When a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was agreed in the late afternoon of Thursday, White House officials who helped mediate the deal were divided over the crucial next step: whether President Joe Biden should or should not make a public announcement?
The problem was that the planned end of the fighting, scheduled to take effect at 7 pm Washington time, could fall apart, damaging the image of the president. The positive side of making the announcement would be twofold: Biden would be seen as a peacemaker and the two parties to the conflict would see themselves having made a public commitment, which would reduce the chances of either side to detonate the plan with a last-minute attack.
Biden moved on, making a brief announcement about an hour before the ceasefire took 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 the “intense diplomatic engagement” of his administration behind the scenes. The bet was won, insofar as the agreement was maintained and the ceasefire came into force that night.
But now, having become the latest US president to walk the tightrope to mediate the eternal conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Biden will have to face more challenges and risks ahead.
White House advisers are debating how to recalibrate their approach, hoping to avoid another crisis that could divert Biden’s attention from his top foreign policy priorities: China, Russia and restore the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden, he met at the White House on Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss issues that included Beijing’s growing power and the North Korean nuclear program.
In the short term, Biden is taking steps to increase US engagement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit the region early next week, and the State Department is dispatching another veteran diplomat, Michael Ratney, to command the US embassy in Jerusalem until Biden decides who to choose to fill the vacant position of American ambassador to Israel. The information is from a person aware of the plan.
It is unclear when Biden will be able to select his ambassador, something that several regional experts believe 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, who was deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration (2009-2017). But the process of appointing and confirming someone for the job can take months.
Administration officials also intend to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem that was Washington’s main point of contact with the Palestinians until it was merged with the American embassy, which was transferred to Jerusalem under President Donald Trump, prompting Palestinian representatives to refuse to have discussions. on site.
“In the past, the consulate was our point of contact in the field with the Palestinians in times of crisis. When the Trump administration eliminated the consulate, it blinded the American government, and this undermined the US response in the run-up to the current crisis, “commented Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official who is now director of the Middle East security program. from the think tank Center for New American Security.
“The Biden administration has been working to reopen it. I foresee that this effort will now be accelerated and will have a much higher priority. ”
Former deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs, Michael Ratney was consul general in Jerusalem during the Obama administration and can act as a channel of communication between Washington and the Palestinians until the consulate is reopened.
More broadly, Biden’s advisers are studying the approaches to be followed to escalate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They reached an initial consensus on leading an international humanitarian effort for Gaza, something Biden said on Thursday that will be led by the Palestinian Authority, not by Hamas militants, who today govern the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip. At a news conference he gave Moon on Friday, Biden added that aid will be provided “without giving Hamas the opportunity to rebuild its weapons systems”.
Administration officials hope to empower the most moderate Palestinian Authority, who they see as the only plausible partner in peace with the Israelis. The United States considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization.
The White House is also preparing for further proof of its relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in relation to efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders are strongly against the deal, that 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, president of the think tank Council on Foreign Relations. “Biden and Netanyahu need to maintain a working relationship, so that if and when Iran’s situation gains first priority they can work together.”
The White House boasted of the administration’s role in mediating the ceasefire and the care with which Biden would have managed the relationship with Netanyahu, whose tenure remains uncertain amid the current political party standoff 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 in the interior of Israel. Biden only lifted the pressure after more than a week of fighting, at which point, according to analysts, Israeli forces were already close to completing their military objectives.
“About 90% of the reason for the ceasefire is that both Hamas and the Israeli government have determined that prolonging the conflict would not serve their interests,” said Haass. “This is a ceasefire that, essentially, 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 aggravated the situation. His tactic was to avoid publicly condemning the Israeli bombing of Gaza and not even launching a public call for a ceasefire to increase his capital with Netanyahu and then press privately at the right time, said two people familiar with the administration’s internal discussions.
“How is this going to end?”, Biden would have asked Netanyahu to pressure him.
There is no doubt that when diplomatic efforts reached a key moment, Biden’s team played an important role in mediating the truce.
At one point on Thursday afternoon, in the rooms of the National Security Council, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was on the phone with his Israeli colleague Meir Ben-Shabbat. At the same time, Brett H. McGurk, the head of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, was talking to a senior Egyptian government official who served as a US intermediary with Hamas.
Both Israel and Hamas wanted assurances on the other side that neither would launch a last-minute attack before the ceasefire, in an attempt to declare a late 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-engaging in multilateral peacemaking diplomacy, but they also diverted attention from Biden’s many other priorities.
In a written analysis for the Brookings Institution and published on Friday, Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior member of the organization, warned that management members will need to spend more time poring over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The White House, wrote Wittes, “needs to admit that while it would prefer the US-Israel discussion to focus primarily on Iran and security cooperation, the president, national security adviser and other national security leaders will also need to devote time and pay attention to this issue if you want to avoid a continuous deterioration that undermines other priority regional objectives ”.
Administration officials have given no indication that they will change direction and appoint an envoy charged with restarting the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians with a view to a two-state solution, a result widely seen as almost impossible to achieve at the moment.
But Biden reaffirmed on Friday that this is his long-term goal, saying: “We need a two-state solution. It is the only answer. The only answer. ”