After High-Wire Act, Biden Faces Tough New Middle East Tests

After High-Wire Act, Biden Faces Tough New Middle East Tests

22:49 - The administration is considering how to recalibrate its policy in the region in light of the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians without distracting from other priorities.

As a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas came together late Thursday afternoon, White House officials who helped to mediate the agreement were divided over a crucial next step: Should President Biden make a public announcement?

The downside was that the planned halt in fighting, set to take effect at 7 p.m. Washington time, could fall apart, burning the president. The upside was twofold: presenting him as a peacemaker and publicly locking in the two sides, making it less likely that either one would shatter the plan with a last-moment strike.

Mr. Biden went ahead, making brief remarks about an hour before the cease-fire took effect in which he implicitly struck back at critics who had accused him of doing too little to bring the fighting to a swifter conclusion by boasting of his administration’s “intense diplomatic engagement” behind the scenes. The gamble paid off, as the agreement held and the cease-fire went into effect that night.

But now, having become the latest American president to walk the high-wire of mediating the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Biden faces more challenges and risks ahead.

White House officials are debating how to recalibrate their approach, hoping to avoid another crisis that would further divert Mr. Biden’s attention from his top foreign policy priorities: China, Russia and restoring the Iran nuclear deal. In a reminder of Mr. Biden’s more expansive agenda, he met at the White House on Friday with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, to discuss matters including Beijing’s growing power and North Korea’s nuclear program.

In the short term, Mr. Biden is taking steps to increase American engagement. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will visit the region early next week, and the State Department is dispatching a veteran diplomat, Michael Ratney, to lead the United States embassy in Jerusalem until Mr. Biden settles on his pick for the vacant ambassador post there, according to a person briefed on the plan.

It is unclear when Mr. Biden might select his ambassador, a task that several regional experts called urgent. Two people in touch with the White House on Israel affairs said they expected Mr. Biden to choose Thomas R. Nides, who served as a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. But the process of nominating and confirming someone to the post could take months.

Administration officials also plan to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem that had been Washington’s main point of contact with the Palestinians until it was merged into the U.S. embassy, which was relocated to Jerusalem under President Donald J. Trump, prompting Palestinian officials to refuse to do business there.

“The consulate used to be our eyes on the ground with the Palestinians in a moment of crisis. The Trump administration blinded the U.S. government by eliminating it, and it hurt the U.S. response in the lead 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 New American Security.

More broadly, Biden officials are weighing what approaches to take to de-escalating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They have reached an early consensus on leading an international humanitarian effort for Gaza, one that Mr. Biden said on Thursday would be led by the Palestinian Authority, not the militants of Hamas, who currently rule the cramped Palestinian territory. In a Friday news conference with Mr. Moon, Mr. Biden added that it would be done “without providing Hamas the opportunity to rebuild their weapons systems.”

Administration officials hope to empower the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which they consider the only plausible partner for peace with the Israelis. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

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