When a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was agreed late Thursday afternoon, White House officials who helped negotiate the pact were divided over the crucial next step: President Joe Should Biden make a public announcement or not?
The problem was that the scheduled end of the fighting, slated to take effect at 7 p.m. Washington time, could collapse, damaging the president’s image.
The positive side of the announcement would be twofold: Biden would be seen as a peacemaker, and both parties to the conflict would end up having made a public commitment, which would reduce the chances of either side of blowing up the plan. one last-minute attack.
Biden moved on and made a brief announcement about an hour before the ceasefire went into effect. In his speech, he implicitly countered critics who accused him of doing too little to bring the fighting to a faster conclusion, speaking of his leadership’s “intense diplomatic engagement” behind the scenes. The bet was won, as the agreement was maintained and the ceasefire came into effect that night.
But now, having become the last U.S. president to walk a tightrope to mediate the eternal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Biden will face more challenges and risks ahead.
White House advisers debate how to recalibrate the approach, hoping to avert another crisis that could distract Biden from his top foreign policy priorities: China, Russia and recovery of the nuclear deal with Iran. From Biden, he met at the White House on Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss issues such as Beijing’s rise to power and North Korea’s nuclear program.
In the short term, Biden is taking action to increase U.S. engagement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit the region early next week, and the State Department has dispatched another veteran diplomat, Michael Ratney, to command the United States Embassy in Jerusalem until that time. for Biden to decide who to choose to fill the vacant ambassadorial post. American in Israel.
It’s unclear when Biden will be able to select his ambassador, which several regional experts say needs to be done urgently. Two people in contact with the White House on issues related to Israel predicted that Biden would choose Thomas R. Nides, assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration (2009-2017). But the process of appointing and confirming someone can take months.
Officials also plan to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem that was the main point of contact with the Palestinians until it was merged with the American embassy, transferred to Jerusalem under Donald Trump, prompting Palestinian representatives to refuse to go. have discussions.
“In the past, the consulate was our point of contact on the ground with the Palestinians in times of crisis. When the Trump administration eliminated the consulate, it blinded the US government, and it undermined the response on the eve of the current crisis, ”commented Ilan Goldenberg, former Obama executive and now director of the think tank’s Middle East security agenda. Center for New American Security. “The Biden administration has been working to reopen it. I anticipate that this effort will now be accelerated and will have a much higher priority. “
Former Assistant Under Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, Michael Ratney was consul general in Jerusalem under the Obama administration and can serve as a channel of communication between Washington and the Palestinians until the consulate reopens.
More broadly, Biden’s advisers are studying approaches to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They reached an initial consensus on the direction of an international humanitarian effort for Gaza, which Biden said on Thursday will be done by the Palestinian Authority, and not by Hamas militants, who now rule the Palestinian territory of the United States. Gaza strip.
In a Friday press conference with Moon, Biden added that the aid will be provided “without giving Hamas the opportunity to rebuild its weapons systems.” Administration officials hope to empower the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which they see as the only plausible partner in peace with the Israelis. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
The White House is also preparing to obtain further evidence of its relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, regarding efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders are strongly opposed to the deal, which they see as a threat to Israel’s security. “Israel and the United States will have great things to discuss and resolve, especially Iran,” said Richard N. Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“Biden and Netanyahu must maintain a working relationship, so that if and when Iran’s situation becomes the first priority, they can work together.”
The White House has bragged about the administration’s role in mediating the ceasefire and how carefully Biden allegedly handled the relationship with Netanyahu, whose tenure remains uncertain amid the current political party stalemate in Israel. Throughout the diplomatic effort, Biden recognized Israel’s right to retaliate against Hamas rocket attacks after the most recent clashes between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. Biden did not lift the pressure until after more than a week of fighting, by which time analysts said Israeli forces were already on the cusp of achieving their military goals.
“About 90% of the reason for the ceasefire is that Hamas and the Israeli government decided that prolonging the conflict would not serve their interests,” Haass said. “It’s a ceasefire that basically was waiting to happen.”
According to some versions, Biden was more influential. At the very least, he would have avoided politically tempting actions that could have made the situation worse. His tactic was to avoid publicly condemning the Israeli bombing of Gaza and not even make a public call for a ceasefire to increase his capital with Netanyahu and then lobby privately at the right time, two people said. close to the internal discussions of the administration.
“How will it end?” Biden reportedly asked Netanyahu to pressure him. There is no doubt that when diplomatic efforts reached a pivotal moment, Biden’s team played an important role in mediating the truce.
At one point Thursday afternoon, in the halls of the National Security Council, the chief of the zone, Jake Sullivan, was on the phone with his Israeli colleague Meir Ben-Shabbat. At the same time, Brett H. McGurk, head of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, was speaking with a senior Egyptian government official who was acting as a US intermediary with Hamas.
Israel and Hamas wanted assurances from the other side that neither would launch a last-minute attack before the ceasefire, in an attempt to declare a belated victory. Sullivan and McGirk, both still on the phone, transmitted messages between Jerusalem and Cairo in real time.
These efforts paint a picture of the United States’ re-engagement in multilateral peacemaking diplomacy, but they have also distracted attention from Biden’s many other priorities.
In an analysis written for the Brookings Institution and published Friday, Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior member of the organization, warned that members of the leadership will need to spend more time addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The White House, Wittes wrote, “must admit that if it would prefer the US-Israel discussion to focus primarily on Iran and security cooperation, the president, the national security adviser and other leaders of national security will also need to devote time and attention to this issue if they are to avoid the continued deterioration that undermines other priority regional objectives ”.
Administration officials have given no indication that they will change direction and appoint an envoy to re-launch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process towards a two-state solution, an outcome widely seen as nearly impossible. to be achieved at the moment. But Biden reaffirmed Friday that this was his long-term goal, saying, “We need a two-state solution. This is the only answer. The only answer ”.