WASHINGTON – The Biden administration dispatched a top State Department diplomat to the Middle East “immediately” to try to de-escalate the deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday.
President Joe Biden faces growing pressure to help stem the violence and heightened international alarm over the spiraling death toll. The United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East, Tor Wennesland, warned on Wednesday that the situation “is escalating toward full scale war.”
The fighting has killed at least 53 Palestinians and seven Israelis, and Hamas and Israel continued their lethal exchange of rocket fire and airstrikes Wednesday. Fourteen Palestinian children and two Israeli children were among the dead. It’s the most severe outbreak of violence since 2014, and there’s no end in sight.
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“We are deeply engaged across the board,” from the State Department to the White House, Blinken said.
But critics say that’s simply not true.
“The Biden administration came into office with one overriding goal: Avoid Israel-Palestine,” Peter Beinart, editor at large of Jewish Currents, a left-leaning magazine, and a journalism professor at the City University of New York. He noted that when Barack Obama came into office, he quickly appointed a high-wattage special envoy, George Mitchell, to jumpstart the peace process.
“Biden has given the Israeli-Palestinian file to a deputy assistant secretary of state,” Beinart wrote Wednesday in an essay on Substack, an online publishing platform. “The contrast with the Obama administration couldn’t have been starker.”
Biden has not nominated an ambassador to Israel, and the Trump administration closed the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which had served as the White House’s main channel of communication to the Palestinians.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not answer questions Wednesday about whether the administration will reopen that diplomatic facility. She said Biden would nominate “a qualified, experienced ambassador to Israel” in the coming weeks, and the administration has made 25 high-level calls on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 10 of which took place yesterday.
Later on Wednesday, Biden told reporters that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner (rather) than later,” he said.
The Israel-Palestinian conflagration poses a major test for Biden as he seeks to restore U.S. global leadership without losing focus on his domestic priorities of containing the COVID-19 pandemic and reviving the U.S. economy.
“The Israelis and Palestinians are used to being treated as though they are the most important issue in the world, and you have a president whose first, second and third priorities are domestic,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the State Department during the Obama administration. Biden’s foreign policy advisers have been more focused on China than the Middle East, he noted.
Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian American political analyst and executive director of Arab Center Washington DC, said the crisis escalated quickly and seemed to catch many off guard, including the White House.
“All of a sudden, the Palestine question is back on the screen, like it or not,” Jahshan said.
US ability to end conflict may be ‘very low’
The Biden administration enters the geopolitical fray after four years in which the Trump administration heavily favored Israel’s expansionist settlement policies, an approach that fueled deep resentment among Palestinians, Jahshan said.
To make matters worse, he said, “there’s no love lost” between Biden and Netanyahu. Still, “the U.S. is the only country with leverage on Israel,” he said, and Biden needs to pressure Netanyahu to pull back.
Jahshan said the White House approach has been “haphazard” and conventional, applying “mild pressure on Israel at lower levels and pushing Arab allies to control the situation.”
Blinken said Hady Amr, Biden’s deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, is heading to the region.
“The most important thing now is for all sides to cease the violence, to de-escalate and try to move to calm,” he said.
Aaron David Miller, who helped U.S. policy toward the Middle East across multiple administrations, said, “The Biden administration’s capacity to bring this to an end … is very low.”
Israel and Hamas seem determined to keep fighting, he said, and while Hamas is firing rockets at Jerusalem, the White House is loath to pressure Israel.
“We’re not going to say … that Israel should stand down, not when Ben Gurion airport is closed and Israelis are living in shelters,” said Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
If the conflict rages for two more weeks, he said, the White House may intervene more directly. “I think the default position is risk aversion,” Miller said.
Asked Wednesday whether the Israeli response has been proportional, given the high number of Palestinian casualties, Blinken said there is “a very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organization, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets – in fact, targeting civilians – and Israel’s response defending itself.”
He said Palestinians “have a right to live in safety and security,” but he did not mention that the conflict started with an effort by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinian families from their longtime homes in East Jerusalem.
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Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the United States is an important player in the conflict, but “we need to be realistic about what we can do.” He noted that American officials do not communicate directly with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
“The most important mediators are Egypt and the U.N.,” Goldenberg said. He said Biden needs to make it clear to Israeli leaders that the United States will back those mediation efforts and tell other international actors to steer clear.
He predicted the Egyptians would forge a cease-fire.
“The question is whether it happens in 48 hours or 50 days,” Goldenberg said. “The early returns are not promising at all. … This is a very dangerous moment.”
Contributing: The Associated Press