Two questions linger as street, aerial, and missile warfare – and perhaps more deadly strife – continue to convulse Israel and Gaza. The first: What will Israel do in what Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, calls “the worst Arab-Jewish violence in our history”? And the second: What will Joe Biden do if this conflict continues, intensifies, or ultimately spills beyond its current venue of violence?
But a third question also beckons as a consensus solidifies in Israel around the view of Halevi, the American-born author of the bestselling book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” who asserts, “Jews across the political spectrum agree about this: We have no choice.”
That third question is: What exactly can the president of the United States do, anyway?
“American presidents have a lot of sway in determining American foreign policy but they don’t have much sway interfering in other countries,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College expert on the presidency. “These are problems within a sovereign state and we don’t want to deny either Israel or Palestinians support. And yet we have to do something. That’s why it’s such a difficult situation.”
But that is not only why is it such a difficult situation.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were able to intervene in the region, and to win important progress with Anwar Sadat and Yasser Arafat, when the Middle East was a principal American interest. In the Carter case, he had played down the Soviet threat in his 1977 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame (“We are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism”), and in the Clinton case, his breakthrough with the “handshake for peace” between Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat in 1993 on the White House lawn came during a major reform initiative in Russia (prompting an American grant of $1.8 billion to Russia and the former Soviet republics).
In both those circumstances, the United States was basically free of other imminent international crises.
This is a different era with a different president, who has made it clear that he has different priorities: trade and military concerns with China and a wary eye on Russian interference in American commercial and political activities. The Middle East is not on the top shelf.
Except now it is.
American presidents in the post-War War II era don’t get to choose unilaterally the focus of their attention. Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush didn’t expect to have to turn their gazes to Panama in 1964 and 1989, respectively, just as Gerald R. Ford wasn’t focused on Cambodia when the Mayaguez incident occurred in 1975. The elder President Bush hadn’t given much thought to the security of Kuwait when Saddam Hussein mounted his invasion in 1990, just as the White House was grappling in negotiations on the budget.
Crises happen. Or, applying that sentiment to the world of foreign affairs: Shifts happen.
But in its zeal to deal with China and Russia, and with the coronavirus crisis and the economic recovery dominating the news and White House attention, the Biden team was caught unprepared for this spring’s Israeli-Palestinian mayhem.
One of the rules of thumb of foreign policy is that if an American administration wants to focus its energies on one or two areas of contention, it has to be equipped to keep the difficult areas that are not priorities from getting in its way. That means assigning top senior-level personnel with real regional credibility to keep watch on, and to help keep a lid on, the peripheral concerns – and to keep them peripheral.
“Even if your public position is that your primary focus is Asia and Russia,” a former national security official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations said in an interview, “you still have to make sure you have the right people focused on this.”
The Biden administration was either too distracted, or just as likely too new on the job, to do that.
Biden is a lifelong supporter of Israel, though as president he has avoided taking sides publicly in the current conflict.
Last Friday, Biden’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs, Hady Amr, landed in Tel Aviv to begin talks on de-escalating the situation. The White House has not yet appointed an ambassador to Israel, though some Washington-based observers are hoping he turns to Thomas R. Nides, currently the managing director of Morgan Stanley. A former chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and a former deputy secretary of state for management in the Obama administration, Nides’ appointment would show senior-level attention to the region.
Moreover, the administration has to clarify its vision for Israel. Right now that vision is a fuzzy allegiance to the term “two-state solution.” But on the ground, essentially a one-state reality prevails from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The Biden administration needs to get to a place where Israelis and Palestinians can work together to find the right path forward for both. They are nowhere near that right now.
That’s without considering the chemistry between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a relationship with former president Donald J. Trump that Biden has no taste to replicate. Biden and Netanyahu have talked during this crisis. But it is almost inconceivable that any American president could have much influence on Netanyahu, himself preoccupied with his political and legal prospects as an election looms and in any case possessed with a single-minded view of his own indispensability and infallibility.
Then there are the divisions within American Jews themselves, with some holding an unyielding “Israel-right-or-wrong” posture and others troubled that Israel has betrayed its founding values with its treatment of the Palestinians. Nobody involved in this work missed the op-ed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the avatar of the Democratic progressive, wrote in the New York Times. “Over more than a decade of his right-wing rule in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has cultivated an increasingly intolerant and authoritarian type of racist nationalism,” Sanders wrote.
“There are huge divisions within the United States and within the Jewish community in the United States, so American interests are not necessarily the same as Israel’s,” said Gene R. Garthwaite, an emeritus Dartmouth College professor and lifelong student of the region. “Biden is looking at this situation from the prism of those divisions. It would be uncharted territory for any administration. It is a huge challenge for an administration just getting off the ground.”
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.