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Israel-Palestine flare-up has caught Biden administration unprepared

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Joe Biden came into office thinking he could put the Israel-Palestine issue on the back burner to focus on other, bigger, issues. That is not working out well.

The upsurge in violence has caught the new administration on the back foot, under-staffed and without a clearly defined approach.

There is not even a nominee for the post of US ambassador to Israel. Faced with calls for a united UN security council statement on Tuesday, the US balked and played for time. But trying to duck the traditional US mediating role is no longer looking like a viable option.

The approach thus far has been described as “hands-off”, but Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, argues that implies a neutrality that is lacking in reality.

“They are heavily involved. They are just not involved in the part that has to do with conflict mitigation,” Elgindy said, pointing to the $3.8bn annual US support for the Israeli military, and the blocking move at the security council.

Related: Israel-Gaza violence: death toll rises to 38 as UN envoy warns over escalation

“So they are not hands off. They are quite hands on, but not in the ways that are needed to make things better, because that would require putting pressure on Israel and that is anathema to this administration.”

The Trump administration trashed the US mediating role by adopting a policy of unstinting support for Benjamin Netanyahu and hostility towards the Palestinians. Its principal foreign policy achievement, the Abraham Accords, which moved towards normalising relations between Israel and some Gulf monarchies, was an attempt to sideline the plight of the Palestinians as an intractable issue. The Trump White House saw emphatic Palestinian defeat, and the Gulf abandonment of the Palestinian cause, as the resolution to the conflict. Trump escaped the consequences of that policy and they have come to haunt his predecessor.

“Turns out that the strategy of having some wealthy Emiratis post selfies in Tel Aviv will not in fact bring peace to Israel-Palestine,” Senator Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, wrote on Twitter.

Biden has reversed some of Trump’s more radical steps, restoring US funding for Palestinians and resuming diplomatic contacts with Palestinian officials, but other Trump policies remain, such as the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The administration has also been coy about a return to pre-Trump official references to the occupied territories.

“The latest escalation of violence demonstrates the folly of trying to marginalise this conflict: folly for Israel, for its new Arab partners, and for the Biden-Harris administration,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former state department official now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“They may all prefer to focus on cooperation in pursuit of what they see as higher priorities. But the current crisis threatens to overturn that fragile consensus and divert the new administration’s attention from other foreign policy goals.”

The low-key approach has not just been dictated by past failures, the difficulty of the problem, and the desire to conserve diplomatic resources for other issues. Biden also has to maintain a political balance at home, where Trump set the bar high for support of Israel, and where his own party is divided.

The president’s perceived inaction is now a focal point for progressive dissatisfaction, however.

“Right now, it’s critical that the Biden administration engage proactively in securing an immediate ceasefire and pushing all sides to de-escalate,” the liberal Jewish American lobby, J Street, said in a statement. “With lives on the line, our government can and should be doing more.”

Now that standing by is no longer an option, the battle is on within the Democratic party to guide what path the administration takes now.

“It was absolutely understandable for them not to want to prioritise this issue, but this issue has a way of prioritising itself at inconvenient moments. What starts in Jerusalem does not stay there,” a senior Democratic congressional aide said.

The aide added: “If you want to put human rights back on the US foreign policy agenda, don’t just do it where it’s easy. Even Trump did it where it was easy. If you want to actually be credible, you have to do it where it’s hard.”

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