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Opinion Biden didn’t want to be dragged into the Israel-Palestine issue. But he doesn’t have a choice.

Smoke billows from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement on May 11. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden joins a long list of U.S. presidents who tried not to focus on the Israel-Palestine problem, only to be dragged into the conflict. With good reason, Biden seeks to tackle our greatest international challenges — China, Russia, Iran and transnational threats such as cyber-terror and climate change. But reality gets a vote, so in the case of Israel, the new president will have to devote time, attention and political capital to a seemingly intractable issue he would rather avoid.

Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress tells me: “A common mistake many U.S. presidents make is not attending to the challenges in the Middle East. Biden correctly set his priorities in the first 100 days on the home front with a sharp focus on the pandemic and the economy.” He adds: “In the world, Biden has mostly focused on China and climate change in his first few months. But events like we’ve seen over the past few days can make a mess of the best laid plans.”

The Post reports: “A day of upheaval at the holy sites of this contested city quickly widened into a night of warlike violence in communities across the country Tuesday, with hundreds of rockets from the Gaza Strip resulting in the deaths of at least two Israelis and retaliatory airstrikes killing at least 26 Gazans, according to Palestinian officials and Israeli media.”

The immediate trigger for violence may have been Israel’s ill-conceived attempt to evict some Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem (the sort of needless provocation that is a hallmark of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s career), but the violence is also fueled by the despicable conditions in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the canceled elections from the moribund and corrupt Palestinian National Authority and the growing sense (encouraged by the disgraced former president) that Israel can change conditions on the ground to extinguish any remote hope for a two-state solution.

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The United States may be in the worst position in recent memory to help end the violence, given that it has lost any pretense as an honest broker under Biden’s predecessor and that the administration lacks an ambassador or envoy on the ground. The State Department has issued appropriately stern warnings. “There is no excuse for violence, but such bloodshed is especially disturbing now, coming as it does on the last days of Ramadan. This includes Friday’s attack on Israeli soldiers and reciprocal ‘price tag’ attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, which we condemn in no uncertain terms,” the State Department said in a written statement last week. “We call on Israeli and Palestinian officials to act decisively to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence. It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount — in word and in practice.”

The statement continued: “We are also deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of Jerusalem, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations. As we have consistently said, it is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace. This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism.”

But warnings will do little to elevate U.S. influence and credibility. Katulis advises: “Show up and lead with diplomacy — diplomacy backed by a steadier and more reliable regional security strategy that seeks to increase security for all.” He also notes that “no other country has the networks of relationships the United States has across the region, from Israel to Egypt to Jordan and across the entire Arab world. It should make use of these relationships to de-escalate tensions and use any gains it achieves from crisis diplomacy as a pathway toward a more reliable engagement in the region.”

In particular, veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross recommends:

First, it needs to be talking to the Israelis about how to calm the tensions in Jerusalem and limit the scope of escalation in Gaza, recognizing that Hamas’ actions must be seen as illegitimate and presented internationally as such. Second, there must be senior level contacts with the Egyptians, they once again will be the key to mediating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas--and they need to hear from us about our support for their efforts. That can add to them. Third, there needs to be political level engagement with Mahmoud Abbas so that the PA does not add to the temperature on the ground and seeks to prevent violence. And, fourth the Jordanian relationship with the Waqf, the Islamic trust that manages the al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, means that we should be working with the Jordanians as well to try to use every means to re-establish calm. In other words, the Biden Administration needs to be trying to coordinate all these different actors in a way that increases the means to restore calm.

Biden would do well to name both an ambassador and envoy (who can operate before the ambassador is confirmed) to Israel. As Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution observes, “the current crisis threatens to overturn that fragile consensus and divert the new administration’s attention from other foreign policy goals.” The goal should be to end the violence quickly, avoiding the 50-day clash in 2014 that neither side wanted or expected. Quick and decisive intervention is essential.

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