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Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets launched into Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, May 16, 2021.

CORINNA KERN/The New York Times News Service

For almost exactly four months, people have been telling Joe Biden that he was the most powerful person on Earth. Now, with conflict raging between Israelis and Palestinians, he is discovering that he is virtually powerless to effect change in an important arena.

Political commentators often speak of the powers of the American presidency, but the office also is defined by the limits on presidential power. Some of those limits are domestic; he can wage war against a deadly virus but he cannot force men and women possessing no power whatsoever to be vaccinated. But some of the limits are beyond American borders; he can believe in peaceful co-existence among Jews and Palestinians but he cannot force young people with little to lose to abandon their resentments, their angry demonstrations and their violent attacks, just as he cannot force Israel to suspend its bombardment of its opponents.

Calls mount for Gaza-Israel ceasefire, greater U.S. efforts

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“How can an American president have any influence?” said Gene R. Garthwaite, a Dartmouth College historian specializing in Middle East affairs. “If the Palestinian Authority has no power, if Hamas has its own agenda, and if the Israeli government is looking at an election, how can you expect an American president to get his way, even if he had a plan?”

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With its focus on the novel coronavirus, the economy, climate change, the crumbling infrastructure, along with trade and military threats from China and Russia, the Biden administration literally found itself unprepared for the violence that has convulsed the Mideast.

Mr. Biden has appointed no ambassador to Israel, which sits at the center of the crisis. He has not fully staffed the State Department desk on Middle Eastern regional affairs. He has expressed vague support for a two-state solution but has not rounded out his inclinations with details.

And, just as important, despite some personal interchange with his counterpart in Jerusalem, Mr. Biden does not have remotely the same level of rapport with Israel’s leadership that his predecessor, Donald Trump, built over four years of leaning toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and against Palestinians.

Though American presidential candidates for decades campaigned on the promise of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, each found a reason to retain it in Tel Aviv. Mr. Trump moved it. That pleased many American Jews – but a comment he made later left a good number unsettled. They were troubled by his claim that he made the change “for the evangelicals,” religious conservatives whose commitment to Israel is rooted in the Book of Revelations and whose political commitment has been to Mr. Trump, who harvested more than three-quarters of their votes, according to the National Election Pool and AP/Votecast.

Even so, Mr. Trump apparently made little progress with Mr. Netanyahu, for the influence flowed from Jerusalem to Washington rather than the other way around.

American presidents, to be sure, can have influence in the region in discreet periods; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both produced landmark peace agreements. But over the course of two-thirds of a century, American leaders often have discovered that their power in the region is limited. The first such jarring lesson came in 1956, when France, Britain and Israel conspired to strike Egypt in the Suez Crisis without the approbation of the United States.

Dwight Eisenhower exploded in a rage and said to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “Tell them, Goddamnit, that we’re going to apply sanctions, we’re going to the United Nations, we’re going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing.” In the end, the central calming figure of the episode was not General Eisenhower but future prime minister Lester B. Pearson, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for showing that, as Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee put it, “moral force can be a bulwark against aggression.”

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Like so many of his predecessors, Mr. Biden is in a difficult situation. He won between 61 per cent and 77 per cent of the Jewish vote in the presidential election; there is no accurate reckoning, and the conflicting findings stand as a symbol of the divisions among American Jews, with some favouring a hard-line view against Palestinians and others troubled that the status of the Palestinians is a stain on Israel’s noble professed values.

Either way, the President needs to tread carefully because these voters are concentrated in important political states such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California – which together, after fresh census figures adjust the state vote allocations, will account for 132 electoral votes, nearly half the 270 required to win the presidency. At the same time, critics of Israel, some of whom are Jewish, are concentrated in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which Mr. Biden has sought to mollify.

The President’s challenge is compounded by global implications. “Biden is caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College expert on the presidency. “If he doesn’t do anything, he’d lose support worldwide for the idea of the U.S. as the world’s leader. But if he does do something, he’d have a lot of Americans very irritated.”

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