U.S. President Joe Biden took office seeking to avoid a messy entanglement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instead trying to pivot America’s foreign policy to China, revive the Iran nuclear deal and wind down America’s “forever wars.”
This week’s flare-up in the Middle East is showing how that plan never really had a chance.
What started off as hostilities between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in contested East Jerusalem has now quickly escalated to a near full blown war between Israel and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, dragging the U.S. back into the center of diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire before the situation becomes more uncontrollable.
After at least 25 high-level calls since the weekend, Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday and, while defending Israel’s right to respond to rocket fire from Gaza, said “my expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later.”
“My national security staff and defense staff has been in constant contact with their counterparts in the Middle East, not just with the Israelis but also with everyone from the Egyptians to the Saudis to the Emirates et cetera,” Biden said. That announcement followed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s decision to dispatch a deputy assistant secretary of state, Hady Amr, to the region immediately.
The message from the day’s events in Washington was clear: After four years in which President Donald Trump’s administration largely gave Netanyahu’s government carte blanche to deal with the Palestinians, American diplomats are being pulled back into the fray, whether they like it or not.
The U.S. is now “engaged across the board and pushing on de-escalation not only with Israelis and Palestinians but also with other partners who are amplifying our voice,” Blinken said.
Besides a long history of serving as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one reason the U.S. is under pressure to act is a legacy of the Trump era: the so-called Abraham Accords, peace deals between Israel and a handful of Arab nations signed in the waning weeks of the Trump administration.
Biden gave Trump rare praise for brokering the accords and his officials have said they want to see them expand to other countries in the Mideast. But the current violence risks spiraling to a level that could put those agreements at risk. Both Netanyahu and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have threatened escalation as cross border rocket attacks and jet strikes continue.
While Biden officials pushed back harder Wednesday on the idea that they haven’t been focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, critics have pointed out the lack of senior officials dedicated to the issue.
Biden — who campaigned in part on his long experience in foreign affairs while in the Senate — didn’t call Netanyahu for weeks after taking office. He still hasn’t nominated an ambassador to Israel and, despite appointing special envoys for issues including the Horn of Africa, Libya and climate change, hasn’t designated a senior official to serve as his chief diplomat to the region.
Even the decision to send Amr into the fray now drew some scrutiny, despite his reputation as a seasoned professional.
“Hady Amr is a terrific diplomat but he can’t tell Netanyahu to stop the fighting,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Mideast official at the State Department. “Only the president can.”
When it comes to Middle East leadership at the National Security Council, there’s Brett McGurk, the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, but the senior State Department official who would tackle such issues — the assistant secretary for near eastern affairs — hasn’t been confirmed yet. Blinken’s two most senior lieutenants, Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, are expected to focus on China and Russia, respectively.
The lack of a Biden-appointed ambassador to Israel has drawn particular scrutiny.
The U.S. urgently requires “an ambassador in Jerusalem and a consul general there who can deal with the Palestinians,” Martin Indyk, a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, tweeted. “I don’t understand why it’s taking the White House so long and nobody seems able to explain it.”
One reason Biden may have been loathe to engage too directly is the likelihood of failure. Even when tensions are lower, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers little prospect of resolution, with leaders on both sides dug in. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been in power since 2005, Hamas — designated a terrorist group by the U.S. — has controlled Gaza since 2007, and Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009.
While Biden sees Israel as one of the America’s most important allies, he views the conflict as intractable and has sought to give the issue its appropriate level of importance, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Trump took an entirely different approach after taking office, quickly focusing on bolstering Netanyahu and shrugging when Palestinians protested that the U.S. decision to move it’s embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Israeli control of the Golan Heights disqualified Washington from serving as a honest broker in the conflict. He announced his pick for ambassador before his inauguration.
The former president boasted about his achievements in a statement on Tuesday, saying that “when I was in office we were known as the Peace Presidency, because Israel’s adversaries knew that the United States stood strongly with Israel and there would be swift retribution if Israel was attacked.”
But that policy may have just served to temporarily mask the simmering tensions under the surface.
Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, pushed back against assertions that the U.S. hasn’t been paying attention to the region.
“It is not that we have failed to prioritize this; that is not the case,” he told reporters Tuesday. “What we have recognized is precisely what other governments have recognized and what is plain as day, is that the two sides are not at the present moment in a position to undertake meaningful negotiations to advance a two-state solution.”
The conflict may finally force Biden’s hand when it comes to staffing up his Middle East team. One name discussed for ambassador to Israel is Tom Nides, a vice chairman of Morgan Stanley and a former State Department official who has long been one of Wall Street’s most prominent and connected Democratic donors.
Picking an ambassador and other top officials would help ease the pressure on Biden, who can’t afford to take his eye off his domestic priorities, COVID-19, climate negotiations and China, said Miller.
“It’s very simple, no conflict out there is as important to the president as the three or four issues he faces at home and his effort to focus on China,” Miller said. “Biden is dealing with a serious challenge to the Republic. The Middle East has receded in importance for the U.S.”
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