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Biden weathers his first foreign crisis after months focusing on domestic troubles

It was before 8 a.m. ET on Wednesday and President Joe Biden was on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the fourth time in a week.

Outside, Biden’s helicopter was idling as he ran behind schedule. Amid the flurry of 80 calls between Washington and the Middle East, this one had not been planned in advance, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Awaking early at the White House to reports of intensified airstrikes against targets in Gaza, Biden had a distinctly sharper message for Netanyahu than what he had relayed previously. After seven days of holding off public comment, officials said the President’s patience was wearing thin.

The conversation was described by people familiar with the matter as “candid,” “direct” and “firm” — all the diplomatic bywords for tense. Previously, Biden had pressed Netanyahu for his objectives and endgame in bombing Gaza, questions officials say did not yield clear answers. This time, he expressed more conviction that he expected the bombing to conclude.

More than a day later, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. Even after Netanyahu called Biden back to inform him of the development, the President and his aides remained skeptical. It would take another phone call from the Prime Minister later that afternoon — their sixth in 11 days — to convince Biden the truce was real.

“One of the reasons why we were able to do the ceasefire in 11 days is I didn’t do what other people have done. I don’t talk about what I tell people in private. I don’t talk about what we negotiate in private,” Biden said on Friday as the ceasefire entered its second day, taking credit for a strategy he suggested eluded his predecessors — including former President Barack Obama — during previous Middle East fighting.

The conflict amounted to the first major foreign crisis of a presidency focused overwhelmingly on domestic matters. It marked a critical juncture for American Democrats, whose calls on Biden to deliver a more forceful response to Israel’s actions were mostly rebuffed. For the President, it created an inflection point in an up-and-down relationship with Netanyahu that goes back more than 40 years.

Yet for all its significance, officials signaled the burst of fighting was unlikely to prompt Biden to realign his priorities back to the Middle East, a region of murky and intractable battles he’d sought to avoid as president.

“We think there are some opportunities here, but we have to be very realistic,” said Brett McGurk, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator on Biden’s National Security Council. “We do not want to set unachievable objectives and waste time pursuing those.”

Biden prepares to set his sights overseas

The bloody conflict, furious behind-the-scenes diplomacy and carefully calibrated public response acted as a precursor to an intensive stretch for Biden on the world stage.

He is expected to nominate his first slate of high-profile ambassadors at some point in the coming days, according to people familiar with the matter. The announcement, which is likely to include an ambassador nominee to Israel, had been delayed as the White House compiles a diverse list of names, mindful the first batch of ambassadorships “could not be dominated by a group of rich, white donors,” an official familiar with the search told CNN.

He will depart in early June for his first trip abroad, seeking to reassure world leaders at the Group of 7 and NATO of his commitment to traditional American alliances. He is expected to meet afterward with Vladimir Putin, perhaps in Switzerland, for a high-stakes summit he has made clear to officials will look very different from the last time the Russian President met his American counterpart.

And in the coming months, Biden will begin a robust vaccine sharing program with other countries meant to bolster global inoculations while also asserting American leadership in an area of diplomacy that so far has been dominated by Russia and China.

That the kickoff to Biden’s most concerted stretch of diplomacy was an unplanned crisis in the Middle East made for an ironic twist. Biden has sought to realign American interests elsewhere, including China. Some of his aides viewed the fighting between Israel and Hamas as a distraction.

As the tenuous ceasefire took effect, Biden immediately turned his attention to Asia on Friday, meeting with the South Korean president at the White House.

Biden confident in his foreign policy plans

Until now, Biden has been focused almost exclusively on navigating the country from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — an effort he’s framed in global terms. “We’ve gotten to a point where I think our economic competence has a gigantic impact on our international influence and capacity,” he told New York Times columnist David Brooks this week.

The 11-day crisis between Israel and Hamas isn’t likely to change Biden’s outlook, though his top diplomat will travel to the region next week and Biden has pledged to support international humanitarian efforts in Gaza.

“The priority is still domestic. He is not looking for heavy foreign policy entanglements,” Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN. “I think there’s no strong case to get seriously involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue because the pieces are not present, not even close to being present, that any diplomat — no matter how talented — could realize progress.”

Still, though the Middle East conflict was unwelcome, Biden approached it with a level of confidence developed over a career spent cultivating world leaders and honing his policy instincts. His initial conversations with Netanyahu were friendly, people familiar with the matter said, and the White House did not publicly mention the word “ceasefire” until this week.

The destruction last Saturday of a Gaza high-rise housing offices for the Associated Press and other media outlets caused heightened alarm in the White House, officials said, and prompted another phone call between Biden and Netanyahu. American officials made clear to the Israelis that the US did not plan to publicly defend the country’s decision to level the building, even after Israel shared intelligence it said proved Hamas was operating there, saying instead it was up to them to justify the strike.

Through it all, however, Biden showed little willingness to reevaluate his approach, even when questioned harshly by members of his own party. While his tone with Netanyahu gradually sharpened behind-the-scenes, he made no public statements about the situation for days until the ceasefire was announced on Thursday. Even then, Biden spoke for only three minutes.

“Bibi, the prime minister, knows my views,” Biden said at a news conference on Friday. “The commitment that was given was immediately kept from the very beginning. I told him what our objective was, that there needed to be a ceasefire, and he in fact kept his commitment in the time frame in which he said he would do it.”

Several administration officials privately dismissed vocal pushes by progressives to get Biden to come down harder on Netanyahu, arguing it would alienate him and possibly extend the violence. Officials say Biden has little patience when challenged on foreign matters, an area that aides describe as his “first love.” He often expounds at length on his views of the world and its leaders — including the autocrats in charge of Russia and China — but has sometimes shut down conversations if he finds those views challenged.

Waging a private pressure campaign rather than issuing public statements left Biden feeling vindicated in his strategy after a ceasefire was announced, according to people who spoke with him. Biden felt if he “hugged Israel close,” while closely engaging with them behind the scenes, he would be able to “end the violence faster,” the person who spoke with the President told CNN.

The tactic partly derived from the experience of the Obama administration, when public pressure on Israel failed to prevent a prolonged war in Gaza in 2014, according to another person familiar with White House thinking.

“This war had every indication that this was going to go on for many weeks, if not months, and it was a patient, quiet diplomacy led by the President that got it into place to end after 11 days,” said McGurk in an interview on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”

“Now we have to work just as hard in the aftermath to make sure we reduce the risks of another event triggering such a conflict.”

How much Biden actually influenced the situation on the ground is an open question. American officials — including McGurk and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan — played critical roles as go-betweens for the various parties, including Egypt. But US assessments of the conflict suggested Israel was close to running out of fixed targets in Gaza by Wednesday, according to an official closely tracking the situation on the ground. And because the US does not formally engage with Hamas, which it labels a terror group, Biden relied on leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to wield their influence.

“I think this ceasefire largely came about, and I don’t mean this to be critical, less because of what the United States said or did, but really because both Hamas and the government of Israel concluded that continued warfare wasn’t serving their interests,” Haas said.

Ambassador process causes consternation

As the cross-border conflict intensified between Israel and Gaza, the still-vacant post of the US ambassador to Jerusalem became the subject of sharp criticism, with pointed questions about why the position had yet to be filled. The President is poised to announce a wave of roughly 10 high-profile ambassador nominations soon, a senior administration official said, including Israel.

The timing has put the Biden administration behind the pace set by his most recent predecessors and has led to frustration among some State Department officials and top donors, who have been in something of a holding pattern for months.

The President has signed off on several key positions, but White House officials have delayed any announcements until a full list is complete. At least two high-level contenders were taken out of consideration in recent weeks, a person familiar with the matter said, after the vetting of finances and statements on social media emerged as a potential challenge during the confirmation process.

Above all, a senior administration official said, one of the biggest reasons for the delay is that the selection has become something of a game of musical chairs. Several donors or friends of Biden expressed interest in one position, but were offered second choices, given the overall list of nominees.

“Diversity among ambassadors is just as important to the President as diversity in his Cabinet,” a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about the closed-door process. “And that is a process.”

Biden hopes to keep political ambassadorial appointments to around 30%, with the rest of the posts going to career diplomats. That is below the roughly 43% of ambassador nominees that went to political appointees under former President Donald Trump.

A different path than the last four years

On a defining week for Biden’s foreign policy, he and his aides have been quick to identify the areas he is approaching the world differently than his predecessor. Visiting Greenland, his top diplomat made clear the US isn’t interested in buying the island. His press secretary said meeting Kim Jong Un isn’t “top on his agenda.” And as he prepares for potential talks next month with Putin, officials say he’s made clear he expects a very different tone than Trump’s summit in Helsinki.

Surveying the raging conflagration in the Middle East, Biden’s press secretary said the White House found little to like in how his predecessor dealt with the region.

“Aside from putting forward a peace proposal that was dead on arrival, we don’t think they did anything constructive really to bring an end to the longstanding conflict in the Middle East,” Jen Psaki said.

Ordinarily, any break with Trump would leave Democrats thrilled. In reality, Biden’s strategy drew harsh criticism from members of his party, who pressured him to speak out against Israel’s actions as the civilian death toll climbed in Gaza.

When he traveled to Michigan on Tuesday to visit a Ford truck plant, one of his leading critics on the issue in Congress was waiting on the tarmac. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, had delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor calling on Biden to do more to protect Palestinian lives. She delivered a version of it underneath Air Force One, at one point nearing tears in the eight-minute conversation as she argued the strategy of unconditionally supporting Netanyahu wasn’t working.

Biden, despite a distaste for being challenged on his foreign policy views, listened intently. And during remarks at the truck factory, he praised Tlaib’s “intellect” and “passion.”

“You’re a fighter, and God thank you for being a fighter,” he said.

Later in the day Biden seemed less enthusiastic about discussing the raging crisis. Asked if he’d take a question on Israel as he prepared to test drive one of Ford’s new all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup trucks, he jokingly threatened to run the reporter over.

“No, you can’t. Not unless you get in front of the car as I step on it,” Biden said, adding “I’m only teasing” before speeding away.

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