The escalating violence between Israel and Palestine has caught the Biden administration off guard, and it's rushing to fill the gaps as the crisis spirals out of control.
President Joe Biden does not have an ambassador in Israel — and hasn't yet nominated anyone for the post — placing him at a major disadvantage as he faces growing calls in Washington to step up and help end the bloody dispute. Comparatively, former President Donald Trump already had an ambassador in Israel at this point in his tenure.
Biden entered office with major domestic crises on his plate, with the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout at the top of the list. The president has also made challenging China and Russia the key aspects of his foreign policy so far. In this context, the Middle East peace process has been neglected in the early days of the Biden era. If the situation gets worse and begins to threaten the broader region, it could divert Biden's attention away from the issues he hoped to prioritize.
Veteran diplomats, experts, and leading political figures have taken notice of the lack of attention Biden has given to the Middle East and the absence of US leadership in Israel.
"I realize the Administration has lowballed and deprioritized the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian issue. But the lack of an Ambassador to Israel and a consul general in Jerusalem is a serious problem during a crisis," Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat who advised multiple secretaries of state on the Middle East, said in a tweet.
Biden "obviously" made a mistake in "wanting to downgrade the US engagement with the Middle East," Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, told Insider.
"The whole impulse to disengage from the Middle East is sort of delusional," Ibish added. "Even if you were to pivot to Asia, as they say, or focus on great power conflict, as some others put it, the energy resources of the Middle East are still crucial."
The Israeli-Palestine conflict "never went away," Ibish said, adding, "The relative calm was always illusory, and there was no question that it was going to erupt again sooner rather than later."
Former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman in an interview with CNN on Wednesday said, "It clearly would be better if the US had an ambassador there now."
Lieberman, who served with Biden in the Senate, stressed that "time is of the essence now," adding, it would be a "constructive move" to have a temporary envoy working on behalf of the Middle East in the region.
The Biden administration is now scrambling to fix this and make up for lost time.
'We are very focused on this'
The State Department on Wednesday announced it's sending an envoy to Israel "immediately" to address the Gaza crisis, which the UN has warned has the potential to evolve into a "full-scale war."
"I've asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr to go to the region immediately to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a press briefing. "He will bring to bear his decades of experience and, in particular, he will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden a de-escalation of violence. We are very focused on this."
As Blinken faced questions from reporters as to what the US would do beyond calls to deescalate, which were obviously not having an impact based on the situation on the ground, he said, "We're sending a senior diplomat to the region to work on this."
"I think that piece is very important and our voice, our diplomacy from senior officials across the administration, I hope will help have an impact," Blinken added.
The White House on Wednesday also said Biden would "nominate a qualified, experienced ambassador to Israel over the coming weeks."
"Our objective here is deescalation as we look to protecting people in the region," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
But Israel does not seem interested in deescalation, and sending an envoy to the region without a senior diplomat there and fighting already underway — and getting worse — could be a case of too little, too late.
'Israel is not preparing for a ceasefire'
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday signaled that Israeli airstrikes would be ramped up.
"This is just the beginning," Netanyahu said. "We'll hit them like they've never dreamed possible."
There have been reports of Egyptian mediators working to broker a ceasefire, but Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday signaled that hostilities wouldn't end anytime soon.
"Israel is not preparing for a ceasefire. There is currently no end date for the operation. Only when we achieve complete quiet can we talk about calm. We will not listen to moral preaching against our duty to protect the citizens of Israel," Gantz said.
Ibish said there's still a lot the Biden administration can do to address the situation.
"They can lean on the Israelis to limit the retaliation they are going to inflict on Gaza and Hamas. Hamas has made it clear that they have secured the political victories they were looking for and they want a ceasefire," he said. "The US can definitely help Egypt, Jordan and other mediating powers facilitate a ceasefire, call on Qatar to be useful as well, and try to use inducements and pressure to get both sides to cut it out as soon as possible."
Stablilizing the situation will also require addressing "extreme Israeli encroachments in East Jerusalem and the West Bank," Ibish said.
"As long as that continues, the deterioration in the short term continues to remain very likely," he added. "And in the long term, the whole situation is completely unstable and untenable. Conflict is built into this relationship of dominance and subordination. It's unhealthy and extremely dangerous, and not just for Palestinians but for Israelis, too."
Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 65 Palestinians, including 16 children, since Monday, per Gaza's health ministry. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 rockets fired by militant groups like Hamas from Gaza toward Israel have killed at least 6, including an Israeli soldier and child. The fighting marks the worst violence in the region since the 50-day war in 2014.
The latest flare up in the historic conflict is a product of a convoluted array of factors, ranging from the planned evictions of Palestinian families in an East Jerusalem neighborhood to a recent police raid on an important Muslim holy site amid Ramadan that injured hundreds of Palestinians. But Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian territorities and general treatment of Palestinians remains at the heart of the tensions. Leading human rights groups have denounced Israel's policies and actions toward Palestine as a form of apartheid.