As Biden puts Mideast on backburner, US point-man on conflict seeks small gains

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr starts job gunning for improvements to Palestinian economy and renewing bilateral ties, but is not giving up on two-state solution

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Hady Amr, now US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, speaks at the Brookings Institute, where he was a fellow, on December 3, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Hady Amr, now US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, speaks at the Brookings Institute, where he was a fellow, on December 3, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

US President Joe Biden’s point-man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concentrating on restoring aid to the Palestinians and taking a go-it-slow approach to peace prospects in line with the administration’s stated goal of seeking gradual reform.

During his first several weeks on the job, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr has been focused on reinstating US aid to the Palestinians removed during the last administration and renewing ties with Ramallah, a Biden official told The Times of Israel.

“Hady comes from the development world and will be approaching the issue from that lens of improving Palestinian livelihood,” the official said. “But that doesn’t mean it will come at the expense of a two-state solution. That’s still the ultimate goal, whether it happens in this administration or not.”

The Biden administration has signaled it will not prioritize dealing with the Middle East conflict. Unlike most of his predecessors, Biden will not appoint a special envoy for the issue, an administration official said.

This means the deputy assistant secretary is the most senior US official who is singularly devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — itself a message regarding the administration’s priorities and modest goals for the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

A look at Amr’s past comments and writing reveals a world-view that has prioritizes interim steps to improve the Palestinian economy and the quality of life for Palestinian as two-state solution has grown more remote.

Amr, who has not spoken publicly since assuming the new position, has in the past been bitterly critical of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US president Donald Trump for what he says was harmed prospects for a two-state solution — a final settlement in which he deeply believes.

From Beirut to Washington

Just by not being Jewish, Amr differs from many of those appointed by previous administrations to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

While he does have Jewish relatives, Amr is a practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon and grew up in the US.

An economist by trade, Amr consulted for a variety of high-level organizations, including the UN, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum before joining the Clinton administration in 2000 as an analyst in the Defense Department.

Hady Amr. (US State Department)

He later founded the Washington-based Brookings Institute’s research center in Doha and has worked on-and-off for the think tank during the Bush and Trump administrations.

After Obama was elected, Amr returned to the government, first serving in the Homeland Security Department and later as deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

In 2013, he served as deputy to Martin Indyk, Obama’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Amr focused on economic issues relating to the Palestinians, advancing “projects like 3G networks for Gaza or sewage systems in the West Bank,” according to Axios. During the 2014 Gaza war, he was tasked with facilitating US humanitarian aid to the coastal enclave.

He has built close ties with Israel’s deputy national security adviser Reuven Azar in addition to the former military liaison to the Palestinians Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, sources close to Amr said.

An Israeli official who’s been in contact with Amr since his appointment described him to Axios as “intelligent with a very sober view of what’s achievable at the moment.”

On the Palestinian side, he has received similar praise.

“We would always joke that new American envoy would never know the difference between Sheikh Jarrah and Kafr ‘Aqab [two neighborhoods in East Jerusalem],” an official told Axios. “He knows. We haven’t spoken to the Americans for years and finally there is someone who listens.”

First do no harm

Since returning to government last month, Amr has held a series of introductory calls with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, which he has used as an opportunity to explain the Biden administration’s outlook on the conflict.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken has put it on a number of occasions, it’ll be one of “first do no harm,” rather than high-stakes gambits meant to quickly put the conflict to bed.

According to sources familiar with the administration’s thinking, Biden is not expected to push for a settlement building moratorium of the type demanded by former president Barak Obama, which led to a failed round of peace talks in 2010.

At the same time, Jerusalem will not likely receive free rein on the issue either, the sources told ToI.

Amr’s job includes crafting the US policy reset on settlements, Axios reported, after four years in which the Trump administration largely avoided confrontation with Israel over the issue and even appeared to legitimize the phenomenon.

On this issue, Amr wrote in 2017 that the Trump administration should avoid trying to negotiate with Israel regarding what type of settlement building to tolerate and what type to condemn, calling it a “morass which could send the United States deep into a never-ending negotiation vortex.”

“Moreover, even if Netanyahu and Trump could agree on terms, Israel’s pro-settlement coalition would balk. Instead, Trump should leverage his good relationship with Netanyahu to privately press him for as much restraint as possible without forcing an explicit agreement,” he added then.

Washington has already issued several statements coming out against settlement building, annexation, and home demolitions by Israel and incitement to violence and payments to security prisoners by the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian side, Amr has been tasked with fulfilling the administration’s pledge to restore relations with the Palestinians. In the short-term this has meant working to unlock at least some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that was frozen by the Trump administration, said two sources familiar with the matter.

Next, will be the reopening of diplomatic offices in Jerusalem and Washington, which were shuttered by Trump.

Each of these moves will face legal complications, as US law severely limits bilateral relations with the Palestinians so long as they join United Nations bodies, pursue probes against Israel at the International Criminal Court or pay stipends to security prisoners with blood on their hands.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Amr will also be expected to draw up the US position regarding the upcoming Palestinian elections. Many analysts are skeptical as to whether they’ll actually happen, but if they do occur, Palestinian voters may hand a victory to Hamas, deemed a terror group by the US and Israel.

In 2006, the US pushed hard for Palestinian elections, but sought to weaken Hamas after the group won a majority of the seats in the PA’s parliament.

Small steps toward two-states

Amr views the status quo as particularly unfair for the Palestinians.

“At its core, the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about two fundamental things: land and people. In particular, it’s about which group of people gets to live on which part of the land,” he wrote in 2018.

“Although Jews and Arabs are about of equal number in the Holy Land, in the past decades, Israel has had full control of roughly 90 percent of the land. The Palestinians have significant—but not full—control of around 5 percent. And around 5 percent is shared control.”

As a solution to the conflict appears increasingly elusive, Amr has spoken in favor of pushing for interim moves, including stabilizing the Gaza Strip and reintegrating it with the West Bank “in a manner that promotes a two-state solution and avoids the permanent separation of the two territories.”

He has also proposed pursuing agreements which would see small parts of the West Bank transferred from Israeli to Palestinian control.

Israeli troops take their position during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators as they protest Middle East peace plan announced Tuesday by US President Donald Trump at Beit El checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, Jan 29, 2020 (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

“Carefully selecting land for its economic value to the Palestinians while still retaining Israeli security control — this would lead to a boom in the Palestinian economy. And we all know that a thriving economy leads to a happier citizenry, and less violence,” he wrote in 2017.

“This wouldn’t be a final deal, but one which helps further advance the cause of peace,” he added.

At the same time, he has been harshly critical of the Trump administration for “putting the peace-plan cart (economics) before the horse (freedom and sovereignty),” as he wrote in 2019.

“We heard time and time again from [Palestinians] that their top priority was freedom—not prosperity,” Amr wrote in 2019.

While Amr expressed cautious optimism regarding Trump’s early approach to the conflict, the longtime Democrat quickly soured on the former president as the policies began to materialize.

Palestinians protest against expected visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Jewish settlement of Psagot near the West Bank city of Al-Bireh, Nov. 18, 2020 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

He called the Trump peace plan the “farce of the century,” which seemed to have been released to distract the public from the president’s impeachment trial and Netanyahu’s corruption probe.

“It is proposal [sic] that is more a design for a Palestinian prison than Israeli-Palestinian peace — and simply does not comport with the core American value of freedom,” Amr wrote.

He slammed Trump’s “misguided” cutting of funds to UNRWA, which the administration at the time argued was riddled with corruption and helping perpetuate the conflict.

“Underlying Trump’s decision is the false premise that cutting funds to UNRWA and to development projects in the West Bank and Gaza will somehow pressure the Palestinian Authority. Again, it won’t; others will fill the void,” Amr wrote in 2018.

He’s also not especially fond of Netanyahu, whom he wrote is “desperate to cling to power to avoid punishment for impending indictments on multiple counts.”

He said the Likud leader “crossed multiple red lines” through his (failed) efforts to ensure that the extremist Otzma Yehudit party of Kahane disciples made it into the Knesset in 2019 — something Netanyahu has tried to do again ahead of the upcoming March election.

He pilloried the prime minister for his position that all Israeli West Bank settlements should remain untouched and under Israeli control, which he repeated before April 2019 elections. Amr said that Netanyahu had “effectively declared an end to the two-state paradigm.”

“Although it may just be campaign sloganeering, we all need to be clear that Israeli sovereignty over all the Israeli settlements would make it impossible to create a Palestinian state,” he wrote.

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