Biden fumbles attempt to please everyone with tepid response to Mideast violence

US blocks passage of Security Council statement criticizing both sides, but neither Israel nor Palestinians impressed; other allies of administration slam hands-off approach

Jacob Magid

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

US President Joe Biden arrives to speak about the economy, in the East Room of the White House on May 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden arrives to speak about the economy, in the East Room of the White House on May 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK — The Biden administration irked quite a few allies on Monday when it blocked the approval of a joint statement from the United Nations Security Council that criticized both sides for the ongoing escalation of violence in Israel and Gaza.

Fourteen of the top panel’s 15 members had backed the draft introduced by Norway, which was subsequently amended to include specific criticism of rocket attacks and incendiary device launches from Gaza. However, it also highlighted looming Israeli evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and called on Israel to maintain the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

The pointed criticism of Israel, in addition to the Palestinians, appeared to have been enough to give the US mission pause, according to four diplomats who spoke to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity in order to reveal what transpired during the closed consultation.

The US mission asked for more time to deliberate the matter, adding that the timing might not have been right for a joint statement, the diplomats involved recalled. Two days have passed, and frustration from member states and other countries watching has grown.

Smoke caused by Israeli retaliatory airstrikes for rocket fire is seen at a residential building in Gaza City, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

One European diplomat expressed bewilderment over the US stalling the statement, claiming it was nearly identical to the one issued by the State Department several days earlier. “It appears that saying the same thing as one cohesive unit in the Security Council would have been too much for the Americans,” the diplomat said.

Not only did the stance alienate the Biden administration from allies that it entered office vowing to “reassure,” but it did not even impress Israel, which the posture appeared at least partially aimed at satisfying.

Shortly after the meeting ended, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan issued a statement tearing into the Biden administration over the aforementioned State Department press release, say it was “unacceptable.”

“We are in disagreement with the [Biden] administration and hope to see it wise up in light of the Palestinian disturbances and violence,” Erdan tweeted, albeit in Hebrew. “Pressure must be exerted on the party that spreads violence and hatred — the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas), and not on Israel.”

The exchange appeared to be part of a broader trend in which the Biden administration has found itself unable to please advocates of Israel or the Palestinians, both before and since the latest round of violence began.

US President Joe Biden, right, accompanied by from left, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appears at a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 1, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

One Palestinian official pointed to a press appearance by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday in which he largely focused on rocket fire from Gaza and urged for calm.

“Gaza did not happen in a vacuum. Where’s the mention of Jerusalem and Israeli violations there?” the official asked, criticizing the looming evictions of Palestinian residents in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the crackdown of Israeli police against rioters at the Temple Mount compound.

The official also noted the delivery of a letter from US President Joe Biden to Abbas on Monday, which was the first correspondence the American leader has had with his counterpart in Ramallah since taking office.

“The Israelis made a fuss when Netanyahu had to wait a few weeks to get a call from Biden. Abu Mazen hasn’t even spoken with the president yet,” the Palestinian official lamented.

Downgrading the conflict

That decision to hold off on calling Abbas appeared to be part of a broader strategy to deprioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after successive US presidents entered office vowing to tackle the issue head-on.

“This isn’t 2009, it’s not 2014 and it’s not 2017. The parties are far from a place where they’re ready to engage on negotiations or final status talks,” Blinken told The Times of Israel days before the presidential election.

With the pandemic not yet under control, and the larger foreign policy goals of pushing back against increasingly combative Russia and China yet to be fully addressed, it’s no wonder that Biden would prefer not to spend time managing such a protracted conflict.

The administration does not, at this time, have plans to appoint a special envoy to the conflict as was common in previous White Houses, a source familiar with the matter said, and Biden has not yet even announced his pick for ambassador to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Vice-President Joe Biden speak in front of media prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. The meeting comes less than a week after a diplomatic breakthrough between the U.S. and Iran that has put Israel’s government on edge.(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

However, the hands-off approach has frustrated members of Biden’s own party, particularly since the Gaza escalation.

The dovish Middle East lobby J Street, which endorsed Biden in the presidential race, said Tuesday, “It’s critical that the Biden administration engage proactively in securing an immediate ceasefire and pushing all sides to de-escalate. With lives on the line, our government can and should be doing more.”

That sentiment was coming from within Congress as well. Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell sent a letter to Blinken on Monday calling on the Biden administration to brief Congress on the steps it is taking to deescalate tensions in Israel and Gaza, saying it was key for the US to be playing a “constructive” role.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price dismissed claims during a Tuesday briefing that the United States has “failed to prioritize” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“That is not the case,” he said, arguing that the US and other countries have “recognized” that the two sides are not in a position to enter meaningful negotiations toward a two-state solution.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, February 25, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via AP)

“It is not that we haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been deeply engaged, and that predates the current escalation,” Price said.

Indeed, since entering office Biden has restored relations with the PA, which were severed under his predecessor Donald Trump, and restarted aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. On the Israeli side, his senior officials have held regular consultations with their counterparts in Jerusalem, while Washington has acted to avoid major public spats, despite disagreements on settlements and the Iran nuclear file.

But frustration being voiced out of Jerusalem and Ramallah this week showed that those charm offensives were no longer enough.

Washington may be getting the message, though, with one source familiar with the matter saying calls from Biden to Netanyahu and Abbas were “in the cards” if the situation in Gaza continued to deteriorate.

“The United States is doing what we can, knowing that our ability in certain situations is going to be limited,” Price said Tuesday.

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