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After the High Wire Act, Biden faces new tests in the Middle East

WASHINGTON – When a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas struck late Thursday afternoon, White House officials who helped broker the deal were split over a crucial next step: should President Biden make a public announcement?

The downside was that the proposed ban on fighting, which was due to take effect at 7 p.m. Washington time, could fall apart and burn the president. There were two advantages: presenting him as a peacemaker and publicly including the two sides, which made it less likely that either would destroy the plan with a last-minute strike.

Mr Biden made brief remarks about an hour before the ceasefire went into effect, implicitly hitting back critics who accused him of doing too little to bring the fighting to a quicker conclusion by pointing out the “intensity” of his administration boasted diplomatic engagement “behind the scenes. The gamble paid off when the deal was struck and the ceasefire went into effect that night.

But now that he is the youngest American president to step the tightrope of mediating the longstanding conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Biden faces additional challenges and risks.

White House officials are discussing how to recalibrate their approach in hopes of avoiding another crisis that would further divert Mr Biden’s attention from his top foreign policy priorities: China, Russia and the restoration of the Iranian nuclear deal. Recalling Mr Biden’s larger agenda, he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on Friday to discuss issues such as Beijing’s growing power and North Korea’s nuclear program.

In the short term, Mr. Biden is taking steps to increase American exposure. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is due to visit the region early next week and the State Department is sending a seasoned diplomat, Michael Ratney, to head the US embassy in Jerusalem until Mr Biden has chosen the vacant ambassadorial post there, according to a person who has been informed of the plan.

It is unclear when Mr Biden could choose his ambassador, a task several regional experts have identified as urgent. Two people who have been in contact with the White House on Israeli affairs said they expected Mr. Biden to elect Thomas R. Nides, who was serving as assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. However, the process of nominating and confirming a person for the position can take months.

Administrative officials are also planning to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem, which had been Washington’s main point of contact with the Palestinians until it was incorporated into the U.S. embassy, ​​which was relocated to Jerusalem under President Donald J. Trump, causing Palestinian officials to refuse To do business there.

“The consulate was our view of the Palestinians in a moment of crisis. The Trump administration blinded the US administration by eliminating it and it violated the US response in the run-up to this crisis, “said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official who is now director of the Middle East security program at the center for a is New American Security.

“The Biden administration had been working to reopen it. I now expect this effort to accelerate and be a much higher priority, ”he added.

Mr. Ratney, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, served as Consul General in Jerusalem during the Obama administration and could serve as the Washington Channel for the Palestinians in the meantime.

In a broader sense, the Biden officials are weighing what approaches to de-escalate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They reached an early consensus on leading an international humanitarian effort for Gaza, led by the Palestinian Authority, rather than the Hamas militants currently ruling the cramped Palestinian territory, according to Biden on Thursday. In a press conference with Mr. Moon on Friday, Mr. Biden added that this would happen “without giving Hamas the opportunity to rebuild its weapons systems”.

Administration officials hope to bolster the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which they see as the only plausible partner for peace with the Israelis. The United States regards Hamas as a terrorist organization.

The White House is also preparing for a new test of its relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as it comes to restoring Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, which Mr Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders strongly oppose Israel’s security.

“Israel and the United States will have great things to do, particularly Iran,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Both men had to maintain a working relationship so they could work together when the situation in Iran came to the fore.”

The White House has promoted the government’s role in brokering the ceasefire, and Biden’s careful management of Mr Netanyahu, whose own work remains difficult amid a political deadlock in Israel.

During diplomatic efforts, Mr. Biden recognized Israel’s right to take revenge on Hamas’ rocket attacks following the recent Jewish-Arab clashes in Israel. The president only increased the pressure after more than a week of fighting. At that point, analysts say, the Israeli military was close to achieving its military goals.

“About 90 percent of the reason for the ceasefire is because both Hamas and the government of Israel have determined that prolonging the conflict is not in their interests,” Haass said. “This was a truce that was essentially ready to happen.”

According to some reports, Mr. Biden was more influential and at least avoided politically tempting acts that could have made matters worse. His tactic was to avoid public condemnation of the Israeli bombing of Gaza – or even a public call for a ceasefire – in order to build capital with Mr. Netanyahu and then, at the right time, apply private pressure, according to two people familiar with the internal debates Administration.

“How does that end?” Mr. Biden hugged Mr. Netanyahu.

There is no question that when diplomacy reached a crucial moment, Mr Biden’s team played an important role in brokering the ceasefire.

At one point on Thursday afternoon, Mr Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, was on the phone with his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat in the offices of the National Security Council, while Brett H. McGurk, the Council’s senior officer for Middle East Affairs, spoke to a senior Egyptian government official who acted as US mediator with Hamas.

Both the Israelis and Hamas sought reassurance from the other side that no one would launch a last-minute attack before a ceasefire in order to achieve a late victory. Mr. Sullivan and Mr. McGurk, both still on the line, relayed messages between Jerusalem and Cairo in real time.

While such efforts paint a picture of a resumption of multilateral peacekeeping diplomacy by the United States, they have also been a distraction from Mr Biden’s many other priorities.

In an analysis published Friday for the Brookings Institution, Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior official at the Brookings Institution, warned that administrative officials should spend more time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The White House, Ms. Wittes wrote, “must recognize that the President, National Security Advisor, and other national security principles would also prefer that the US-Israel talks at the highest level focused on Iran and security cooperation at the time and To pay attention to this issue if they want to avoid a prolonged decline that calls into question other priority regional goals. “

Administrative officials have given no indication that they will change course and appoint an envoy to resume an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in search of a two-state solution. This result is currently seen as almost hopelessly unattainable.

But on Friday, Mr Biden reiterated this as his long-term goal, saying, “We still need a two-state solution. It’s the only answer. The only answer. “

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