Why Biden’s team didn’t go all-in on Israel-Gaza

“Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a choice to make. It was mid-May, and in a few days he’d travel to Europe for talks with allies on the Arctic and climate change, and to meet with his Russian counterpart ahead of a presidential-level summit in June.

But a fight broke out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, threatening to explode into a larger, bloodier conflict.

Looking at his agenda and the events in the Middle East, Blinken consulted with his staff and the White House on what he should do. There were discussions about having him drop everything to shuttle back and forth between Middle Eastern capitals and help broker a ceasefire. Instead, Blinken decided he should keep his long-planned commitments in Europe but, along with other administration officials, get on the phone with key players in the brewing war.

He made that choice, the opposite of what previous secretaries of state had done during recent Israel-Gaza conflicts, for two main reasons.

The first was that he could still engage in “telephonic diplomacy” while in Europe, in the words of a senior State Department official, without the risk of having to potentially fly home empty-handed and embarrassed.

The second reason, though, speaks to the Biden administration’s view of foreign policy writ large: Less is sometimes more.

“I find that in the current moment in Washington, although it’s been true for a long time, the answer is to do more. Everyone wants more, more, we should be doing more,” said a senior State Department official who, like two others, spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Of course, more of everything is not a strategy.”

Blinken and others in the administration simply don’t believe solving a regional crisis requires top officials like Blinken to drop everything and fly to the hot spot, especially if there are larger, more consequential, longer-term issues to focus on elsewhere.”

“It’s not that the US was disengaged from the Israel-Gaza conflict. Top administration figures made more than 80 calls to world leaders during the conflict — with Blinken on the phone for at least 15 of them while in or traveling between Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland — in service of the ceasefire reached after 11 days of fighting.”

“it’s never a good idea to send your top diplomatic official by themselves to solve thorny problems. “The secretary of state doesn’t always have to be the desk officer of the crisis of the moment,” Conley told me.”

“Martin Indyk, who served as the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014, recapped for me the last two times a secretary of state flew to the region during a flare-up.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt and other nations in 2012 when calls to counterparts weren’t working. Her efforts helped secure a ceasefire, making it seem like that should be the playbook: When there’s a crisis, send the secretary.

But the new secretary of state, John Kerry, wasn’t as successful two years later. Despite drafting a ceasefire document for Israel and Hamas to work from, he came back to Washington “really humiliated,” Indyk said.

Watching those events from within the Obama administration was Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser. What he took away from both cases, per Indyk, was that the nation’s top diplomat should travel to the area only to finalize terms that could make the ceasefire a success. Otherwise, the chances of in-person engagement working remained low, leading to inevitable embarrassment for the secretary and the administration.”

““A premature intervention would’ve prolonged the crisis, it wouldn’t have ended it,” said Indyk, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The way to move Israel forward is to put your arm around them, reassure them that you’re in their corner, and push them in the direction you want to go.”

Threatening to place conditions on arms sales or call for a ceasefire early, as some critics from the left wanted, likely wouldn’t have worked. “The Israelis would dig in their heels and say, ‘Screw you, we’ve got rockets falling on our people and we’re going to respond,’” Indyk continued. Plus, he and others said, Hamas surely would’ve defied the US by launching more than the 4,500 rockets they did.

That a ceasefire came together after 11 days, and that Blinken was welcomed by both warring parties shortly after the fighting, has led Biden administration officials to consider their efforts a clear success.”

The fighting in Gaza is over. The humanitarian crisis isn’t.

“Gaza is no longer an active war zone, but the emergency hasn’t fully abated. Israeli airstrikes have toppled high-rise buildings and turned homes and apartments to rubble. Israel said it was targeting Hamas and its networks, including rocket launchers and tunnels, but those targets are often intertwined with schools, clinics, and residential buildings.”

The Israel-Hamas ceasefire stopped the fighting — but changed nothing

“The ceasefire announced Thursday between Israel and Hamas will hopefully end the worst of the violence that in the course of 11 days killed well over 200 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In the narrowest sense, Hamas and Israel have both accomplished their immediate goals. Hamas got to portray itself as the defender of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, where much of the unrest began in recent weeks, and prove its capacity to hit most of Israel with its rockets. Israel, meanwhile, can say it has degraded Hamas’s military capabilities, in particular the underground network of tunnels from which it operates.

Yet the ceasefire does nothing to address the underlying conditions that have fueled the decade-and-a-half standoff between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, nor the issues that sparked this latest round of fighting.”

“Sheikh Jarrah is an East Jerusalem neighborhood located just outside the old city that for weeks has been the site of mass demonstrations by Palestinians protesting the imminent evictions of six Arab families from their homes by Israeli courts, to make way for Jewish activists who claim ownership of the land.

The homes in question were built by the Jordanian government in the 1950s for Palestinian refugees from Israel, after Jewish residents fled the neighborhood during the 1948 war and found refuge in Israel.

Israeli law provides Jewish Israelis the chance to reclaim property lost during that conflict — including in Sheikh Jarrah. But it offers no reciprocal right to Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, who lost their homes. In general, Israeli authorities and right-wing NGOs have been working for years to change the demographic balance of the city in favor of Jewish Israelis.

Aryeh King, a far-right activist who is currently deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told the New York Times last week that installing “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem is specifically aimed at making its division impossible. “If we will not be in big numbers and if we will not be at the right places in strategic areas in East Jerusalem,” he said, then future peace negotiators “will try to divide Jerusalem and to give part of Jerusalem to our enemy.”

Naturally, the Palestinians who have lived there since the 1950s strongly oppose these attempts to evict them. The Sheikh Jarrah case has gone all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which was originally scheduled to announce its ruling on May 10.

“To avoid further inflaming the situation, the Supreme Court delayed its ruling the day before it was scheduled, but by that point it was too late. Demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah already included violent clashes with police and extreme right-wing Israeli activists had come to provoke the clashes further.”

“Combined with the simmering tensions fueled by the Damascus Gate crackdowns and then images of a violent police raid on al-Aqsa, a central religious and national symbol, Palestinians across the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel, and Gaza shared a sense of national and religious outrage.
And then Hamas got involved.”

“This is the fourth major conflict between Israel and Hamas since 2006”

Israel’s suspected attack on an Iranian nuclear site complicates US-Iran talks

“A mysterious power outage occurred at one of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities..in what reports indicate was likely an act of cyber-sabotage carried out by Israel — and it could have serious ramifications for the future of the floundering 2015 nuclear deal.”

“Under that original agreement, Iran agreed to significantly curb its nuclear program — including its uranium enrichment efforts — in exchange for the removal of some of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US.
But after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed those sanctions, Iran once again began to enrich uranium above the levels set by the deal.”

“It’s unclear if the Biden administration got a heads-up before the strike, though many believe the US was probably informed, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Israel at the time of the incident. The Biden administration firmly denies any foreknowledge or participation, though. “The US was not involved in any manner,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Either way, two big questions arise from this episode. The first is whether the Natanz attack might lead to a greater confrontation between Israel and Iran. Experts I spoke to don’t really think so, as Jerusalem has carried out many of these strikes without a serious overt response from Tehran.

They “fit a pattern of how the Israelis have tried to set back Iran’s program in the past. In that sense, this is business as usual,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC.

The second is if the attack might derail the sensitive negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the nuclear deal. And that, experts said, is certainly possible.”

“Those making this argument say that Iran has less political space to agree to a deal with the US now, because doing so would be extra embarrassing after being attacked. As a result, any progress on this front will at best be delayed and at worst derailed indefinitely. “Iran doesn’t like to appear that it is negotiating from a weakened position or under pressure,” Eric Brewer, who worked on nuclear issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tweeted on Monday.

Others, though, say that delaying Iran’s uranium enrichment by nine months actually weakens Iran’s position in nuclear talks. If Tehran increased its enrichment to pressure the US to get back into the pact — essentially proving it would keep inching closer and closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon unless the US agreed to come back to the deal — then without the ability to enrich uranium as quickly, that pressure on Washington potentially decreases.

What’s more, Iran is used to Israeli attacks. It therefore won’t be shocked into changing its long-term goal of getting the sanctions relief it desperately needs.”

How Biden Will End the Trump Sugar High for Israel and Saudi Arabia

“Without making Israel earn U.S. favors with any concessions of its own, the Trump administration orchestrated a campaign of maximum pressure on Iran; declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital and opened an embassy there; turned a blind eye to Israel’s settlement expansion; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; promulgated a peace plan that all but conceded 30 percent of the West Bank to Israel before negotiations with Palestinians had even begun; downgraded U.S. diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority; drastically curtailed U.S. assistance to the Palestinian people; and perhaps most significantly, made a major effort to facilitate normalization between Israel, the Gulf states and other Arab countries.

The Saudis also got in on the action. The Trump administration gave a blank check to Riyadh to pursue its disastrous military campaign in Yemen and aided and abetted it with U.S. military assistance for Saudi operations; acquiesced in MBS’s repression at home and covered up his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and lavished arms sales on the Saudis over Congress’ objections.

If Trump made Israel and Saudi Arabia top foreign policy priorities, Biden seems intent on downgrading their importance. Much has been made of the nearly one month delay in Biden calling Netanyahu; Trump’s third call was to Netanyahu, and former President Obama reached out to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on day one. One delayed call does not a relationship make or break. But Biden was sending a message nonetheless: I’m busy with domestic recovery and the Middle East is not a top priority, he was saying. I’m pro-Israeli, but not necessarily a pro-Netanyahu president.

Biden has also set out to put some distance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Candidate Biden issued some very strong words about the Kingdom on the campaign trail, describing it as a pariah nation on human rights and promising to end U.S. support for its catastrophic campaign in Yemen. Days after Biden’s inauguration, the administration declared an end to American support for Saudi operations in Yemen and pledged to review current arms sales to Riyadh. And in an unmistakable sign of displeasure with the reckless and ruthless Crown Prince, White House press spokesperson Jen Psaki spoke of “recalibrating” U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and indicated Biden will be speaking with his counterpart King Salman not MBS.

Biden is sending an unmistakable message: We can still be friends but it has to be with more benefits for the United States. Given my focus on domestic and other foreign policy priorities, I may not have a great deal of time to focus on your problems; don’t make it harder for the United States in the region or things between us will get complicated.

Biden’s early warning signals to Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t necessarily mean he is seriously prepared to make significant changes in either of these relationships.”

“Joe Biden is no revolutionary—at home or abroad. As a cautious moderate Democrat, he’s more interested in remodeling the house than in tearing it down. And that applies to Saudi Arabia and Israel, too. Saudi Arabia isn’t a U.S. ally; but it is an important partner—at least until the rest of the world weans itself off Arab hydrocarbons and America benefits from U.S.-Saudi cooperation on counter-terrorism. And Israel, the region’s only democracy—however imperfect—is the one state in the region that shares any real coincidence of both interests and values with the U.S., and is a subject fraught with domestic political risks for any U.S. president.

After four years of one-way street relationships, Biden is right to want to inject real reciprocity and a measure of conditionality into the U.S. relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. He may well succeed if he simply recognizes that these two countries need America a hell of a lot more than we need them—and if he is prepared to use U.S. leverage to advance our national interests if they force his hand.”

Morocco and Israel plan to normalize ties. Trump changed US policy to make it happen.

“President Donald Trump..announced a US-brokered deal between Morocco and Israel to normalize relations — the fourth such agreement between Israel and an Arab state since August.

To get the pact done, Trump overturned decades of US policy by recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a large piece of sparsely populated territory in northwest Africa. Morocco claimed it in 1957, moved to annex all of it in 1979, and has been fighting for control of it against the territory’s Indigenous Sahrawi people ever since.

A 16-year insurgency ended in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, and the UN pledged to help organize an independence referendum in Western Sahara down the line. That referendum has still not happened, and the chance it ever will is even less likely now that the US has become the first Western nation to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.”

“Israel gets another Arab nation to openly engage with it, slowly ending its regional isolation (though Morocco and Israel have engaged in secret talks for decades). And Morocco, after many years of asking for it, has its long-desired territorial claim recognized by the United States.”

“The administration also announced it will be sending economic aid to both Morocco and Western Sahara as part of the agreement, and flights will go back and forth from Morocco to Israel.”

“While the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict is an issue of its own, Thursday’s deal really should be viewed as part of the administration’s larger diplomatic effort to get Arab nations to establish formal, public ties with Israel.

Indeed, the announcement follows Trump administration-brokered deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August, Bahrain in September, and Sudan in October. Before those pacts, the last peace agreement Israel struck with an Arab country was with Jordan in 1994 (it had signed one with Egypt in 1979).

Even if Biden wanted to reverse those decisions — and for now there’s no evidence that he does — Trump’s announcements would make it harder for him to do so. Which means Trump will likely solidify his legacy as the president who broke the logjam on Israeli recognition, but it remains to be seen if it leads to any real, tangible gains in the Middle East.”

Why Israel is leading the world in vaccinating its population

“Netanyahu declared that Israel will be a “global model state for the rapid vaccination of an entire country.” But how much Israel’s success can be replicated abroad is hard to say. Israel’s small and densely packed population has eased some of the logistical and operational challenges of delivering the vaccine. And Israel’s universal health care system, which has easily accessible records for all citizens, has massively facilitated the program.”