What the Latest Fighting Between Israelis and Palestinians Means for Biden

The U.S. president had hoped to avoid getting entangled in the conflict. Then the shooting started.

Rockets are fired from Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, toward Israel on May 10.
Rockets are fired from Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, toward Israel on May 10. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images

What started as a confrontation over a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem has sparked some of the fiercest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in years, with airstrikes and rocket attacks killing at least 30 Palestinians and three Israelis.

It has also forced U.S. President Joe Biden to do something he had hoped to avoid: entangle himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Officials from his administration spoke to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the past day, pressing for a quick end to the fighting.

To understand what the latest fighting means for Washington, Foreign Policy spoke to Ilan Goldenberg, who served as a senior State Department official in the Obama administration and took part in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry.

 This interview has been edited and condensed.

Foreign Policy: I imagine that Biden came into office telling himself, ‘I’m going to avoid getting mixed up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ How does this escalation change the equation in terms of his approach?

Ilan Goldenberg: I think this administration was really determined to focus first on the Indo-Pacific and on China, as opposed to getting sucked into the Middle East. It’s why you have special envoys for Iran and for Yemen but not, for example, for Israel-Palestine. But in my opinion they probably are going to need to put a greater level of focus on it than they would have otherwise. You just never know when it’s going to explode.

FP: What are some options beyond issuing statements?

IG: Well, first of all, they can just undo some of the damage done by [former U.S. President Donald] Trump. It’d be really great if we had a consulate and consul general right now in Jerusalem who could be engaging regularly with the Palestinians. [The Trump administration closed the consulate, which had tended to relations with the Palestinians.] And that really hurts our reporting on the ground. But then it’s about trying to get both sides to take steps in the right direction, restraining Israeli settlement activity, maybe trying to forge some kind of political unity between Fatah and Hamas. I mean, a big piece of that could also be an infusion of funds and a focus on immediate humanitarian assistance in Gaza.

FP: You mentioned settlements, and, of course, this latest flare-up is bound up with a Jewish settlement in Jerusalem. And often U.S. presidents are hampered politically from imposing a whole lot of pressure on Israel on the issue of settlements. That was the case with Barack Obama, the president you served under. But are we hearing a different tone from the Democratic Party these days when it comes to Israel?

IG: I think the party is moving. What you have now is a growing progressive element, which is taking a harder line and is more frustrated with the Israelis. There’s a number of sources for that—the confrontation between [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Obama in 2015 on the Iran nuclear deal, followed by the very strong embrace by Netanyahu of President Trump. Both those things have created a lot more space for criticism of the prime minister and, by extension, of Israel. But you still also have a large portion of the party who are more traditional pro-Israel Democrats who will support Israel no matter what.

FP: Give me an example of something that Biden might have the space to do today because of this greater willingness within his party to criticize Israel, that, say, Obama just couldn’t do.

IG: You know, just even a month ago, when the Biden administration decided to restart funding for UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that helps Palestinian refugees and their descendants], there was really just a lot less opposition from Democrats. I also think they spent a lot of this past weekend trying to press the Israelis on restraint. But the biggest administration foreign-policy priority right now, or it was until these last couple of days, was not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Iran, which is a much more significant national security interest for the United States. And so I think the administration was having very honest, direct, but also tough conversations with the Israelis on Iran. And they didn’t want to overload the system by also having very tough conversations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

FP: Netanyahu seemed to be on the verge of losing power this past week. His opponents across the political spectrum were very close to a power-sharing deal that would have ended his 12 years in office. And then the fighting erupted. What does this mean for Netanyahu?

IG: That all seems to be put on hold, at least for the moment. In the middle of a conflict like this, it’s going to be harder for Israeli politicians with more nationalistic tendencies to make a deal with the centrist parties. It will be seen by the right as a betrayal. But I don’t think any of this makes it impossible that you’ll still get that new government because they are determined. If there’s one thing that really does bind them all together, it’s the desire to get rid of Bibi and the danger he poses to Israeli democracy at this point.

FP: What about on the Palestinian side—how does an eruption like this affect the schism between Fatah and Hamas?

IG: Hamas has sort of taken the mantle of leadership as the defender of Jerusalem in this round of fighting, and that helps it very much. But, you know, the confrontation started in Jerusalem, and everything that’s happened in Jerusalem is not about Fatah or Hamas. It was very much coming from the Palestinian street and the regular population of East Jerusalem.

Dan Ephron is the executive editor for news and podcasts at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @danephron