- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence is threatening to undermine historic progress made by the Trump administration’s prized Abraham Accords and drive a new wedge between Israel and the Arab world, all while President Biden scrambles to address the crisis that has eclipsed his own foreign policy priorities such as climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and U.S.-China competition.

The bloodshed in Gaza, where dozens have died during clashes between the Hamas militant group and Israeli military, brings with it geopolitical ramifications around the world, including in Washington. Some leading Republicans say Mr. Biden bears some of the blame for the conflict because of his “ambiguous” support for Israel.

The administration pushed back Wednesday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials expressed strong U.S. backing for Israel’s right to defend itself.

But analysts say the Biden administration has little in the way of a coherent strategy to cool the soaring tensions in Gaza and appears to have been caught off guard by the Israeli-Palestinian escalation, which is now reverberating dangerously through the wider Middle East.

The crisis is showing signs of spreading as Israeli officials blame their Arab counterparts across the region for not doing enough to help quell increasingly ugly anti-Israel protests in mixed communities across the country, including in Jerusalem.

Foreign policy analysts say that in a worst-case scenario, the violence could undercut Israel’s new ties with nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Formal relationships between Israel and those countries were enshrined in the 2020 Abraham Accords negotiated by President Trump.

SEE ALSO: GOP senators to Joe Biden: No sanctions relief to Iran amid Israel-Palestine violence

Hopes that other Arab nations might follow suit could diminish if Israel’s military campaign in Gaza drags on and anti-Israel sentiment grows, said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Most Arab states are hostile to Hamas, and therefore sympathetic to Israeli strikes against Hamas,” Mr. Alterman wrote in an analysis published on the think tank’s website.

“They have objected strenuously to Israeli actions [in Gaza], however, seeking to differentiate between the Palestinian people and the Hamas fighters lobbing rockets at Israel,” he said. “The protests are likely to be transient assuming that the Israeli response is short-lived. A longer-term response would have a chilling effect on ties [between Israel and the Arab world] but would not end them.”

Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said Wednesday that he’s hopeful the newfound cooperation between Israel and some Arab nations can survive the battle in Gaza.

“I’m still quite optimistic because I hear, and we are in a constant dialogue with the Abraham Accords countries, Arab countries,” Mr. Erdan told The Washington Times’ Tim Constantine, host of “The Capitol Hill Show.”

“We see they understand the complexity in our region. They understand Hamas is not only a jihadist terrorist organization. It is also backed by Iran,” he said in the Wednesday interview. “They understand the moderate countries in our region should continue to engage with one another.”

The fighting in Gaza intensified as Hamas fired more rockets into Israel. At least six Israelis have been killed by the bombardment, which has occasionally pierced the nation’s famed Iron Dome missile defense system.

Meanwhile, dozens of Palestinians have died in retaliatory Israeli strikes. One Israeli strike Wednesday reportedly killed Bassem Issa, a Hamas military commander. He is the highest-ranking Hamas official to be killed in fighting with Israel since 2014, and it is widely expected that his death will provoke a strong reaction from the militant group.

Should the fighting drag on, it will also cast uncertainty on the viability of a long-term two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian tensions, which remains the ultimate U.S. goal, Mr. Blinken said.

The Secretary of State told reporters he was dispatching key State Department officials to the region to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to stop the conflict.

“The United States remains committed to a two-state solution. This violence takes us further away from that goal,” Mr. Blinken said. “We fully support Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. We’ve condemned and I condemn again the rocket attacks in the strongest possible terms. We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security, and we’ll continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm.”

The administration is facing fire from all sides for its handling of the crisis.

Mr. Erdan wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday that the State Department’s messages are “not acceptable.”

“It is impossible to put in the same message statements by Israeli leaders who call for calm alongside instigators and terrorist organizations that launch missiles and rockets,” he said.

Palestinian leaders also have condemned the U.S. approach as too favorable to Israel and too forgiving of Israeli military operations that they say have indiscriminately hit civilians.

Meanwhile, some top Republicans suggested that Hamas’ rocket bombardment of Tel Aviv and other cities is motivated by a weak U.S. policy that is too generous to Iran and other enemies of Israel.

“The conflict we are seeing is the direct result of the tragic mistakes of the Biden foreign policy,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “And when you are ambiguous, when you are agonizing, when you undermine our support for Israel, what happens is it encourages the terrorists who attack and launch the kind of missile and rocket attacks we’re seeing right now.”

The Biden administration wants to resurrect an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran despite the Islamic republic’s ongoing financial support for Hamas, the militant group targeting Israel. That nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, did not address Iran’s backing of Hamas, which the U.S. has labeled as a terrorist organization.

Mr. Blinken has suggested that a new version of the pact could address Iran’s support for terrorist groups.

In recent days, Iran’s government has blasted Israel’s actions in Gaza. Tehran’s state-run Fars News Agency on Wednesday decried “Israeli crimes” against Palestinians and labeled the United States an “accomplice.”

With that as a backdrop, several Arab nations are seeking to defuse the crisis.

Egypt has offered to mediate talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, though those efforts haven’t born fruit.

Some foreign policy analysts say the Biden administration should redouble its efforts to facilitate peace.

“No other country has the networks of relationships the United States has across the region — from Israel to Egypt to Jordan and across the entire Arab world. It should make use of these relationships to de-escalate tensions,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who specializes in the Middle East.

“Extremists stuck in the past are taking advantage of the tensions and the violence that has flared up because of a vacuum of leadership in the region,” Mr. Katulis said in comments circulated to reporters this week. “The United States can’t fill that gap alone, but if it adopts an approach that leads with diplomacy backed by a regional security strategy to protect lives of all people, it can deal with the crisis and look for long-term ways to resolve the conflict.”

⦁ Valerie Richardson contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports. 

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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