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Biden faces Israeli-Palestinian fighting he wasn't expecting — or prepared for

Analysis: U.S. efforts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians face a number of notable hurdles — and a shift in the domestic political climate.
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WASHINGTON — For President Joe Biden, the eruption of violence between Israel and the Palestinians is a crisis he not only did not expect, but was not prepared to confront.

Despite being one of the most experienced foreign policy experts among recent presidents, Biden had made it clear he wanted to focus his foreign policy on China primarily, as well as on restarting talks with Iran to re-enter and strengthen the nuclear accord negotiated under former President Barack Obama, and toughen but normalize the post-Trump U.S. stance toward Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has bedeviled generations of American presidents, was, according to White House officials, a much less urgent matter. Notably, any effort to rebalance U.S. policy and include Palestinian equities in negotiations was going to be challenging after former President Donald Trump departed from decades of bipartisan U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and excluded the Palestinians from diplomatic talks, while cutting them off from U.S. contributions to U.N. relief funds.

The Trump strategy, designed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was rooted in unquestioned support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line policies, bypassing the Palestinians in favor of forging diplomatic links between Israel and a few Arab states. That was successful as far as it went, resulting in the historic recognition of Israel by several Arab nations.

But those so-called Abraham Accords are also now on the line, as those Arab leaders never contemplated Israel’s recent actions in Jerusalem to evict Palestinians from homes they’ve lived in for generations and to fire rubber bullets into Al-Aqsa Mosque during Friday evening prayers in the closing days of the holy month of Ramadan 10 days ago.

While no one can say definitively who caused the protests around the mosque to become violent, the intrusion into the mosque, the third-most sacred site in all of Islam, triggered the rocket fire from Gaza, which was immediately met by Israeli airstrikes — the conflict that has now escalated to the brink of all-out war.

What has changed this time, in contrast to the last explosion between the two sides seven years ago? The violence has extended to conflict between Israeli Arabs and Jews in communities across Israel, well beyond the Palestinian territories. While Israel has not invaded Gaza from the ground, the extent of the air combat in both directions is much more intense.

And the climate of U.S. political support for Israel’s policies has evolved: There is growing pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for a more even-handed approach that recognizes Palestinian rights, despite America’s historically iron-clad support for Israel, its closest Middle East ally and largest single recipient of U.S. military aid.

Separately, even Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a strong supporter of Israel, issued a statement this weekend decrying the Israeli military attack on the media tower housing The Associated Press, BBC, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets. Netanyahu has defended the strike as warranted, claiming that the building also housed Hamas military intelligence, without revealing the basis for that claim.

That attack, as well as the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, have prompted statements of concern from 28 other senators, as well as sporadic protests of largely pro-Palestinian demonstrators around the U.S. this weekend. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, now in Denmark, is under pressure to do more, and could indeed end up traveling to the region if conditions warrant.

But U.S. efforts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians face a number of notable hurdles — starting at the top.

The Biden administration has no top diplomat in Israel: no ambassador, no consul general, and only a relatively low-level envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hadi Amr.

And it is dealing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are historically weak.

Netanyahu entered this conflict on trial for alleged corruption, having lost his right to form a new government after his fourth election resulting in failure to command outright a 61-seat majority in Israel’s Knesset. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is so weak he was unwilling to hold scheduled elections this spring for fear of losing to a more radical opponent, after years of weak and corrupt leadership.

And the U.S. does not openly deal with Hamas, labeled a terror organization, which runs the Gaza Strip, relying instead on contacts via Egypt and Qatar.

Another challenge: Key figures in the current face-off have had little reason to dial down the conflict. Both Netanyahu and Hamas are motivated by proving their political strength through sustained military action — Netanyahu, to win domestic support and reclaim his office; Hamas, to eliminate the rival Palestinian Authority and claim leadership of the West Bank as well.

If there is any chance of a ceasefire now, it may be because both Netanyahu and Hamas leaders may believe they have achieved their political goals.