A president focused on China and Ukraine had little time or inclination for a distant goal that stymied several of his predecessors.
Even as President Biden presses Israel to define clearly the goals of its war against Hamas in Gaza, he is turning his eyes to a much larger endgame: the ever-elusive hope for a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Speaking to reporters last week, Mr. Biden said that “when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view it has to be a two-state solution,” creating a sovereign Palestinian nation alongside the state of Israel.
The question is how hard Mr. Biden intends to work for that outcome.
Until last month, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not among his top priorities. A president focused on countering China and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had little time or inclination for a distant goal that stymied — and politically bruised — several of his predecessors.
Biden administration officials also doubted whether Israel’s increasingly hawkish leadership was interested in any plausible deal. They also wondered whether the Palestinians would trust the United States as a peace broker after four years of the Trump administration’s dramatically pro-Israel tilt and a Trump peace plan that the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, excluded from its devising, declared dead on arrival.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Mr. Biden did not appoint a special envoy for Middle East peace or task his secretary of state with trying to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, he focused on mediating a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, hoping to leverage Israeli concessions to the Palestinians along the way.
“It was not a tier-one policy objective to solve this conflict,” said David Makovsky, a former peace process negotiator in the Obama administration. “The goal was to stabilize, and not trying and failing a fifth time.”
But even modest efforts proved surprisingly difficult, and some analysts believe that Mr. Biden’s minimalist approach neglected the Palestinians. In particular, Palestinians had hoped Mr. Biden would reverse several Trump-era decisions that downgraded diplomatic ties with the Palestinians and loosened guardrails on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.
It wasn’t to be.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden promised to reopen the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mr. Trump shuttered, kicking out Palestinian representatives from the nation’s capital. Mr. Biden never acted on the pledge.
Nor did he follow through on his promise as a candidate to reopen a U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem — also shut down by Mr. Trump — that had long served as America’s local diplomatic point of contact for the Palestinians.
Many Palestinians also hoped that the United States under Mr. Biden would reinstate a State Department legal opinion declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled the opinion, which had been in force for four decades. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has not moved to reverse it.
All three issues were matters of internal debate within the Biden administration. In each case, officials concluded that the real-world benefits would be minimal when compared to the political cost of angering Israel’s government and Republicans in Congress, who supported Mr. Trump’s hard line.
Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said he found Mr. Biden’s posture surprising.
“What I didn’t expect was how similar to the Trump approach he would be,” Mr. Elgindy said.
Biden officials say that they took important, tangible steps to improve relations with Palestinians. Mr. Biden met with Mr. Abbas in 2021 and last year, ending a Trump-era freeze in communications. Before Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, the Biden administration had delivered $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid to programs serving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including for food, medicine and communications networks, making America by far the world’s top such donor. (No U.S. money flows to Hamas. In Gaza, it is distributed by a United Nations agency that services Palestinians.)
Mr. Blinken also late last year appointed a midlevel State Department official, Hady Amr, to be a Washington-based special representative for Palestinian affairs.
But Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken, facing an Israeli government that has taken an increasingly hard line against the Palestinians in recent years, invested little political capital in rolling back Mr. Trump’s actions.
The failed effort to reopen the U.S. consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem offers a case study.
The limestone villa on Jerusalem’s Agron Road had overseen ties between the United States and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for decades. Situated in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope to make their capital in any peace deal with Israel, it also served a symbolic role as something akin to an embassy to a future state the Palestinians hope to establish.
Mr. Pompeo abruptly abolished the consulate in October 2018, calling it a move to improve the efficiency and insisting it “does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.” But to Palestinian officials, it was a slap in the face.
Mr. Pompeo folded its operations into a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” at the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which Mr. Trump had relocated from Tel Aviv earlier that year. The embassy move infuriated Palestinians who reject the idea of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying the city’s status must be determined in a peace agreement.
As a 2020 candidate, Mr. Biden told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he would take several steps to repair relations with the Palestinians, including by reopening the consulate. During his May 2021 visit with Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Mr. Blinken said the United States would move to reopen the consulate, calling it “an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people.”
Democrats supported the plan. During a trip to Israel that fall, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, wrote on social media that it was important that Mr. Biden “keep his word.”
But Israeli leaders rejected the idea. In December 2021, Naftali Bennett, then Israel’s prime minister, insisted that “there is no place for a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem.” He added that “Jerusalem is the capital of one state, the state of Israel — period.”
Biden officials have been unable to overcome the Israeli opposition, suggesting that they cannot act unilaterally. In October 2021, Brian McKeon, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, told a Senate committee that his “understanding” was “that we’d need to get the consent of the host government to open any diplomatic facility.”
Some U.S. officials believe that, as a practical matter, Mr. Biden could reopen the office over Israeli objections.
Pressed on the consulate’s fate in February, the State Department spokesman at the time, Ned Price, said: “These things take time. Obviously there are various parties that are involved in a process like this.”
Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Jerusalem in the George W. Bush administration, called the years before Oct. 7 a missed opportunity.
“The question can be asked, ‘Why didn’t Biden act to undo what Trump had wrought?’” Mr. Kurtzer said.
Mr. Kurtzer allowed that Mr. Biden had inherited “a mess” on the Palestinian issue, in large part because of Mr. Trump’s policies. And he said that a different policy agenda would not likely have prevented the murderous Hamas attack last month. (The United States has never had diplomatic relations with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.)
But Mr. Kurtzer said that Mr. Biden’s approach before Oct. 7 does have relevance today.
While it helped that Mr. Biden reopened a dialogue with the Palestinians and delivered aid to them, Mr. Kurtzer said the things the president did not do — like reopening the consulate, or reinstating the legal opinion on West Bank settlements — sent a “negative” signal.
That has harmed American credibility across the Arab world, Mr. Kurtzer says, and is now complicating Mr. Biden’s efforts to support Israel. “Look how fast the narrative changed” from sympathy for to condemnation of Israel, he said.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden will push harder this time for a lasting peace agreement. Some U.S. officials still see a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia as an opportunity.
But opportunities have slipped away before.
In May 2021, Israeli forces bombed Gaza for 11 days in response to Hamas rocket fire until a cease-fire halted the fighting.
Lamenting civilian deaths in that clash, Mr. Biden vowed to “continue our quiet and relentless diplomacy” to ensure that Israelis and Palestinians could peacefully coexist.
“I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress, and I’m committed to working for it,” he said.
Two and a half years later, his challenge appears greater than ever.