Report

Biden Struggles on Israeli-Palestinian Flare-Up

Under pressure and with few good options, an understaffed administration scrambles to tackle a crisis it never wanted.

A tower collapsed after being hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza city.
People gather amid rubble in front of Al-Sharouk tower that collapsed after being hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, on May 12. Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

In recent days, the Biden administration has dispatched an envoy to the Middle East and engaged in a flurry of back-channel diplomacy to respond to the surge in violence between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The big question is: Does the United States have the appetite, or even the political maneuvering room, to be an honest broker?

The escalating conflict between Israeli security forces and Palestinian militants has sparked furious debates among Biden administration insiders on whether the United States should play a leading or supporting role in defusing the crisis, even though it has yet to completely fill its own ranks of senior administration posts overseeing the Middle East.

The Biden administration, pushing to shift U.S. foreign policy toward confronting China, showed little interest in diving into the Middle East peace process before the latest explosion of violence, which has culminated in deadly rocket barrages fired into Israel from Gaza and Israeli counterstrikes targeting Hamas militants. But due to the urgency of the crisis, and mounting pressure from U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to respond more forcefully, that may no longer be an option, experts and former officials said. 

“This was not on their policy priority list at all,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, the director of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “Now, they’re going to be forced to take it on as a primary priority, and I don’t think they’re ready for that.”

Israel’s military said on Thursday that it began operations to fight against Hamas militants in Gaza.

“I’ve never seen Gaza in my three and a half years here so empty. It’s like a ghost town. You know, people really were terrified to move onto the street,” said Matthias Schmale, the Gaza-based operations director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and services to Palestinian refugees. “There’s not really been a lull in the fighting,” he said in a phone interview that was interrupted by the sound of an explosion. “There’s constant rockets from here and really very heavy violent responses from the other side.”

Meanwhile, a surge in intercommunal violence between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel has further escalated the crisis, along with widespread Palestinian protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. On Friday, protesters on the Jordanian border with the occupied West Bank were able to breach Jordanian security forces, while Lebanese demonstrators have attempted the same on Israel’s northern border. There are also reports of Syrians gathering in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Demonstrations could only intensify this weekend, as Palestinians commemorate the anniversary of the Nakba—the mass expulsion of Palestinians from what would become Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War—on May 15. 

Some analysts and U.N. officials voiced fears that if a truce isn’t brokered in the next several days, the violence could escalate into a protracted conflict for weeks or even longer. Political paralysis in Israel, which was on the cusp of a fifth round of elections in less than two years, and a delay in Palestinian elections to resolve fractious political lines across the occupied territories could further complicate any potential peace talks. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday that he was dispatching an envoy to the region to try to de-escalate the crisis. Hady Amr, a deputy assistant secretary of state, worked on Middle East peace initiatives in the Obama administration. Amr is viewed in Washington as the best interlocutor to engage with the Palestinians, according to several former officials. Other current and former officials said the Biden administration should work to coordinate truce talks with other regional powers that have close contacts with Palestinian political leaders and Hamas. This includes Egypt, which has outsized influence in the occupied Palestinian territories and helped broker a cease-fire in the 2014 Gaza war, and Qatar, which is seen to have close ties to Hamas. 

Schmale said his agency has been providing Israel with location data on U.N. facilities to ensure they don’t get bombed and that he has received assurances from Hamas that it will not use UNRWA schools and other facilities for military purposes. “They said the same in 2014, and we still found weapons … and we ensured those weapons were removed.”

Current and former U.S. and U.N. officials say Egypt and Qatar are quietly coordinating with the U.N. to try to carve out a path for cease-fire talks. Egyptian mediators traveled to Israel this week but so far to no avail. One additional complicating factor for President Joe Biden is that the United States does not yet have senior envoys permanently stationed on the ground to address the crisis nor a more senior confirmed diplomat in place in Washington. Biden named veteran diplomat Barbara Leaf as his nominee to be top envoy for the Middle East last month, but she has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler and Thomas Nides, a banker and former State Department official, are front-runners to be Biden’s ambassador to Israel, according to several people familiar with the matter. But four months into office, Biden has yet to formally name a nominee for the post. The Biden administration also has yet to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem, a de facto diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, due in part to pushback from the Israelis. The Trump administration shut it down in 2019, a year after it moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

“We’ve got to reopen the consulate,” said Ilan Goldenberg, an expert at the Center for a New American Security and a former diplomat who worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “It’s in [Israel’s] interest and our interest for the U.S. to have the ability to engage with Palestinians on the ground, as we’re seeing right now. So in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, I really hope that reopening the consulate becomes a priority.”

In Washington, Biden is facing conflicting pressures from both the progressive flank of the Democratic Party—which has become sharply critical of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians—and centrist Democrats and Republicans urging him to do more to support Israel. On Thursday night, members of the House Progressive Caucus took the House floor to voice their support for Palestinian rights and concerns about the escalating situation in Gaza, in statements that reflected the sharp and growing splits among Democrats over U.S. ties to Israel. 

Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, joined other progressives in urging Biden to pare back support for Israel and condition or restrict U.S. military aid to Israel as the violence continued. The United States provides $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel annually.

“The truth is that this is not a conflict between two states. This is not a civil war. It is a conflict where one country—funded and supported by the United States government—continues an illegal military occupation over another group of people,” Omar said. She later lashed out at the Biden administration’s response on Twitter.

Administration insiders say pressure from the progressive caucus is unlikely to sway Biden’s position on U.S. support for Israel, at least in the short term. Both Biden and Blinken have voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself in statements this week, though Blinken on Wednesday stressed that Israel “has an extra burden” to avert civilian casualties in its retaliatory strikes in Gaza.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem