President Joe Biden made it clear from his first days in office that the Middle East was not a priority for his administration’s foreign policy. But aerial bombardments by Israel, a worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and thousands of rockets aimed at Tel Aviv could make the region a priority once more.
Pressing issues Biden would need to deal with immediately were the coronavirus and the battered US economy after the pandemic forced businesses and shops to close for almost one year.
Internationally, Biden and his team were eyeing China and Russia as the greatest threats to America, followed by North Korea and Iran.
Biden rushed to press Saudi Arabia and other longtime US allies in the Gulf for their records on human rights, an issue he and his administration have tried to make a focal point of their foreign policy.
Robert Malley was also quickly appointed as the US special envoy for Iran, and indirect talks began last month in an effort to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran.
The Palestinian ambassador to the #UN is challenging the Biden administration to show results from its diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers.https://t.co/GCGTyb1MR9 pic.twitter.com/PPH0OyS2Im— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) May 19, 2021
But the biggest outbreak of violence since 2014 between Palestinian factions and Israel has forced the US president to engage and put other “priorities” aside quickly. Even during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Europe this week, the top US diplomat has been unable to escape questions from reporters on the violence in Gaza and Jerusalem.
During a trip to Michigan on Tuesday, Biden was meant to highlight America’s work towards eco-friendly vehicles and garner support for his multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal. Despite Biden refusing to answer questions from reporters on the matter, the Palestinian-Israeli fighting could not be ignored.
According to Arab diplomatic sources, who spoke to The National earlier this month, Biden ignored warnings that the situation in Jerusalem was heading towards a disaster.
And since the Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes began more than two weeks ago, US officials have been engaging in so-called quiet diplomacy.
This has drawn significant criticism from European allies and even Biden’s domestic supporters.
Europe has mostly been disappointed with Washington blocking a UN Security Council statement three separate times. The US believes a statement from the UN would not help de-escalate tensions, but the latest draft statement appeared to use language that would have angered Tel Aviv.
No condemnation or mention of Hamas was made in the draft blocked by the US, and Israel was urged to exercise maximum restraint in dealing with civilians.
It took the US president nearly a week and more than 200 civilian deaths later to announce “support” for a ceasefire publicly. On Wednesday, Biden held what is believed to have been his fourth call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During this call, for the first time, the White House said Biden told the outgoing Israeli premier that a path to a ceasefire was needed.
Current and former US officials have expressed both support and dissatisfaction with Biden’s approach to the conflict.
Asked if the latest violence would force a change in the US administration’s foreign policy priorities, a former senior White House official said: “They will have no choice but to change.”
The former official, who asked to remain anonymous, called Biden’s “stick our heads in the sand” approach a failure.
As for the “quiet diplomatic approach,” the former official believes the White House was driven by pressure “from the far-left wing of their party.”
Biden, a Democrat, has been met with heavy criticism from progressive liberals who want a more aggressive stance on Israel.
“The Israelis do not want to stop their military response until they can be confident they have damaged Hamas or [Palestine Islamic Jihad] PIJ enough to buy another seven years or similarly long period,” the former official told Al Arabiya English.
He was referring to reports that Biden has upped the pressure on Netanyahu in recent days to wind down the military offensive on Palestinian targets. “The Biden team understands this, yet they are nearing the point of pressing the Israelis to accede to a ceasefire that is not yet in Israel’s interest.”
For his part, Robert Danin, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Quartet Jerusalem Mission Head, believes the US president has done a solid job. “Until now, the Administration has been clearly demonstrating that they can manage the crisis while staying the course, stick to their travel and meeting schedules and other priorities,” Danin told Al Arabiya English.
Asked if the “quiet diplomacy” was an effective approach, Danin said it had shown the administration to be “very disciplined.”
“Ultimately, the way that the fighting ends, and the conditions on the ground when that happens, will play a large role in shaping their [Washington’s] future approach,” Danin added.
Once the dust settles and the fighting ends, the longtime State Department veteran doesn’t believe Biden and his team will alter their priorities. “They will seek to address the conflict in a serious way, without it becoming a greater priority than it already is,” he said.
Danin said the administration wants to show that the president is engaged and concerned “while at the same time, delegating the handling of their crisis management efforts to administration subordinates.”
But the former White House official had a different take. “You may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. And if you try to leave it, it will follow you home.”