Regional Integration,” was particularly vocal in his opposition to the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. In fact, Shapiro wrote, the recognition might become an obstacle to a future Israeli-Saudi agreement—a line that offered a preview of how the Biden administration would invert the Abraham Accords in order to reassert Obama’s framework.
Upon returning to power, the Biden administration underscored its plan to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. It also quickly tipped its hand on its intention to reaffirm Obama’s position on the Golan. In February 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken telegraphed the administration’s rejection of Trump’s decision, as well as their plan to rescind it during their tenure. The administration continued to speak of Israel’s “control” (as opposed to “sovereignty”) over the Golan as a “practical” matter. The issue of “legality,” however, was “something else” that the administration was “still working on,” as U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield put it in June 2021.
And work on it they did. This past June, the administration took measures to reaffirm Obama’s UNSCR 2334 legacy, issuing new guidance to government agencies ending scientific and technological cooperation with Israel “in geographic areas which came under the administration of Israel after 1967.”
Then Team Obama-Biden received an assist from a party that shared the same objective: Hezbollah. A few months ago, Hezbollah set up an outpost in the Mount Dov region of Israel, in the area of the Golan that the Lebanese refer to as the Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah orchestrated a full-blown campaign around this calculated move, which pro-Hezbollah media framed as a response to Israel capitalizing on Trump’s recognition of its sovereignty over the Golan. The purpose of the campaign, Hezbollah’s leader made clear, was to force the reopening of the border file, from the coast to the Shebaa Farms.
The Biden administration had teamed up with Hezbollah in 2022, when it forced Israel to concede to the terror group’s demands and seal a maritime-border delineation agreement with Lebanon. It now saw another opportunity to push an intersecting agenda using the Lebanese backdoor.
The vehicle, once again at the Security Council, was UNSC Resolution 2695, renewing the mandate of the U.N. interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). First, the administration camouflaged its play by sanctioning a Hezbollah environmental front group, Green Without Borders, which has set up observation positions along the Blue Line and has used its activities to obstruct Israeli cameras and visibility along the border fence.
The administration also put on a big show about upholding a provision in the resolution allowing UNIFIL to conduct patrols independently, without coordination with or prior authorization from the Lebanese authorities—practically meaningless language, evidenced, if nothing else, from UNIFIL’s typically terrible record over the past year, even though the previous resolution renewing its mandate explicitly authorized it to conduct unannounced patrols independently.
The fuss over UNIFIL’s independence of movement was a successful feint. While the Israeli press hailed it as a victory for Israeli diplomacy, no one—not even Israel’s befuddled Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who came to New York and demanded that the resolution retain UNIFIL’s freedom of movement—noticed the language in the resolution pertaining to the Golan Heights, which the Biden administration had signed off on.
In that resolution, the U.S. government agreed for the first time to the introduction of language in the UNSCR referring to “the occupied Shab’a Farms.” Since the U.S. does not consider the farms to be Lebanese, but rather a part of the Golan Heights, the Biden administration had effectively reversed the official American position recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, without having to make an official policy announcement—just like Obama did with UNSCR 2334.
In tandem with the Golan move, the Biden team is pressing ahead with its play in Jerusalem. As noted earlier, the administration has been working to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which Trump shut down, and has specifically expressed its desire to have it in East Jerusalem. The day before the UNIFIL resolution passed, anonymous U.S. officials told Team Obama-Biden’s preferred Israeli stenographer, Barak Ravid, that reopening the U.S. Consulate was a Palestinian request that had been passed on to the Saudis as part of a purported “mega-deal” between the kingdom and the U.S., which would involve Saudi “normalization” with Israel.
A week before that, U.S. officials had put out through their Israeli mouthpiece that if the Netanyahu government wants an agreement with Saudi Arabia, it will have to make concessions to the Palestinians. That is, the Biden administration had inserted its agenda on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem into the Saudi-Israeli process, and presented it as a Saudi ask that was necessary to provide “legitimacy”—through Palestinian buy-in—to any prospective agreement with Israel. You want your “historic” deal, Bibi? Sign here.
Only, an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement does not appear to be on the horizon—or at least not on terms that any Israeli government has ever been likely to agree to. Even if it were to miraculously materialize, the purported Saudi “normalization agreement” appears to be a political device not only to put the screws on the Israelis, but also to undo and invert the Trump framework, which explicitly eschewed the 1967 lines and removed the Palestinians from the heart of the equation. In its place, the administration is reaffirming the Obama framework of UNSCR 2334, and putting the Palestinians back at the center of U.S. regional policy.
That this reaffirmation is happening alongside the administration’s secret “understandings” with Iran—which appear to have substituted for the pretense of a formal agreement—is likewise only natural, in the context of the new bifurcation of U.S. Mideast policy between historical commitments to allies and our actual policies, which seek to replace those allies with Iran and its allies in the rejectionist front, like Hezbollah and the Palestinians. After all, UNSCR 2231 (locking in the Iran deal) and UNSCR 2334 (endorsing the rejectionist Arab position) were twin initiatives. Using the Palestinians as an instrument to sabotage any movement toward peace with Israel is a historically established practice of radical regimes in the region. Now, Team Obama-Biden has claimed the mantle of rejectionist leadership by delegitimizing Israel’s borders and submarining the country’s attempts to draw closer to the Gulf.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.