Biden administration ignored warnings about potential crisis in Jerusalem for weeks
Diplomatic sources say Washington began to pay attention to messages from Arab governments only last week
At least two Arab governments warned the Biden administration for weeks that a crisis was building in Jerusalem and urged Washington to act immediately to prevent any further escalation.
Those warnings were not heeded until late last week, two senior diplomatic sources in Washington told The National.
The situation in Jerusalem continued to deteriorate, becoming a deadly exchange of missiles between Israel and Hamas.
US President Joe Biden's administration, like many of its predecessors, came into office with a list of foreign policy priorities that excluded the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Reversing Trump-era decisions on refugee aid and re-engaging with the Palestinian Authority has so far been the farthest the new team has gone to address the conflict.
In March, an Israeli court ruled to expel six Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem.
The decision, which came after settlement expansion in the occupied territories, was enough to alarm neighbouring Arab capitals.
Since April, Arab governments sent unambiguous messages to Washington on the need to act quickly, to pressure Israel and to try to reduce tension.
“We told them we are walking into an explosion if nothing is done,” one diplomat said.
Those messages intensified in the past two weeks, but were not met with any formal response from the State Department or the White House, the two sources said.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Friday, May 7, the administration said it was “deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods of Jerusalem".
By then, the situation in East Jerusalem had reached boiling point, with protests at the Haram Al Sharif and Israeli security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets inside Al Aqsa Mosque.
“The administration needs to step up and play a more active role in this space,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict programme at the US Institute of Peace.
"It set out with the goal of relegating this conflict to a back-bench focus, resetting the table where it can, but otherwise no bold approaches."
With 28 Palestinians and two Israelis killed so far, Ms Kurtzer-Ellenbogen told The National that it was time for the US to move beyond statements.
“Statements will no longer make a difference," she said. "Action, or credible threat of action, is the only thing that could have some impact on both sides.
"What is ideally needed is a strong co-ordinating role by the US to have all relevant players exercise their leverage where they have it.”
The US is now hoping for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel before the Muslim holiday of Eid on Thursday.
But with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a government crisis and Hamas banking on military escalation, Arab diplomats are not hopeful for any quick resolution.
Dennis Ross, a former US envoy for peace, advised the Biden administration to work closely with Egypt and Jordan in trying to restore calm.
“The Biden administration is being reminded that active diplomacy is often needed to manage conflicts, not just settle them,” Mr Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National.
While the Biden team was quick to appoint envoys to Yemen, Libya and the Horn of Africa, no such position was assigned for Israel and Palestine.
Mr Ross now sees limited options for the White House.
“Its options are to try to work with the Israelis on how best to restore calm and avoid an escalatory cycle; deal with the Palestinian Authority to try to get it to lower the temperature; and to work closely with Egypt, given the role it can play with Hamas and Israel, and Jordan, given the role of the Waqf and its ability to talk to [President] Mahmoud Abbas and the PA,” he said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan hosted Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi in Washington on Monday.
Updated: May 12, 2021 11:57 AM