The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden entered office expecting to take a less proactive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than many of its predecessors. At a press briefing about the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday—four days into the current war between Israel and Hamas—this approach was on display. Biden took a question about the conflict and diffidently replied that he’d spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel had a right to defend itself, and that he hoped the fighting would be over “sooner rather than later.” Separately, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he, too, had been in touch with his Israeli counterpart and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). He also mentioned that he was sending Hady Amr, an experienced midlevel official, to Israel to be in touch with the parties.
Meanwhile, the ground is burning in Gaza, and Israeli cities are roiled by nightly rocket attacks, as well as Jewish-Arab intercommunal violence not seen before in Israel’s history. The civilian death toll is rising on both sides, including among children. And Biden’s progressive Democratic base is calling increasingly stridently for Washington to step up its efforts, not only to stop the fighting but also to end the overall conflict.
We’ve seen Israel-Hamas wars before—the last one was in 2014—and we know how they go. Hamas, with assistance from the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, fires off its rockets indiscriminately. Israel retaliates disproportionately. The United States supports Israel’s right to defend itself. Europe wags its finger at Israel. Hamas eventually decides it has made its point. Qatar and Egypt mediate a cease-fire based on the usual “quiet for quiet” deal. Both sides bury their dead, clear the rubble, and go back to business as usual while the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas’s Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades prepare for the next round.
The Biden administration’s approach so far suggests that Washington will be comfortable accepting this unhappy ending. It has other, more important priorities. Just listing them—the pandemic, economic recovery, climate change, China’s rise, Iran’s nuclear ambitions—is enough to make the point. The president’s deference to Netanyahu’s timetable is indicative of this change in approach, in which the parties are left to deal with the conflict and the United States shifts from ending it to tamping down its more violent manifestations.
Should Biden try for more? After all, every crisis creates an opportunity. Could the circumstances this time produce a plastic moment in which, if Washington would only step up its engagement, the United States could generate progress toward its avowed goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Realities, Not Priorities
The answer, unfortunately, is no. The status quo actually suits both sides quite well and neither has an interest in changing it. Hamas, however, was upset by the cancellation of Palestinian elections, in which it hoped to extend its influence to the West Bank; it took advantage of a confluence of Jewish-Arab confrontations in East Jerusalem to try to extend its influence there instead. It did the previously inconceivable and fired rockets toward Jerusalem. That in turn enraged Netanyahu, who was content to have Hamas rule in Gaza but not in the West Bank, and certainly not in East Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, both sides’ objectives in this round are strictly limited. Hamas hopes to enhance its standing among Palestinians; Israel hopes to reestablish its deterrence against Hamas’s attacks on its citizens. Neither side is interested in having the United States broker a two-state solution. Hamas is dedicated to a one-state solution in which Israel does not exist; Netanyahu is committed to a three-state solution in which Hamas rules in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority presides over West Bank enclaves.
The third party to this conflict—Abu Mazen—would love to see the United States reengage, because that would help make him relevant again. For four months, he waited in vain for a phone call from Biden; the current crisis at last precipitated a call from the secretary of state. But American negotiators have had enough experience with Abu Mazen to know that he is in no position to accept the compromises necessary to achieve a two-state solution. At 85, in the 17th year of his four-year presidential term, nominally presiding over a deeply divided polity in which he will be denounced as a traitor by Hamas for any concession he makes to Israel, Abu Mazen intends to go into the history books as the leader who refused to compromise Palestinian rights.
The conflict requires management, because conditions simply do not exist for its resolution.
Before the outbreak of this latest conflict, there was hope that a new government would be formed in Israel that would put an end to Netanyahu’s rule. Yair Lapid (the head of the Yesh Atid party) and Naftali Bennett (the head of the Yamina party) were about to cobble together a left-center-right coalition that would depend on the support of Arab parties to scrape together a majority vote of confidence. Then a shocking spate of mob violence broke out between Jews and Arabs, spreading from Jerusalem to other Israeli cities. That fighting will, at a minimum, severely complicate the task of building a government. Israel now appears more likely to go to its fifth election in two years, after which time any plasticity arising from the current crisis will have hardened.
Even if that prediction proves wrong and a unity government emerges, its first prime minister will be Naftali Bennett. Among Israel’s leaders, he is the most dedicated opponent of an independent Palestinian state and the most dedicated proponent of annexing the West Bank.
In other words, the basic instincts of the Biden administration are correct. The conflict requires management, because conditions simply do not exist for its resolution. Sadly, this is not about priorities; it’s about realities. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tested the proposition that American willpower alone could change those realities and came up short. Jared Kushner, as senior adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, tried sanctioning the Palestinians and giving Israel a blank check, and that didn’t work either.
Managing the conflict, however, does not mean walking away from it, as the Biden administration inadvertently signaled from the start that it wanted to do. Washington has not yet put an ambassador in Israel (even an interim one) or a consul general in Jerusalem to deal with the Palestinians. Had it done so, it might have been in a better position to head off the eruption of violence. Instead, management was left to one poorly staffed, midlevel official in the State Department. The Biden administration deserves credit for intervening at a higher level to get Netanyahu to stop the evictions, marches, and Israeli police violence in East Jerusalem. Even though that intercession proved to be too little too late, it showed the efficacy of timely, high-level engagement.
Now more high-level intervention will likely be needed to get both sides to stand down. Hamas already seems willing to do so. In the coming days, once the IDF has completed its destruction of Hamas’s infrastructure and eliminated as many of the leaders of its armed wing as it can find, Netanyahu will likely be willing, too. Usually cautious, he will not want to go into a fifth election with a war raging. Already, he is being blamed for the disruption to Israeli life.
But once the current flames die down, the Biden administration will need to manage the conflict in a way that helps create a political horizon for the Palestinians—one that gives them hope that, like Israelis, they will eventually enjoy the “equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy” that Secretary of State Blinken recently promised them. A freeze on Israeli settlement growth, especially the effort to legalize settler outposts, would be a good start. Pressing Israel to avoid evictions and house demolitions in East Jerusalem will also be important.
On the Palestinian side, Abu Mazen should be encouraged to reschedule the elections. Palestinians were excited by the opportunity to vote for their leadership for the first time in 15 years. The disappointment they felt when the elections were canceled contributed to the explosion of violence. During the earlier preparations for those elections, the Biden administration adopted an agnostic position. This time, it should urge the election commission to make clear that only those candidates who forswear violence can run, as provided for in the Oslo accords. And it should hold Israel to its commitment in those accords to allow East Jerusalem Arabs to vote.
As this latest eruption of violence shows, managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like riding a bicycle: if you’re not pedaling forward, you will fall off. Coming out of this crisis, the Biden administration will need to promote a process that helps rebuild trust and hope in the two-state solution. Given the bumpy terrain, progress down that road will necessarily be slow and incremental. But under present circumstances, a step-by-step process holds out more promise than either looking away or following the siren song of a final peace.
The U.S. Can Neither Ignore nor Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is written by Martin Indyk for www.foreignaffairs.com