After days of declining to call for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, U.S. President Joe Biden reversed course. Whether it makes a difference on the battlefield is another matter.
Biden’s decision to show “support for a cease-fire” in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday signaled that the U.S. was looking for more public ways to stop the fighting. But his statement — expressing support for a halt to the deadly warfare but not demanding one outright — showed the limits of U.S. power and Biden’s wariness of applying too much public pressure on Israel.
The role of Hamas — the Palestinian Authority rival that runs Gaza and is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and others — makes it impossible for the U.S. to bring the two sides together. And after four years of being shunned by former President Donald Trump, Palestinians are wary of any U.S. offers to play the role of middleman.
“We are not the central mediator because we don’t talk to Hamas — the Egyptians are ultimately the central mediator and the player that matters most in this game,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the Middle East security director at the Center for a New American Security.
In fact, Israel’s Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Hamas had agreed to an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that would start Thursday at 6 a.m. but that there had been no response from Israel yet. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told reporters at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City that he “can’t deny or confirm the report,” while the Israeli prime minister’s office had no comment.
But the U.S. still has significant leverage over its ally Israel, and a decision to push more forcefully for a cease-fire could well bring pressure on Netanyahu. “We do matter a lot in terms of what the Israelis agree to, and when we’re explicitly telling them we want a cease-fire, it’s different than when we’re not signaling that,” Goldenberg said.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Tuesday in New York, “If the Biden administration can exert all of their pressure to bring an end to the aggression against our people nobody is going to stand in their way.”
Biden’s cautious embrace of a cease-fire didn’t have any immediate effect. Fighting between Israel and militants in Gaza raged on Tuesday, with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz saying his forces have “thousands more attack targets.”
And unrest again spread to the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has sway. About 230 people have been killed in little more than a week of battle, mostly in Gaza.
But Biden’s move did appease a number of influential Democrats in Washington, who were increasingly vocal in calling for a cease-fire. It didn’t satisfy his party’s left wing, which wants to see arms sales to Israel suspended.
Analysts and experts say the Biden approach is to do what it can — chiefly through what it calls “quiet diplomacy” — without getting the White House mired in what would likely be a time-consuming process with little prospect for success, while so many fires rage on the domestic front and the administration strives to focus its foreign policy on containing China.
“We have the influence, but we don’t have the will and the interest,” said Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “I don’t see any will on the part of the Biden administration to do that given all his other priorities.”
The handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict so far is also an example of what’s quickly shaping up to be the Biden foreign policy doctrine: more gentle nudging of allies in public, while saving tougher conversations for behind closed doors.
That was the case with Saudi Arabia, when Biden was criticized for refusing to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s the same with Germany as the U.S. focuses on diplomacy over slapping sanctions on European entities helping to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia.
But the White House reaction this week also represented push-back against what the administration sees as the consequence of the Trump administration’s failings in the region.
“Aside from putting forward a peace proposal that was dead on arrival, we don’t think they did anything constructive really to bring an end to the longstanding conflict in the Middle East,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday.
That was a rejection of Republican claims that the outbreak of violence took place under Biden’s watch, not Trump’s, for a reason. Trump wholeheartedly embraced the U.S. alliance with Israel, giving Palestinians little hope for leverage over the American president. He handed Netanyahu powerful public relations victories by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, something American presidential candidates had vowed to do for decades but stopped short of after getting into office.
Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. officials have credited Trump’s team for engineering the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, those deals were made without involving the Palestinians or taking steps to deliver on the long-promised “two-state solution” that Biden supports.
Republicans this week slammed the Democratic “hand-wringing” over whether Biden would throw his support behind a cease-fire.
“‘Both sides’ are not the same in this conflict, no matter what the Democrats naively imply,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “If Hamas puts down its weapons, there would be peace. If Israel puts down its weapons, there would be no Israel.”
In the end, the cause of the latest spasm of violence may be more mundane: Hamas and Israel have their own domestic political reasons to keep pursuing a conflict, and will do what they think is in their interests. Speaking to reporters on Monday, an Israeli military spokesman suggested that an end to the conflict might be in sight — after some more fighting.
“Hopefully some kind of positive outcome or solution may come in the near days,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. “We continue to operate. As long as they fire rockets at us we obviously are totally compelled and committed to continue to defend our civilians.”
For the White House, that may be the best that can be expected, at least for now.
“The Biden administration understands that there is little policy benefit to be gained by heavily investing U.S. diplomatic resources in trying to solve the conflict, and that the first priority right now is a cease-fire,” Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said at a recent forum.
For the longer-run, she said, “allowing the dynamics on Jerusalem and other issues to fester will simply perpetuate the cycles of violence.”
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