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Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves a press conference during a visit to Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Israel-Hamas War

On Oct. 25, U.S. President Joe Biden said something so extraordinary about the current Israeli-Hamas conflict that, had he really thought it through, he might have seriously reconsidered saying. “There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on Oct. 6,” Biden said.

On Oct. 25, U.S. President Joe Biden said something so extraordinary about the current Israeli-Hamas conflict that, had he really thought it through, he might have seriously reconsidered saying. “There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on Oct. 6,” Biden said.

It was a simple line, but one with breathtaking scope.

Was it a throwaway talking point or a determined commitment for the ages? Did the president understand that, having tethered the United States to Israel’s war aims, when the dust settles, he’ll be expected to play a lead role in creating a new reality both in Gaza and on Israeli-Palestinian peace? Or does he believe that he can unload most of the post-conflict work to a group of regional and international actors that will somehow shoulder the responsibility for Gaza reconstruction and whatever performative peace process might follow? And does he fully grasp that the proverbial “day after” is likely to be more like the year (or years) after?

Every breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict that occurred within the conflict zone has been preceded by violence, insurgency, and war. Indeed, severe crisis can produce opportunity because it breaks the status quo and injects pain that can produce urgency. But that pain must be married to the prospects of gain—usually but not always generated by an outside mediator. Whether the Biden administration is willing or able to play that role remains to be seen.

Serious challenges stand in the way of a more hopeful, let alone transformed, future. And much of what will confront any effort to alter the Oct. 6 status quo remains largely outside of the president’s capacity to control.

Biden will confront two badly traumatized societies that will each in their own way enter a period of prolonged political reckoning. When Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog said that Israel was one country on Oct. 6 and a different country on Oct. 8, he was not exaggerating.

The most severe terror attack in the nation’s history; the bloodiest single day for Jews since the Holocaust; the greatest intelligence failure since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (and perhaps much worse given the civilian death toll of the Oct. 7 attack); and the taking of more than 200 hostages have stunned and shocked a country somewhat conditioned throughout its history to cope with terror and violence. The Hamas attack added to Israelis’ existing fear of incoming rockets the new fear of cross-border massacres—not just near Gaza but also along the Israeli-Lebanese border and in the West Bank, too.

The events of Oct. 7 also undermined the essence of the contract between the governed and those who govern—a government’s commitment to guarantee the safety and security of its citizenry. The average length of an Israeli government since independence is about 1.8 years; and the emergency coalition that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed after the attack will almost certainly be replaced. Whether that will be with a more right-wing or centrist coalition is hard to say.

In the wake of the 1973 war, a state committee of inquiry found the Israeli military and intelligence elites responsible for the failure and didn’t address then-Prime Minister Golda Meir’s role. In 1974, she resigned under public pressure. Yet the real earthquake would not come until three years later, when Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party came to power and reshaped Israeli politics for decades to come. In one of history’s great ironies, it would be the right—not the left, which had dominated Israeli politics since independence—that would benefit from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s war-then-peace strategy.

This time around, however, Israelis likely won’t be challenged by a charismatic, transformative Egyptian leader boldly seeking peace. And the Israeli public, still reeling from the events of Oct. 7—suspicious, worried, and embittered—will be in no mood for far-reaching concessions on a Palestinian state so close to their borders.

For Palestinians, the reckoning will be much harder. The death and destruction Israel is visiting on Gaza will leave Palestinians in Gaza angry, impoverished, and leaderless. Should Hamas or an Islamist successor survive and be able to mount an insurgency against either an Israeli occupying force or a multinational one in Gaza, then the Palestinian national movement will remain divided—split between Hamas or its successor in Gaza and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, with two different visions of where and what Palestine should be.

The PA—led by an aging Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in the 18th year of a four-year term—will be further tarnished by its inability to do anything but watch as Palestinians are killed by the thousands in Gaza or to protect Palestinians in the West Bank from attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Armed groups of young Palestinians such as the Lions’ Den or Nablus Brigade—some independent, others influenced by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—will carry on the struggle against the occupation as Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land continues. Having postponed elections in 2021, Abbas will be under immense pressure to hold them for both a new legislature and the presidency. But what about Gaza? Can elections be held there? And as happened in 2006, might Hamas again win a majority?

New leadership and reform of the PA’s authoritarian and corrupt practices are clearly required to replace the aging Abbas and the Fatah establishment. But from where will it come? Once again, there’s talk of the most popular Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti—who is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison—coming to the rescue. A poll of Palestinians in Gaza taken shortly before the Oct. 7 attack on preferences for president should elections be held had Barghouti at 32 percent; Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s political head, at 24 percent; and Abbas at 12 percent.

Leaders need not be born to lead; often, they emerge in response to the direst of circumstances. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is one such leader who comes to mind. But if the Biden administration has any hope of trying to push for a credible process to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will need leaders on both sides with the capacity and desire to make and sustain very tough—even historic—decisions. Right now, it’s hard to see those kinds of leaders emerging quickly in the wake of this crisis.

Any postwar effort will need to prioritize rebuilding a destroyed and traumatized Gaza. Physically reconstructing and repairing homes and infrastructure; supporting a displaced population of what may eventually be almost half of Gaza’s residents; and psychologically rehabilitating a traumatized populace, especially children, will be a gargantuan task. Who or what will assume responsibility for this effort is an open question.

But it will be taking place in a post-conflict environment in which Israeli forces may still be present in Gaza until some transitional mechanism to ensure security and order has been worked out. And Netanyahu’s comment last week that Israel may have to stay in Gaza for an “indefinite period” suggests an even more complex situation. To prevent a Hamas resurgence, Israel is going to demand influence in the temporary governance of Gaza, which will make any reconstruction effort much more difficult—or, perhaps apart from tending to the immediate needs of the population, hard to begin at all. Israel will almost certainly want to inspect construction materials—any of which might be used for tunneling or manufacturing weapons. And Iran will be looking for opportunities to provide money and resources to feed an insurgency.

The question of who will ultimately govern Gaza further complicates the situation. Key Arab states such as Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia can play a critical role in this process by providing financial and political support, though it’s hard to imagine an Arab peacekeeping force patrolling Gaza and doing counterinsurgency against Palestinians or having much legitimacy with Israelis still occupying Gaza.

The most logical and feasible solution is Palestinian governance legitimized by elections. As evidenced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent meeting with Abbas, the Biden administration is clearly thinking about the PA as a key ingredient in Gaza’s future governance. Indeed, the secretary called for an “effective and revitalized” PA. But this is far easier to describe than to actualize. Abbas and his Fatah colleagues have little legitimacy in the West Bank and none in Gaza. And after 16 years of absence, the PA cannot reenter Gaza on the back of an Israeli Merkava tank and expect to be welcomed by the people of Gaza.

Empowering the PA—if it can be done at all—will require linking reconstruction and governance in Gaza to a serious and credible process to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, legitimacy for the PA in addition to holding elections will need to be tied to a real effort to negotiate an end to Israel’s occupation, presumably based on two states. To make this credible, there would need to be front-loading with any number of steps to build up the PA, including restricting if not ending Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. Right now—and certainly with this Israeli government—such a step seems far away.

The biggest question is whether Biden has the bandwidth to take on such a colossal endeavor—especially as he heads into what is likely to be a closely fought presidential election in 2024. Or is that more likely an assignment for a second Biden administration, if there is one? Either way, unless the administration plans to get serious this coming year about at least laying the foundations for new realities in Gaza and the West Bank, very little is going to move.

Governing is about making difficult choices, and it’s not as if there are no other foreign-policy challenges to absorb the U.S. president’s time. Competing priorities abound, each tied to complex domestic politics. Biden has tethered the United States to Ukraine’s fight with Russia, and the reality of what is likely to be a very long war resourced by his administration has begun to sink in amid growing Republican doubts about long-term support.

Biden has also committed the United States to defending Taiwan against China, even if what that defense would look like in the event of war remains ambiguous. If there is an inside-the-Beltway consensus on any foreign-policy issues in Washington, it’s on pursuing tough policies against China and Iran, especially as the Israel-Hamas war has brought the United States much closer to the possibility of a conflict with Tehran.

Pursuing Middle East peace isn’t for the fainthearted or those who aren’t prepared to spend the energy and time. Much of the effort can be offloaded to a secretary of state and a special envoy. But even with husbanding the White House’s time, it will require a good deal of presidential focus. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter not only had to convene a presidential summit but also embarked on a shuttle diplomacy trip in 1979 to conclude the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton traveled extensively in the region and called at least four Middle East summits as part of his peacemaking efforts.

Nor can one ignore the domestic politics that can drain a president’s political currency—and those domestic politics on the Israeli-Palestinian issue are fraught indeed. With the Republican Party emerging as the Israel-can-do-no-wrong party and a divided Democratic Party with a progressive wing that’s pushing for Biden to impose accountability on Israel, Biden will need to navigate a perilous course. Invariably, pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace will mean friction or worse with Israel. Will the president be up to it?

In tying the United States to both Israel’s trauma on Oct. 7 and its resulting campaign to eradicate Hamas in Gaza—and all the death and destruction that is causing—Biden now shares direct responsibility for the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden has committed himself publicly to a fundamental change in the status quo. If that’s going to happen, first and foremost there will need to be Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed to that objective. But even with those kinds of leaders, Biden will need to own this, too.

And even if he does, the risks are great. If the past is prologue, as it’s been so many times when it comes to U.S. peacemaking efforts, the chances of success are small. Walking away or pursuing a performative policy in the wake of the horrors we’ve witnessed will undermine the president’s personal credibility—as well as America’s—in the region and the world. And it will cost him politically, particularly in a state such as Michigan, with Arab Americans as well as with progressives and younger Democrats. Biden may very well be remembered as the U.S. president who presided over the bloodiest phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, most likely, the death of the only pathway that offers a hope of ending it: the much-maligned two-state solution.

The stakes are enormous, especially for a president who cares deeply about Israel, Palestinian suffering, and the United States’ leadership role in the world. But it remains to be seen whether his stunningly powerful pledge not to return to the status quo of Oct. 6 was merely a throwaway line and a performative talking point or a serious and determined commitment to finding a solution to an excruciatingly complex conflict that has eluded all of his predecessors.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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