Many outside observers have suggested that the administration appoint a special envoy, as it would take weeks, if not months, for the Senate to confirm a nominee for ambassador to Israel, even if that nomination were announced immediately. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the appointment of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr as his special envoy. However, there is some question as to what he can actually accomplish in Israel.
I have no doubt that the Biden administration and the Israeli government saw this perfect storm approaching on the horizon, given the confluence of the canceled Palestinian Authority elections, the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, the end of Ramadan and the Jerusalem Day parade. Indeed, the rerouting of the parade and the Israeli court’s decision to postpone a decision on the evictions suggest some effort to ameliorate the situation. Now that the violence has begun, however, things are more complicated.
The Israeli government was on the verge of changing hands (to a coalition led by opposition party leaders Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid) when Hamas effectively threw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a lifeline. It is hard enough to make a deal with a government you know will be in place for the foreseeable future; it is much harder to negotiate a tricky cease-fire with one that appears to finally be on the way out.
Moreover, the Palestinian Authority is less relevant, more corrupt and less effective than ever before — and in no position to reel in Hamas fighters or Israeli Arabs battling in the streets. As veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross recently told me, Hamas has “an opportunity to upstage” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by firing rockets at Jerusalem, becoming "the symbol of resistance” among Palestinians. But “with more than 360,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem,” Ross notes, "firing rockets at the city has as much of a chance to kill Palestinians as anyone, so we are again reminded that Hamas is not about Palestinian well-being but leading resistance regardless of the cost to Palestinians and especially those living in Gaza.”
To make matters worse, the violence in Israel proper in towns with mixed Israeli-Arab populations (as opposed to missiles fired from Hamas-controled Gaza) does not appear to be under any sort of unified control. As the New York Times reports, “The sudden turn of events, which escalated from an Israeli-Palestinian dispute in Jerusalem to full-scale aerial war over Gaza to widespread civil unrest in less than two days, shocked Israelis and Palestinians alike, and left some of the country’s most experienced leaders fearing that the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict was heading into perilous new territory.” In other words, finding people on the Palestinian side with the authority to de-escalate the violence is problematic, to say the least.
The real action, one suspects, will be in conversations with the Egyptians, Tunisians and other governments with an interest in preventing a regional war. As Psaki made clear, those contacts can be made from Washington as easily as they can from Jerusalem. Sending Amr as an envoy, one suspects, is a way to underscore that the administration is deeply committed to ending the violence.
But do not expect a quick resolution. Multiple parties in the region must spend considerable time and effort to figure out who can best reel in the Palestinians, stanch the violent assault on civilians, return order to the streets and impress on Netanyahu that an extended battle would be disastrous for Israel and for him — not another opportunity to save his political skin.