Updated: May 12, 2021 2:02:11 pm
President Joe Biden took office in January with little interest in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, for understandable reasons.
President Bill Clinton hosted an Israeli-Palestinian summit during his first year in the White House. President Barack Obama appointed a Middle East peace envoy on his second full day in office. And before his swearing-in, Donald Trump vowed to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal “which no one else has managed to get.”
All of them failed to achieve a peace deal, as did President George W. Bush, who took up the cause later in his presidency.
Even before the recent explosion of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip, analysts agreed that prospects for a successful negotiation continued to look hopeless in the near term, with neither side prepared to make concessions the other would demand.
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Biden and his senior advisers have largely accepted that status quo. Determined to shift the focus of American foreign policy to China from the Middle East and seeing no reliable partner in an unstable Israeli government led by an embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pursued hard-line positions toward the Palestinians, Biden has issued familiar endorsements of a two-state solution while making little effort to push the parties toward one.
But as spiraling riots, rocket attacks on Tel Aviv, Israel, and airstrikes on the Gaza Strip threaten to escalate into a major conflict, calls are growing in the Democratic Party for Biden to play a more active role. Some liberals urge him to more firmly challenge Israeli settlement activity, which makes a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians harder to achieve.
“The problem with the Middle East is that you can try to turn your back on it, but it won’t turn its back on you,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Biden administration officials on Tuesday publicly called for both sides to show restraint. In recent days, U.S. officials have also pressed Israeli and Palestinian officials in private conversations to avoid inflaming tensions, and issued a successful plea for the postponement of an Israeli court ruling on the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem that helped lead to recent clashes in the city.
Indyk said he did not blame Biden’s approach of “conflict management, rather than conflict resolution,” given the dim prospects for peace after Trump’s presidency, which culminated with a heavily pro-Israel peace plan last year that the Palestinians rejected on arrival.
But Indyk said that Biden must now become more active, and he urged the swift appointment to the empty post of American ambassador to Jerusalem. Indyk also noted that the president had not yet spoken with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. He also said the administration should reopen a consulate in East Jerusalem, which had been the United States’ main point of contact with Palestinians before it was closed under Trump.
“They need to establish a dialogue with the Palestinians,” Indyk said.
The White House disclosed Tuesday that Biden and Abbas had exchanged letters after the 2020 election. U.S. officials have also had private, lower-level contacts with Palestinian officials, including Abbas’ senior adviser, Hussein al-Sheikh.
Other Democrats urged Biden to exert more pressure on Israel’s government over settlement activity and territorial claims that they say are making the prospects for an agreement with the Palestinians virtually impossible.
“If you stand back and the process of creeping annexation is allowed to continue unchecked, it is going to result in this kind of moment,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group J Street.
“You can wish this off your priority list, but this is a conflict with very deep-seated problems, and they need attention. And if you leave it untended, it’s going to catch fire, and people are going to get hurt again,” Ben-Ami said. “We are inches away from this blowing out of control.”
The Democratic Party has moved to the left on Israel in recent years, partly because of Netanyahu’s strong alliance with Trump and other Republican leaders, and also because many of its younger activists and members of Congress are more openly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than those of Biden’s generation.
After the State Department said last week that it was “deeply concerned” about the potential eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem, some Democrats rebuked the Biden administration for failure to act more assertively to stop the Israelis. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland wrote on Twitter that “this is not a moment for tepid statements.”
At a briefing Monday, Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, was asked about a tweet by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who said that the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, in a defense of the proposed evictions, had endorsed “ethnic cleansing.” Price said the claim was “not something that our analysis supports.”
Some analysts said that even if Biden shared the assessment that more pressure on Israel’s government would be effective, he might be wary of further exacerbating tensions with Israeli leaders anxious about his top priority in the Middle East: an effort to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials have long opposed.
Biden also took office at a moment of enormous political flux, with Israel in the midst of several failed efforts to form a lasting government and the Palestinians headed toward elections — since postponed, another source of the current unrest — that complicated efforts to devise a clear U.S. policy. Netanyahu is struggling to hold on to power, and U.S. officials say the influence of Abbas over Palestinian protests and violence, driven by militants and social media, is close to zero.
Biden also has memories from his days as vice president of Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze and territorial concessions, which had little effect on policies over the long term but drew fierce political blowback from Republicans and some Democrats who said Obama failed to understand Israel’s security needs.
Republicans continue to exploit tensions in the Democratic Party over Israel policy. On Tuesday, Trump issued a statement charging that Biden’s “lack of support for Israel is leading to new attacks on our allies.” But it was unclear what support Trump felt the United States was not providing, given that his own statement of support for Israel’s “right to defend itself” matched Biden administration talking points.
Many Democrats, including Biden officials speaking privately, say that Trump is a key cause of the current problems. Halie Soifer, the chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that Trump, who fulsomely supported Netanyahu’s pro-settlement policies and defied warnings of Palestinian unrest in moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, “was willing to intervene in Israeli domestic politics and elections to pursue his political agenda, regardless of its impact on the region or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Soifer said that Biden deserved credit for being a supporter, during the Obama administration, of Israel’s so-called Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which has been defending Israeli cities from incoming fire.
“Our priority is on restoring calm. Our priority over the longer term may move toward playing some sort of mediating role between Israelis and Palestinians,” Price, the State Department spokesman, told reporters Monday.
“But given circumstances on the ground right now — and even before this current flare-up — we’re just not in a position, I think, to see meaningful progress,” he added. “And our policy has recognized that.”
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