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Israeli-Palestinian Violence Draws Biden Back to Middle East

By Patsy Widakuswara May 12, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure to address the spiraling violence between Israel and Palestinians, as fresh rounds of fighting intensified this week, killing more than 50 Palestinians and at least seven Israelis.

The escalation, triggered by tensions over holy sites and anger over the expulsion of Palestinian families from occupied east Jerusalem by Jewish settlers, is the most intense since the seven-week 2014 Israeli war on Gaza.

Biden addressed the issue in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.

"My expectation, my hope, is that this will be closing down sooner than later," Biden said to reporters, adding that Israel has a right to defend itself.

Biden and Netanyahu agreed to maintain "close consultation," according to the White House readout of the call, as the U.S. condemned the violence, urged de-escalation and sent envoys to the region.

"The United States remains committed to a two-state solution," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, adding that the U.S. supports "Israel's legitimate right to defend itself."

"We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security, and will continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm," Blinken said.

But it appears the violence has caught the administration unprepared as it cautiously attempts to craft a Middle East policy that distinguishes itself from the previous administration's heavily pro-Israel stance.

Biden's Middle East policy

Biden came into office with little appetite to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for several reasons, including a foreign policy strategy that focuses more on relations with greater powers and the fact that he sees little opportunity to pursue a lasting Middle East peace agreement.

"The Biden administration wants to avoid deep investments in the Middle East and keep its energy on China, Russia and domestic challenges, including its COVID vaccination campaign," said Roie Yellinek, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Biden's decision to keep the conflict at arm's length is also informed by the experiences of almost every one of his predecessors, who have tried and failed to reach significant progress, said Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center.

Prior to the violence, the administration made little effort to restart stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It had not laid out a comprehensive strategy on the Middle East beyond returning to the nuclear talks with Iran — another reason Biden wants to avoid provoking Israel. The Israelis have been trying to undermine U.S. efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers for Tehran to curb its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

The Biden administration has only taken cautious steps to distance itself from former President Donald Trump's unsparing support for Netanyahu. While Biden has reversed some of Trump's hostile policies against Palestinians, including restoring financial aid and resuming diplomatic contacts, he has maintained U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and kept the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. In a reversal from previous U.S. policy, in 2017 Trump recognized the city as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv.

Since he came to office, Biden has not exerted pressure to halt Israeli settlement expansions, despite his past criticism on the issue during his term as vice president in the Obama administration. And while Blinken has stated support for Trump's Abraham Accords that normalized Israel's diplomatic relations with some of its Arab Gulf neighbors, the administration has not pursued them further.

Biden's reluctance to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue is understandable, said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"Virtually everyone feels that at this point, there is nothing you can do to effectively revive the two-state solution," Cordesman said.

With neither side showing signs of agreeing to concessions, prospects for successful negotiation continue to be dim.

Drawn back in

As the violence escalates, the administration has little choice but to be drawn in.

"If there's anything to learn from engaging with the Middle East, it's that when you try to disengage, it will ensure that you were back in the game very soon," the Wilson Center's Khurma said.

She added that the latest flare-up could be seen as an opportunity for the administration to chart out a path toward negotiation.

"It can be an incentive to ensure that this doesn't happen again in the future," she said. "Otherwise, you're going to be sucked back in with every cycle."

But for now, the goal appears to be conflict management rather than resolution — a goal made more difficult considering there is no nominee for the U.S. ambassador in Israel and no plans so far to reopen the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which had served as the main channel of communication to the Palestinians before it was closed under Trump.

Still, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said officials have been "deeply engaged" with counterparts in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and other stakeholders, including Qatar, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt.

"Our objective here is de-escalation as we look to protecting the people in the region," Psaki said.

No clear strategy

Analysts say the administration is addressing the issue without a clear strategy of what it wants to achieve beyond reaffirming U.S. policies prior to Trump, toeing the middle line and treating Israel as a security partner while supporting the rights of Palestinians.

More broadly, the administration has a mixed set of priorities in the region, Cordesman said. It must deal with not only Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also numerous other conflicts, including those in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

"These are in many ways internal problems of what we are now beginning to call fragile states, which is a polite way of saying they have failed governments," Cordesman said. "And no clear, easy way where we can intervene or create a stable solution."

Biden is also under internal pressure from the progressive wing of his party, which has been more supportive of Palestinian rights. Some Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have called on Biden to intervene in the crisis.

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