Biden’s Response to the Israeli Crisis Is Late and Lame

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With the conflagration between Israel and Hamas turning white-hot on Wednesday, the White House roused itself into something resembling action. But it was all very late — and very lame.

There was a flurry of phone calls: President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (and for good measure, with Netanyahu); and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with Qatar’s foreign minister.

Blinken said the U.S. is “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.” Translation: There will be more phone calls.

Other forms of communication are also being deployed. Having sent Abbas a letter on Tuesday, Biden then dispatched a mid-ranking American diplomat — a deputy assistant secretary of state — to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Speaking with reporters, the president expressed his “expectation and hope is that this’ll be closing down sooner than later.”

His choice of words betrayed his deep reluctance to get involved in the conflict: “Expectation and hope” is a variation of “thoughts and prayers,” the rhetorical pablum that American politicians proffer in place of policy when faced with endemic problems (gun violence, for example) they’d prefer not to confront.

The president’s diffidence may stem from the knowledge that he has limited leverage in this particular situation. After all, the U.S. has no direct communications with Hamas, which it designated as a terrorist organization in 1997. President Donald Trump made matters much worse by ignoring Abbas and enthusiastically endorsing Netanyahu’s Palestinian policy, which even Israeli human-rights groups have labeled as “apartheid.”

But Biden has only himself to blame for not acting sooner to restore the traditional American posture on the two-state solution. He has not yet named an ambassador to Israel, or a consul general in Jerusalem for the Palestinians. This is an egregious dereliction of diplomacy in a part of the world where the U.S. is frequently called upon to intercede. When the call did come — Arab governments warned the Biden administration about the combustible situation in East Jerusalem — it was ignored.

The president has restored aid to the United Nations agency that helps Palestinians, but his administration has not lived up to promises of rebuilding ties to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has been kept at an arm’s length: Biden’s letter to him this week was a tardy reply to a congratulatory message sent on his inauguration, four months ago.

For all this neglect, the U.S. can still play a constructive role in deescalating the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Biden’s best bet is to throw American diplomatic weight behind Egypt, the only country that has leverage with Hamas and relations with Israel. The Egyptians are already trying to broker a ceasefire, and there is some indication that Hamas may be willing to go along. The group has lost a number of top commanders to Israeli missile strikes in Gaza, and its leaders are already claiming “victory” against Israel, which is usually a tell that they’ve had enough.

Although Hamas has historically drawn legitimacy from facing off with Israel, its leadership is well aware of the law of diminishing political returns from open war, which inflicts severe pain on Gazans. This gives the Egyptians something to work with.

The heavier lift — restraining Israel’s response to the killing of its civilians — will fall to the Biden administration. It will require more than the ministrations of a deputy assistant secretary of state to pull Netanyahu back from the brink of a ground war in Gaza. The president will need Blinken to get off the phone and onto a plane.

While the immediate priority is to stop the exchange of rockets and missiles, Biden will also need to prepare for a conversation with Netanyahu (or his successor, should the opposition parties cobble together a new governing coalition) about a renewed American push for the two-state solution. The situation is well past expectation and hope. It needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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