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What Role Should The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Play In U.S. Policy?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Joe Biden had hoped to shift U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East. But continued airstrikes, rioting in the streets and a rising death toll - which has been many times higher in Gaza than in Israel - have thrust the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back onto the Biden administration's agenda. In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, Biden said he hopes for a quick end to the hostilities. He reassured Israel of his unwavering support. But just what should U.S. support look like? Well, to help us answer that question, we called Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, who heads the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome.

LUCY KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Let's just start with a bit of a look back before we look forward. Tell us; why has this conflict historically been such a challenge for U.S. administrations?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Well, Ailsa, as you noted, this is a - it's a movie that keeps on repeating itself. And successive administrations have found themselves confronting these same dynamics to varying degrees. Part of the challenges that in between these explosions that we see - there's a whole host of smoldering dynamics, drivers, spoiler behaviors on both sides that tend not to get addressed. And so until those underlying dynamics are addressed, I think we're unfortunately going to keep seeing this cycle.

CHANG: Well, the U.S. has historically been the only country to be an effective international peace broker in this conflict. But what role do you think this conflict should be playing in U.S. policy?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Well, what you definitely are seeing with the current administration is a very clear decision that I think it made - didn't just stumble into - to deprioritize this conflict, to not be as engaged as you've seen other administrations before it be. We have to recall that President Biden was vice president during two terms of President Obama, who in both terms engaged forcefully right out the gate in his first administration and then a big push to final status negotiations and really got burnt both times. So we have to remember that President Biden is coming in with that memory. He's surrounded by an extremely experienced foreign policy team but also many of whom were around at that time.

And as this administration comes in facing a whole host of pressing domestic concerns, I think what you're seeing is an administration that has said, this conflict does not yield much political and, you know, even foreign policy benefit when we try to expend significant resources. I think what we're going to have to watch is, does it reverse that approach? I mean, right now, obviously, the U.S. administration, like other actors, are engaged in trying to bring about a de-escalation and end to the immediate shooting. But the question is how actively he engages when that doesn't have to be accomplished.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, anything specific that you can point to that the Biden administration needs to do in order to be an effective broker here?

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Certainly. I think the goal that set itself of resetting the relationship, reestablishing a relationship with the Palestinians will be important. You cannot be an effective broker if you're really only talking to and engaging one side. So that's No. 1. One of the challenges the administration is going to face is increasing pressure, which it will see also domestically - and you already see it brewing - over where to put its emphasis and its lens on this conflict.

There is a stronger push by many for this administration to focus heavily on human rights issues and for many what it sees to be human rights abuses on the part of Israel towards the Palestinians. And this administration itself has come out from the beginning saying that it does plan to put more focus on human rights globally. And so I think you're going to see this administration facing a lot of pressure as it turns - or when it turns its attention to this conflict and how it calibrates and walks that tightrope as it navigates being an effective and credible broker for both sides.

CHANG: Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen heads the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you very much for joining us today.

KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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