Hamas rocket barrages, IDF’s response catch Biden with no envoys in Israel

The fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas terrorist leaders, following violent clashes on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem and amid deadly ethnic rioting between Jews and Arabs in mixed-population cities all over Israel have caught the United States without an ambassador to Israel and with many other key Middle East roles unfilled.

Four months into his tenure, US President Joe Biden has still not announced his choice for US ambassador. Even if a decision were made, the next ambassador would have to go through a Senate hearing process that might take weeks or even months.

By comparison, former president Donald Trump announced the appointment of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel before his own inauguration in January 2016.

A number of key Middle East roles in the Biden administration also remain vacant. In the State Department, the position of assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs is vacant. The former assistant during the Trump administration, David Schenker, led ongoing talks between Israel and Lebanon on exclusive economic zones amid a dispute over the maritime border between the countries and rights to potentially lucrative offshore gas fields. He was also at the center of the Trump administration’s handling of China’s investments in Israeli infrastructure and the restrictions that the US administration sought to impose on it.

Then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, talks with then Charge D’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad Joey Hood, left, in Baghdad, May 7, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)

The most senior American diplomat in Israel is the chargé d’affaires, Jonathan Schreier, and he is in charge of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, including diplomatic contacts between the United States and Israel.

Since Biden’s inauguration, Joey Hood has been serving as acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Last week, Hood was scheduled to brief foreign reporters in a conference call. However, on Tuesday, at the end of a tense day in the region, the State Department canceled the briefing.

Hady Amr (US State Department)

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr was rushed out to Israel last week, and was holding talks in Israel on Sunday.

The Biden administration has also not yet picked a special envoy to the region or a consul general for East Jerusalem. The consul general to East Jerusalem’s position disappeared when Trump dissolved the office and transferred all its activities to the embassy in Jerusalem. Reinstating a consul requires a procedural process within the State Department, as well as close coordination with the Israeli government: a consulate in East Jerusalem, which acts as a kind of embassy to the Palestinians, cannot be reinstated without a security detail and that depends on the cooperation of the Israeli government.

Talking at the top

Still, the leaders themselves are talking. Biden is known to have spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu four times since entering the White House.

The first conversation took place a month after his inauguration and in light of criticism in the media, Israel, and the US of the lack of communication between the two. The second conversation followed the death of 45 people in Israel during a religious festival last month at Mount Meron. Biden called to express his condolences.

But they have spoken twice in the past four days about the escalating violence with Gaza — on Wednesday and on Saturday. Israel’s foreign and defense ministers are also speaking with their US counterparts.

National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan apparently reprimanded Israel National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat last week, and on Tuesday after hours of massive rockets attacks and Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza, Sullivan called Ben Shabbat once again. In the last conversation, the issue of Egyptian mediation also came up.

Former Israeli diplomats told The Times of Israel that the US administration is at an advanced stage of choosing an ambassador, but the fact that there is no envoy yet is having a negative effect.

Danny Danon, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, said, “It is important for both sides that a new ambassador will arrive here soon, especially in light of the sensitive situation and the nuclear talks [with Iran]. I think a permanent ambassador is the most important official. The White House is conducting contacts with Israel’s national security, Meir Ben Shabbat, but it is not the same thing.”

Danny Dayan, who served as Israel’s consul in New York until August 2020, said that after two particularly engaged ambassadors — Dan Shapiro and David Friedman — “the absence of a US ambassador is very noticeable.”

Still, Dayan noted that Biden has yet to appoint numerous ambassadors worldwide.

Danny Dayan (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

Danny Dayan (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

“There is no discrimination against Israel. Only a few ambassadors have been appointed so far,” he said, and noted that communication via ambassadors is not the only way of conducting diplomacy.

“They do not have the same exclusivity as in the past,” he said. “However, the absence of an ambassador here must have had an effect. The presence of an ambassador in Israel is vital for both countries.”

Danny Carmon, a former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, former attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and an ex-ambassador to India, said leaving an embassy without an ambassador is less remarkable than it might once have been.

“In the past, in the diplomatic world, it was considered a bad sign, but today with all the technology and direct conversations by the head of the National Security Council with his counterpart, it is less critical,” Carmon said.

And it works both ways, he added, noting the attitude over envoys shown by Israel towards the US.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (second from left) at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama with leaders of the African American community there on February 22, 2021. (Israeli Embassy in Washington)

“In the old diplomatic world, the fact that Israel now has the same person, Ambassador Gilad Erden, in two roles, ambassador to the UN and to Washington, could have been seen as disrespectful. But we have seen that his double appointment was easily accepted there, as far as is known.”

Then US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, December 20, 2012. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The delay in appointing a US ambassador could also reflect Biden’s foreign policy priorities, Dayan said, at least prior to the eruption of violence in the past week. “With the exception of the Iranian portfolio, the Middle East is not a top priority for the administration’s foreign policy, as opposed to East Asia and China in particular, and relations with Russia. Restoring relations with Europe and even Latin America are now a priority over the Middle East.”

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank, said that in general Biden is proving to be slow in appointing ambassadors and envoys. But that could signal trouble for Israel.

“If this is a reflection of his foreign policy priorities, Israelis will understand that they need to make their own decisions against enemies like Iran,” he said. “An increasingly invisible administration will have little reason to complain when they do. Iran is where there will be the biggest clash. And without an ambassador like a Dan Shapiro — close to the president, knows all the key Israeli players, knows Israeli society and politics — to manage the relationship, it could get bad again quickly.”

In the frame

Former US State Department official Thomas Nides has emerged as a frontrunner for the ambassador’s job, though no formal announcement has been made. Nides is a banking executive and if picked would bring both government and private-sector experience to the post. He is the managing director and vice chairman of Morgan Stanley and has served in multiple financial institutions, including Credit Suisse and Burson-Marsteller. From 2011 to 2013 he served as deputy secretary of state for management and resources under former US president Barack Obama, and he has served in a variety of other government positions.

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Israel in July 2009. (Government Press Office via JTA)

Another name, floated by three Jewish Democrats in the US House of Representatives, is former Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler. Pro-Israel Democrats in the House said Wexler maintains a close relationship with Israel and understands the sensitivities of the country and of the American Jewish community. Another factor is Wexler’s familiarity with Arab players in the region, including the Palestinians.

Wexler left Congress in 2010 to lead the Center for Middle East Peace, a group that works behind the scenes to advance the two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is funded by Daniel Abraham, the SlimFast mogul.

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