After a spiraling descent into bloodshed in recent days, the U.S. is boosting its diplomatic efforts to halt the violence between Israeli security forces and Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group ruling Gaza.
But President Joe Biden still has not addressed the growing crisis, and while the White House says he has been briefed daily on it, he has not made any calls — sparking some criticism that he’s been absent.
The unprecedented barrage of rockets and deadly Israeli airstrikes have killed civilians caught in the crosshairs on both sides, while waves of Arab-Israeli clashes are now rising within Israel itself — a new threat of violence that could quickly worsen.
The Biden administration has consistently called on “both sides” to de-escalate, leading to criticism from American conservatives who accuse Biden of not standing strongly enough with Israel and from American progressives who say the power dynamic is asymmetrical and Israel’s response has been disproportionate.
Wading into those waters now is senior U.S. diplomat Hady Amr, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dispatched Amr to the region Wednesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials and urge de-escalation.
In brief remarks, Blinken condemned the barrage of rocket fire from Hamas and reiterated they “fully support Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself.” But he also said Israel has an “extra duty” to avoid civilian casualties and reiterated that Palestinians have a “right to safety and security.”
He added that the U.S. is “deeply engaged across the board,” including with Palestinian leadership and that the “most important thing now is for all sides to cease the violence, de-escalate and to try to move to calm.”
To that end, he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday and “emphasized the need for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live in safety and security, as well as enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy,” his spokesperson said.
Netanyahu thanked Blinken “for the American support of Israel’s right to self-defense, which the Secretary reiterated during the call,” according to an Israeli readout. The embattled prime minister has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying Hamas must pay a price and vowing to expand the Israeli offensive.
The death toll in Gaza has risen to 65 Palestinians, including 16 children, while at least 365 have been wounded, including 86 children, according to the Associated Press, citing the local health ministry. On the Israeli side, seven have been killed by rocket fire, including two children, while dozens have been wounded, as Hamas’ rockets overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Biden has yet to call Netanyahu, his counterpart as head of government, or even weigh in publicly on the crisis.
“Hamas has watched Biden downgrade our relationship with Israel and then restore funding to the PA and the UN’s most corrupt agency without reform. Now, they’re testing him. While terrorist rockets rain down on Israeli civilians, Biden is nowhere to be found,” tweeted Nikki Haley, former President Donald Trump’s United Nations ambassador.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden has been briefed daily and added Wednesday that senior U.S. officials have had more than 25 “high-level calls and meetings” with officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and key regional countries, including Qatar, Jordan and Egypt.
On Tuesday night, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben Shabbat and to Egyptian officials, according to his spokesperson Emily Horne. Egypt historically has played the role of directly negotiating with Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, and Sullivan and Egyptian officials “discussed steps to restore calm over the coming days and agreed to stay in close touch,” according to Horne.
While the two countries have strong security relations, Egypt’s Foreign Minister said Tuesday that his government had tried to reach out to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, but had not received a response.
Convincing Netanyahu to pull back could fall to Amr then, who served in the Obama administration as deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. While he is a senior diplomat, he’s also the administration’s only top official on this issue right now. There’s no U.S. ambassador to Israel, let alone a Biden nominee; no special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian issues, even as Biden has appointed several other envoys; and no U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem, a role that Trump dissolved but historically was the top liaison to Palestinian leadership.
“The Biden administration cannot ignore this conflict. In the first four months of this administration, it’s very clear that this issue was not a priority … but it is irresponsible to step away from engaging in a meaningful way,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal advocacy group. “It leaves the conflict unattended and contributes heavily to the escalating tensions that can explode as they precisely have in the last 48 hours into violence.”
The State Department has denied that the administration hasn’t been engaged, instead blaming the fact that neither Israeli nor Palestinian leadership has been willing to engage in peace negotiations.
“We’re just not in a position to see meaningful progress, and our policy has recognized that,” spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.
Price’s comments have sparked some anger on the left, including from Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar.
After he equivocated on issues like the Palestinians’ right to defense and the asymmetrical levels of strength between the two sides, Omar, D-Minn., tweeted Monday, “This unsurprising response is devoid of empathy and concern for human suffering. He can’t even condemn the killing of children.”
Price later cited the early nature of reports and said the administration wouldn’t speak until there was confirmation on the ground. But he and Blinken have changed their tone slightly to more vocally defend Palestinian civilians, even as they condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks.
Asked about the proportionality of Israel’s response Wednesday, Blinken said there was a “very clear and absolute distinction” between Hamas “targeting civilians and Israel’s response defending itself.” But he added that civilian casualties in Gaza have “a powerful impact, and I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties.”
ABC News’s Hatem Maher contributed to this report from Cairo and Ben Gittleson from the White House.
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