IN FOCUS

From Truman to Clinton, Bush to Biden, how US presidents tried to make peace in the Middle East

As every American president since Truman, who recognised Israel as a state after its foundation in 1948, has discovered, engaging with the region is unavoidable – but attempts at intervention carry a high risk of failure, writes Sean O’Grady

Sunday 22 October 2023 11:30 BST
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<p>Joe Biden greets Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on 18 October 2023 </p>

Joe Biden greets Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on 18 October 2023

It’s ironic that Joe Biden has become so embroiled in the Middle East. After decades in public life, and a period as vice-president under Barack Obama, when he witnessed a peace initiative collapse on launch, he had a shrewd idea that there wasn’t much in it for him. So, unlike Obama and Donald Trump, he didn’t even appoint a special envoy to focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict when he took office in January 2021.

It was not just a matter of managing expectations – more of abolishing them. There were to be no peace conference, no Camp David Accords, no treaties signed on the White House lawn. Though in many respects a conventional Democrat, Biden broke with the strategy adopted unsuccessfully by Obama, and more successfully by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and walked off the field. He accepted the peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan that Trump had helped to broker, known as the Abraham Accords (the name Abraham was a reference to Judaism, Islam and Christianity being Abrahamic religions). Biden also stuck with Trump’s controversial and provocative decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And that was supposed to be that.

But, as every American president since the war has discovered, the Middle East is unavoidable. Even those presidents with no interest in being “blessed peacemakers” found that the region could sometimes burst dramatically into their lives. It happened, literally and tragically, on 9/11. After the almost non-stop peace initiatives of the Clinton years, George W Bush wanted to concentrate on the domestic agenda. Yet he soon found himself confronted with Islamist terrorism on a previously unthinkable scale, and in the heart of America itself: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and, almost, the Capitol.

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