Biden’s quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies
President Biden’s quiet diplomacy to end the devastating violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is frustrating international partners and raising concern from Israel’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill.
The president, for the first time Monday, expressed support for cease-fire efforts in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, amid increasing pressure from Senate Democrats to more forcefully push for a halt to the violence.
While Biden reiterated his full support for Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of thousands of rockets indiscriminately fired by Hamas and other Islamic-militant groups into Israel for more than a week, the White House said he encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians amid reports of hundreds of Palestinian casualties.
Escalating violence in Israel between Arab and Jewish citizens, and ongoing clashes in Jerusalem and the West Bank between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, has further complicated efforts to establish calm.
“This is a much more complex situation than we’ve seen in other conflicts, because it’s actually working on four separate but interrelated arenas,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute and who served as a negotiator for the Palestinian Authority on earlier peace talks.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Monday, “I want to see a cease-fire reached quickly and mourn the loss of life,” echoing calls from 30 Democratic senators for an immediate cease-fire.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), the top senators on the committee with jurisdiction over the Middle East, also issued a bipartisan call for a cease-fire to be reached “quickly and that additional steps can be taken to preserve a two-state future.”
Progressive Democrats and their supporting political groups are calling for Biden to condemn Netanyahu for war crimes, pointing to civilian casualties in Gaza, planned evictions of Palestinians in east Jerusalem and heavy-handed police tactics against Palestinians protesting in the Holy City.
Biden and his officials have stressed that Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in safety and security, and the White House is doubling down on its approach of “quiet, intensive diplomacy.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration’s goal is “reducing the violence and bringing an end to the conflict on the ground.”
“There are times in diplomacy where we’ll need to keep those conversations quieter, where we won’t read out every component of it, but that is our objective and that is the prism through which every action and every comment is being made,” Psaki said.
This includes the president holding at least three calls with Netanyahu, and separately speaking with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At least 60 conversations have taken place between senior administration officials and Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as regional counterparts.
Leading discussions on the ground is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, considered a capable envoy but at a lesser rank than an ambassador — which has yet to be nominated — and an assistant secretary of state, who has yet to be confirmed.
The White House has given no indication of when an ambassador pick will be announced beyond saying more could be expected in the “coming weeks.”
Al-Omari said the U.S. has “tremendous leverage” with Israel and other international actors that are looking to the Biden administration for leadership in conducting cease-fire talks.
“This is probably the first test of U.S. diplomacy in this arena,” he said.
The U.S. does not speak with Hamas, which it designated as a terrorist organization in 1997, and is so far favoring Egypt, which has relations with Hamas, to push through a cease-fire agreement.
Al-Omari said this has significant implications for the region as Qatar has increasingly made itself an important interlocutor between Hamas and the international community but is criticized as being too supportive of the Iran-backed group.
One key will be making sure any cease-fire does not come with terms that would allow Hamas to look like it claims victory.
“These are all questions that relate both to the specific conflict but also have wider implications once the dust settles,” al-Omari said.
But the U.S. is coming under pressure from the international community as the conflict drags on into its second week.
The United Nations is raising alarm that the already dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is rapidly deteriorating, with 38,000 Palestinians internally displaced, 2,500 homeless, and food, fuel and energy running dangerously low.
The Gaza Ministry of Health said at least 212 Palestinians have been killed as of Monday, including 61 children, 36 women and 16 elderly people, and 1,400 have been wounded.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says that Hamas has fired more than 3,150 rockets into Israel since May 10 and 10 Israelis, including a soldier, have been killed. The IDF says they have struck 820 terror targets inside the Gaza Strip and killed 130 combatants.
At the United Nations, the U.S. has come under criticism for reportedly blocking a joint statement from the security council — viewed as an important signal of international consensus to pressure both sides to a cease-fire.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered a thinly veiled attack of the U.S. as the lone holdout in a virtual U.N. meeting Sunday. While the U.S. and China are at historically low and tense bilateral relations, China holds the council presidency for May.
“Regrettably, however, the Security Council has not been able to speak in one voice till today because of the obstruction by one single country,” Wang said.
“We call upon the United States to shoulder its due responsibilities, take a just position and, together with the majority of the international community, support the Security Council in easing the situation, rebuilding trust and advancing political settlement,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected that characterization, saying in response to a reporter’s question that the U.S. is “not standing in the way of diplomacy.”
But the resolve of the Biden administration to keep quiet pressure on Israel was tested over the weekend after an Israeli airstrike destroyed a 12-story building that Israel says contained a Hamas target but also housed international media, including The Associated Press and Al Jazeera.
The strike, along with the mounting death toll, prompted rare criticism from the president, his officials and strong Israeli-supporters on Capitol Hill.
Biden, according to a read out of his call with Netanyahu on Saturday, raised concern “about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a staunch supporter of Israel, said in a statement he was “deeply troubled” by the destruction of media outlets and reports of Palestinian civilian deaths, calling for a “full accounting.”
Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the developments “no doubt” add to pressure on Israel.
But he said the decision to greenlight the strike likely represented a calculated Israeli message to Hamas and other terror groups “that Israel will do what it thinks it must and will not be constrained by criticism.”
Morgan Chalfant and Jordain Carney contributed.