By Jennifer Rubin, originally published in the Washington Post.
President Biden showed he is neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump when it comes to Israel. He avoided any public contentiousness with the nation, yet he managed to help halt violence there in the span of 11 days — a fraction of the time it took Israel to wind down its 2014 war, which lasted some 50 days. And unlike Trump, who cut off aid to the Palestinians and encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worst tendencies (resulting in stunts such as the attempted eviction of Arabs from East Jerusalem), Biden restored some semblance of the United States’ traditional role as honest broker.
Joel Rubin (no relation), executive director of the American Jewish Congress, tells me: “This has been a tragic moment, and President Biden’s steady leadership guided an incredibly complex foreign policy and domestic political issue to a meaningful end. He had a light touch when needed and then asserted himself more aggressively at the right time, intuitively understanding the dynamics both on the ground and in Washington.” Rubin also notes that Biden “managed the domestic politics in a manner that built him the political capital at home on Middle East issues that President Obama wasn’t given when he was in office. Both Biden and the U.S. are stronger as a result.”
Biden followed some simple rules in reasserting U.S. leadership. First, he publicly supported Israel’s right to self-defense against terrorists, consistently and strongly. He recognized that premature public pressure will only encourage Hamas (which would exploit any gap between the United States and Israel) and make Israel less willing to follow America’s advice. Second, after giving Israel time to work through its military target list, he quietly began to urge Israel to decide when it could claim to have successfully reestablished “deterrence.” Third, when Israel seemed inclined to expand the time frame to obtain deterrence (thereby risking a prolonged 2014-type war), Biden publicly urged a cease-fire. Throughout the process, he kept behind the scenes, relying on multifaceted talks and encouraging neighboring Egypt to play a constructive role.
In his remarks on Thursday afternoon, Biden conveyed that he had spoken directly to the Israeli prime minister six times.
Biden has carved out an appropriate middle ground, which reasserts the United States as a stabilizing force in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He knows that, in the long run, it does Israel no favors to encourage reckless, provocative conduct that ignores Palestinians’ concerns. The president’s next task is to figure out how to weaken Hamas’s grip on Gaza, thereby reducing the chances of another bloody conflict. He should stand with Israel in maintaining U.S. aid and in explaining that the source of the problem is Hamas. He should also support Israel’s right to conduct its own review and investigation of its conduct of the war, thereby avoiding a repeat of the disastrous Goldstone inquiry and subsequent retraction.
Biden would then be wise to organize an international summit to find funds to rebuild Gaza, conditioned on Hamas turning over all remaining rockets, as veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis B. Ross has suggested. Biden can make clear that the United States wants to improve the lives of the Palestinian people who are under the brutal rule of a terrorist organization. (Biden has instead suggested the aid would go to the moribund Palestinian Authority, an effort to boast its prestige, but it is far from clear how the authority would administer funds in Hamas-controlled Gaza.)
The White House withstood an avalanche of uninformed criticism over its behind-the-scenes role. Publicly bashing Israel or demanding an early cease-fire likely would have only prolonged the suffering in Gaza and the unconscionable attacks against Israeli civilians. As Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress observes, “A key part of his success so far is linked to why he beat his opponents in 2020 — he ignored the noise and bluster from blowhards on Twitter and focused on getting results.”
Beyond that, Ross suggests a “second track” that would involve Arab partners in the region. That could entail, for example, the Saudis “opening a commercial trade office in Tel Aviv” in exchange for the Israelis agreeing to stop “building to the east of the security barrier — meaning they don’t build on 92 percent of West Bank.” (Israel could build within existing blocs, but not outside them to “preserve the option of two states.”) Ross argues that the Palestinians “should not just receive. They should also be pressed to respond to a possible Israeli step.” All of this “requires active brokering, but it allows [the U.S.] to use Arab normalizing steps [i.e., the Abraham Accords] to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.”
That is still eons away from any two-state solution, but it is the best means of alleviating suffering on both sides and diminishing the prospect of endless wars. Instead of a final, comprehensive solution, the administration should pursue a series of trust-building measures that leverage Israel’s new relations with its neighbors to improve the quality of life for Israelis and Palestinians.
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