WASHINGTON – As tensions in Jerusalem and Gaza boil over, there is growing dissatisfaction among former U.S. officials and policy experts regarding the Biden administration’s approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sources describe the administration’s apparent disengagement from the conflict as intentionally neglectful, with the implication being that the administration has determined it is politically unwise to get actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian matters or dragged into an intractable conflict.
This approach is disconnected from the reality of America’s outsized role with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, they say, adding that the United States will be forced to get involved if the violence gets worse. They are imploring the U.S. government to take a more vested interest now in preventing things from spiraling further out of control.
The general understanding holds that the Biden administration’s approach has been an intentional course correction of past U.S. policy – which put disproportionately senior U.S. officials relative to the matter’s importance to U.S. foreign policy in charge of Israeli-Palestinian affairs.
A former U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the Biden administration must find the middle ground between the U.S. regularly engaging at inappropriately high levels to having no senior administration officials who are deeply familiar with the conflict.
“They were trying to correct a U.S. policy mistake, but they’ve steered too far in the other direction. The U.S. has a stabilizing role to play in getting the parties to restrain themselves, and when they don’t things spiral out of control,” the former official says. “It’s a conscious choice to not have this dominate the agenda as it has in the past.”
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A senior official at a D.C.-based think tank, who also asked not to be quoted by name given the sensitivity of the subject matter, warns that the United States cannot abdicate its role and assume everything will be fine.
“Over the first 100 days, the Israelis and Palestinians have been testing the administration with small things to see where would they push back, and they just haven’t,” the official says, adding that the current events in Jerusalem are the result of a perfect storm when the situation is not actively managed.
The violence could have been preempted if smart diplomacy had started weeks ago, as experts said at the time, the official stresses. “Instead, no one wanted to spend the time or political capital to even begin to start that work.”
Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, rejects classifying the U.S. approach as neglect. He argues it is intentional disengagement.
“You cannot be the United States and [be] blissfully neglecting this whole thing,” Elgindy says.
He decries America’s selective disengagement with regards to Israeli-Palestinian matters. “They aren’t hands-off in underwriting the occupation; they’re hands-off in terms of things that could help Palestinians or mitigate conflict,” he says. “It’s selectively hands-off; it’s hands-on when it comes to aid to Israel and all the mantras of ‘unbreakable and unshakable’” U.S.-Israeli ties, he says.
The think tank official notes that the Biden administration’s approach seems to have been motivated by a general desire to deprioritize the conflict.
“They seem to be interpreting this as ‘This is the lowest priority for us, we didn’t want to get involved, let’s restart [U.S. aid to the Palestinians], let’s do things and we’ll come to it when we’ve got time, but we don’t want this on anyone’s agenda or scale.’ There are consequences to that decision.”
Hadar Susskind, CEO of Americans for Peace Now, says that due to the current volatile situation, the administration’s previous approach is now irrelevant. “The reality on the ground has changed at the heart of the conflict. It demands a more forceful voice; it can’t be simply another statement urging restraint from all sides,” he says.
Elgindy notes Biden does not need to make a massive investment of time or energy, and notes the disconnect between U.S. language on taking an equal approach to Israel and the Palestinians, versus the role they are willing to play.
“They keep talking about human rights and rules-based order, and ‘equal measures of security, prosperity and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians.’ What does that even mean? We have never seen a greater asymmetry over the past 100 years,” he says. “When you pursue a policy where you support equal measures, you’re not talking about in a final-status situation; you’re talking about now.”
The former U.S. official says there is an international recognition that the Americans are downgrading the importance of the conflict. “They made a slate of promises to the Palestinians, which are happening but much slower than anticipated because there’s no impetus inside the administration to push it along,” the official says.
The Biden administration needs to appoint senior-level personnel who understand the conflict, the think tank official says. “Until someone senior in the administration deals with this, Israel will not take them seriously,” the official says.
The administration’s disengagement could have domestic consequences as well. The think tank official predicts Republicans will capitalize on this in both the midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.
“Republicans are going to say, ‘[Donald] Trump left a peaceful Middle East; Biden screwed it up in 100 days.’ If Biden can’t advance normalization in a way that moves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along, how can he go back against Republican arguments?” the official says. “It’s essential that the administration understands the political aspect of this. You can’t expect critics to hold off while the administration tinkers – there will be a cost,” the think tank official adds.
“They need to signal to Capitol Hill that they’re involved. The issue is inherently political and it resonates in a way that most issues don’t,” the former U.S. official says.
In the short term, the think tank official says the administration needs to facilitate deescalation alongside Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. “Someone senior, either at the State Department or the National Security Council, needs to take responsibility for this so we can start untangling what’s happened. The calendar only gets worse from this point onward,” the official says.
The former U.S. official says a relatively simple fix to Biden’s approach could involve upgrading the roles of some of the people already in place – for instance, by elevating Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to an envoy-level position.
“It doesn’t have to be someone super senior, but somebody who’s empowered to deal with this on a regular basis,” the official says, adding Amr is already playing the default role. “Empower him to have more freedom and give him a higher level of engagement.”
The former U.S. official also stresses the need to appoint an ambassador as well as a consul general after reopening the consulate in East Jerusalem. “You’d be much better equipped having this triumvirate of an envoy, an ambassador and a consul general handling this issue,” he says.
Susskind says the United States needs an ambassador who has extensive knowledge and experience with the conflict. “The past few days illustrate this isn’t the Court of St. James or Paris. This is a deeply entrenched, complicated place to represent the U.S.,” he says. “The ambassador needs to have diplomatic and political relationships both in the U.S. and among the interested parties.”
Susskind highlighted the wave of Democratic lawmakers who have decried some Israeli actions. “It feels like we’re seeing a different moment, in terms of elected officials here in the U.S. speaking up about what’s been happening in Jerusalem in particular. There’s a hunger where people want to know what’s going on; they are paying attention,” he says.
J Street has also taken the rare step of publicly holding the Biden administration to task. “The ongoing conflict and occupation cannot be ignored. Simply working to reduce tensions when violence boils over is not enough. This conflict demands bold, proactive and continuous diplomatic engagement from the Biden administration and the international community,” the left-wing, pro-Israel organization said in a statement.
Elgindy argues that Jerusalem and Gaza must be the focus if the U.S. genuinely wants to improve people’s lives as well as the geopolitical situation, describing the issues relating to these places as “festering wounds that have been completely ignored.”
“They have been so neglected by the U.S. and the international community while Israel is actively and aggressively pursuing facts on the ground. It’s not a coincidence that these are the two areas that keep blowing up,” he says.
“If you want to take on a modest agenda, just focus on those two areas and give Palestinians a horizon so they know there’s substance,” he says, decrying the administration for limiting its apparent involvement to crisis management when things blow up. “At what point do you want to find an exit ramp and not simply pretend Jerusalem and Gaza aren’t part of this process?”
Elgindy is particularly worried about the possibility of another war in Gaza, which is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with its health care system near collapse amid spiraling COVID-19 rates. “It’s a disaster and we cannot maintain this relentless pressure on these two areas and pretend that it’s normal. Inaction is only an endorsement of this horrendous status quo,” he says.
He argues for policies that preempt the administration being dragged into managing a conflict, rather than waiting for things to boil over.
“Rather than reallocating resources to manage a new crisis, why not have something preventive in place that actively tries to diffuse things?” Elgindy asks. “Hoping for the best is not a plan; it will blow up as it’s happening in Jerusalem and Gaza. It’s like Groundhog Day.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price pushed back on claims that the administration wasn’t prioritizing the conflict during a press briefing on Monday, saying that it continues to urge both sides to avoid steps preventing a potential two-state solution while prioritizing deescalation and restoring calm.
“Over the longer term it may move toward playing some sort of mediating role between Israelis and Palestinians, but given circumstances on the ground right now and even before this current flare up, we’re just not in a position to see meaningful progress and our policy has recognized that,” he said.