After Donald Trump’s “all Israel” policy, Joe Biden faces the heavy handicap of needing to rebuild lost credibility as a mediator. His choice to remain on the sidelines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the moment is risky.
What is the United States doing? As rockets fall on Tel Aviv and airstrikes on Gaza grow in number, Joe Biden’s relative reserve might come as a surprise. Certainly, since his ascension to the White House, the Democratic president has made the strategic decision to focus his foreign policy even more on China, to the detriment of the Middle East and Europe. He is also moving away from Donald Trump’s “all Israel” policy while he hesitates to put more pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu for fear of harming efforts to relaunch the Iran nuclear deal. But is this policy of lying low viable in the long run?
Without clearly showing his intentions, or at least taking his time in doing so, the Democratic president is the object of criticism. Much less active in this area than his predecessors, is he nevertheless disinvesting in peace efforts in the region? Behind the scenes, American diplomacy is very active and is gaining many new contacts, the White House insists.
Of course, the caution on display up until now carries risks. Starting with the risk of lost leadership, even though the 1993 Oslo Accords and the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn under Bill Clinton’s watch showed the ability of American diplomacy to lead peace talks. But this caution can be explained by the fact that Biden has a heavy handicap. The United States’ credibility as a mediator, which was still quite real up until the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, was sullied by Trump and his 100% alignment with Israel. The U.S. now needs to rebuild this credibility.
Biden is working on it, at his own pace. The Democratic president is coming face-to-face with his first big foreign policy test as he hopes to make history. There is no longer any question of giving Israel carte blanche. Washington must regain influence if it hopes to get these two sides, frozen in place, to move. But reestablishing the trust of the Palestinians that eroded during the Trump years will take time. Notably, Biden has made it clear to Netanyahu that the lines of communication with the White House will be much less open than under his predecessor. Torn on the inside, and with his party’s left wing demanding a firmer hand with regard to the Jewish state, he is nonetheless getting lost in mixed signals. His strategy — a cautious one — is, for the moment, distinguished by opacity. An opacity that, in the face of the situation’s urgency, waits only to be lifted.