As the Middle East Rages, the U.S. Can’t Stay Distant

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Israel and Hamas are once again at war in Gaza. The two sides have been firing missiles and rockets at each other since the start of the week. Israel has now deployed tanks and artillery.

This endless conflict has long defied outsiders’ efforts to mediate. Nonetheless, it falls to those with influence — above all, the U.S. — to try. For understandable reasons, President Joe Biden would have preferred to stand aside. This would be a mistake. The U.S. can’t solve the problem, but it can make a difference.

Silent at the start of the fighting, Biden has now affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, and has spoken by phone to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he’s assigned only a mid-level diplomat — a deputy assistant secretary of state — to talk the two sides into ending the violence.

Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, abandoned the traditional American support for a two-state solution and threw his weight entirely behind Netanyahu, who makes no pretense of negotiating with the Palestinians. Biden has been more evenhanded, after a fashion: He has been slow to appoint an ambassador to Israel, and slow in naming a consul general for the Palestinians. He has led neither Netanyahu nor Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to expect anything of the U.S. 

This distancing was a mistake. A consul general might have alerted the State Department to mounting tensions in East Jerusalem at the start of May, ahead of an impending court ruling on the eviction of Palestinian refugees. When clashes broke out between police and protesters, an American ambassador might have been able to counsel the Israeli government against heavy-handed measures, such as using stun grenades inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And when the extremists in Gaza first threatened revenge, the U.S. could have used its influence with Egypt and Qatar — American allies with leverage over Hamas — to intercede.

The indifference of Israel’s Arab allies certainly hasn’t helped. The signatories of last year’s Abraham Accords have all but abandoned the Palestinian cause. This has fostered a growing sense of impunity among Israeli extremists, and mounting desperation among Palestinians, hence growing support for radical groups such as Hamas. Remember that Hamas has Iran as its patron. These developments are dangerous not only for Israel, but also for the U.S. and the wider world.

Both sides are now escalating the conflict. Hamas is fielding “suicide” drones and longer-range rockets, and Israel is threatening a full-scale ground offensive in Gaza. Biden needs to move quickly. He should urge Netanyahu to show restraint in Gaza, and forcefully endorse Egypt’s effort to curb Hamas.

The president also needs to look past the current crisis to the conditions that led to it. Palestinians deserve a fairer shake, not only from Israel but also from the wider world. The only way to achieve this, difficult as it may be, is through a two-state solution. Biden should offer more energetic support for that outcome. Getting there will be all the harder now that wounds have been reopened by war in Gaza and clashes in East Jerusalem. But American engagement has bought Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table before, just as neglect by previous administrations has only made things worse.  

Biden would prefer to focus on other challenges, and he has plenty — China, Russia and climate change, to name but a few. Even so, disengaging with the Middle East would be a dereliction of duty. The president shouldn’t shirk this responsibility.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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