Feb 17, 2021 - World

Biden's point man on Israel-Palestine isn't aiming for a Nobel Prize

Hady Amr (speaking, on left) at a Brookings event in 2018. Photo: Paul Morigi/Brookings

The man holding the Israel-Palestine file at the State Department, Hady Amr, isn't working on a sweeping plan for peace, but on incremental steps to improve the situation on the ground, several Israeli, Palestinian and U.S sources tell me.

Why it matters: American presidents have for decades arrived in office hoping to reach a historic peace deal. President Biden doesn't see that as achievable under the current circumstances.

  • With Israel-Palestine far down the priority list at the White House, the issue will be handled mainly by the State Department, where Amr serves as deputy assistant secretary for Israeli-Palestinian affairs (unlike Barack Obama, Biden declined to appoint a special envoy for Middle East peace).
  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken has made clear that he doesn't expect a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, Amr has been tasked with building trust from the bottom up.
  • Based on my conversations with a dozen current and former Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials, Amr appears to be the embodiment of this more pragmatic approach.

Amr was the "bottom-up" guy during his four years of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue during the Obama administration.

  • He worked closely with the Israelis to advance projects like 3G networks for Gaza or sewage systems in the West Bank.
  • During the 2014 Gaza War, Amr worked around the clock to redistribute all U.S. assistance to the Palestinians into humanitarian aid for Gaza.
  • It fell to Amr to implement policies agreed to at the top level — often between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Secretary of State John Kerry — in a very difficult political environment.

The backstory: Amr was born in Beirut in 1967 and grew up mostly in New Jersey and Virginia.

  • An economist and foreign policy expert, he joined the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration, spent time in the private sector and then joined the Brookings Institution in 2006, founding its Doha Center.
  • Amr returned to government during the Obama administration, first at the Department of Homeland Security and then as deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
  • In 2013, he was brought in by then-Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk — also Amr's former boss at Brookings — to work on economic issues relating to the Palestinians. Amr stayed on through the end of Obama's second term.
  • He was a foreign policy adviser to Biden's campaign and involved in its outreach to the Arab American community.
Photo illustration of Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a mash-up of the Palestinian and Israeli flags.
Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: John Moore and Gali Tibbon/AFP

What they're saying: Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the Israeli government's former coordinator in the West Bank and Gaza, says he found Amr to be a knowledgeable professional who didn't engage in political arguments but rather wanted to get things done.

  • Israeli deputy national security adviser Reuven Azar, who was a close interlocutor of Amr's while serving in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, found him to be pragmatic, humane and focused on improving the living conditions of the Palestinians, a source familiar with his thinking says.
  • An Israeli official who has spoken to Amr since his appointment describes him as intelligent with a very sober view of what's achievable at the moment.

The other side: Palestinian officials tell me they've been impressed with Amr based on their engagements so far.

  • “We would always joke that new American envoy would never know the difference between Sheikh Jarrah and Kafr 'Aqab [two neighborhoods in East Jerusalem]," one Palestinian official said.
  • "He knows. We haven’t spoken to the Americans for years and finally there is someone who listens."

The state of play: Amr is developing plans to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority, roll back some of Trump's policies and resume financial aid to the Palestinians, likely beginning with $75 million already allocated by Congress for aid and development projects.

  • Those issues are at the top of his to-do list until Israel's election on March 23.
  • Amr will have two short-term political challenges: resetting U.S. policy on West Bank settlements without sparking a fight with the Israeli government and drafting a policy on the Palestinian parliamentary elections planned for May 22.
  • He has already held calls with officials from both sides, including the Israeli ambassador to Washington, the Israeli deputy national security adviser, the Palestinian prime minister and the Palestinian director of intelligence.

What’s next: Amr’s debut on the world stage will be at the meeting of international donors to the Palestinian Authority on Feb. 23 to discuss steps to improve the Palestinian economy. Israelis, Palestinians and members of the international community will be watching closely.

Animated illustration of President Biden being squeezed between a Palestinian and Israeli flag.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Worth noting: Due to unusual circumstances, Amr is wearing at least two other hats beyond his deputy assistant secretary role.

  • Without a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Amr will represent the U.S. in formats like the Quartet, which includes diplomats from Russia, the UN and the EU. That group met over Zoom on Monday.
  • Amr is also the de facto U.S. head of mission to the Palestinians because the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem was merged by the Trump administration into the embassy to Israel in 2019.
  • The Palestinians ceased almost all communications with U.S. diplomats in the embassy at that time, so Amr will be the key point of contact for Palestinians hoping to communicate with the administration.

Former and current U.S. officials praise Amr's knowledge of the nitty-gritty and skill at moving difficult issues forward, and they say he was a mentor to the young foreign service officers who worked with him on the Israeli-Palestine file.

  • Indyk, Amr's former boss, tells me he's "the right person for these times because he knows the mechanics, the concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and his job is to improve the situation and that builds on the experience he has."

The bottom line: Amr has a much lower profile than others who have held this portfolio, most recently Jared Kushner. But that fits with the Biden administration's more modest objectives.

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