Will Gaza ceasefire herald greater US engagement in Israel-Palestine conflict?

Former US envoy says President Joe Biden deserves credit for bringing end to the fighting, while others point to Egypt's key role

Mr Biden lauded his team and praised Egypt for its intensive diplomatic efforts. Abaca/Bloomberg
Mr Biden lauded his team and praised Egypt for its intensive diplomatic efforts. Abaca/Bloomberg

US President Joe Biden took a diplomatic victory lap on Thursday after a ceasefire that ended the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Speaking from the White House shortly after the ceasefire was declared, Mr Biden lauded his team and praised Egypt for its diplomatic efforts.

"My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy towards [peace]," the president said. "I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress."

However, the truce came only after the Biden administration ignored warning signs leading up to the conflict, and the president still has not nominated an ambassador to Israel – leaving him and his team to play catch-up diplomacy through back channels.

Mr Biden said the ceasefire came after days of intensive, "hour-by-hour" calls.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin logged more than 80 conversations on Gaza with international partners.

The violence prompted Mr Biden to make his first calls as president to Palestinian and Egyptian counterparts Mahmoud Abbas and Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

Martin Indyk, a former US envoy to the region, said Mr Biden deserves credit for convincing Mr Netanyahu to end the fighting after 11 days – the last Gaza war in 2014 dragged on for seven weeks.

“He persuaded [Netanyahu] that he had to do a ceasefire now," Mr Indyk said.

Mr Biden spoke to Mr Netanyahu six times during the fighting. After their call on Wednesday, the White House said Mr Biden “expected a significant de-escalation" that day before a ceasefire.

But Mr Biden drew criticism domestically and overseas as his administration shielded Israel from international scrutiny at the UN.

The US on three occasions blocked a Norwegian-Chinese-Tunisian statement and opposed a French draft resolution supporting a ceasefire.

In conversations with Israeli officials, the Biden team emphasised US support and continued arms sales – including a $735 million deal that was approved during the fighting.

Mr Indyk calls this “the arm around Israel” technique, developed by former US ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis when he was dealing with the government of Menachim Begin in the 1980s.

“The president puts a reassuring arm around the prime minister and then nudges him forward in the direction we need him to go,” the former envoy and negotiator told The National.

Other experts see Mr Biden’s role in the ceasefire as exaggerated, pointing instead to Egypt as the key broker.

“Egypt deserves real credit for doing this,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

Cairo’s mediation was visible even before the fighting broke out when it sent a delegation to Gaza and Tel Aviv in an effort to avoid a war.

Once the fighting started, Egypt, which shares a 12 kilometre border with Gaza and has a peace agreement with Israel, used regional and international channels to build a ceasefire framework.

On Thursday, Egypt announced its delegations would return to Israel and Palestine to oversee the ceasefire's implementation.

Mr Schanzer dismissed Mr Biden’s tough talk about the ceasefire on Wednesday as theatre to placate the growing number of Democrats who had spoken out against the war.

“It came after a ceasefire was already set to be announced," he said.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, introduced a resolution to block arms sales to Israel and called on the Biden administration to stand up to Mr Netanyahu, and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont made a similar move in the Senate.

Even with a ceasefire, it is unclear if Washington will boost its engagement in managing the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Mr Biden pointed to marshalling aid and reconstruction efforts in Gaza through the Palestinian Authority and not Hamas.

The administration is reportedly preparing to nominate an ambassador to Israel, and Axios reported that Tom Nides is a leading candidate.

With Iran nuclear talks under way and a focus on Russia and China, it remains to be seen if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will gain sustained US attention when the current crisis abates.

Updated: May 21, 2021 06:01 PM

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