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Biden plans to send envoy as Israel and Hamas escalate toward war

Tel Aviv — With Israel and Hamas now engaged in their most destructive fight in seven years, the Biden administration is considering plans to dispatch a State Department official to join the de-escalation efforts, five Israeli officials and Western diplomats tell me.

Driving the news: The fighting intensified overnight, with Hamas and other militants firing a second barrage of over 100 rockets toward Tel Aviv and other nearby cities, and Israel continuing its air campaign in the Gaza Strip by destroying high-rise buildings, Hamas facilities and rocket units.

  • Three Israelis were killed and 200 wounded in the barrage, while three Israeli soldiers were critically wounded when Hamas fired anti-tank rockets at military vehicles along the border with Gaza.
  • At least 20 Palestinians were killed in the last 24 hours, according to the Gaza ministry of health. That brings the overall death toll to 43 including at least 15 women and children.

Behind the scenes: The Biden administration is trying to work with Egypt to push for de-escalation, U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

  • Deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr is expected to travel to Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
  • Israeli officials tell me the trip is likely to happen but they're waiting on final confirmation. The State Department didn’t comment.
  • It would be the most active U.S. intervention so far in the Gaza crisis, and Amr’s first trip to the region since assuming office.

Meanwhile, national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Tuesday to his Egyptian counterpart, Abbas Kamel. The White House said Sullivan discussed “steps to restore calm over the coming days" with Egyptian officials.

  • State Department officials have also been communicating with Cairo.
  • Sullivan also spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. According to the White House, Sullivan condemned the Hamas rocket attacks and “conveyed the President’s unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians."
  • Secretary of State Blinken also spoke on Tuesday with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Israeli officials tell me Blinken didn’t press the Israelis to stop the operation in Gaza for now, but stressed the U.S. doesn’t want things to escalate into all out war and wants to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza.

The big picture: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been a low priority in President Biden's early months, but once a crisis erupted the administration found itself understaffed.

  • Unlike his predecessors, Biden didn’t appoint an envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He still hasn't nominated an ambassador to Israel or followed through on his plans to re-open the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
  • That has left him without a senior diplomat on the ground to talk to either the Palestinian or Israeli leadership. At this time four years ago, Trump’s ambassador was already in Israel.
  • Instead, Amr has functioned as both the deputy assistant secretary and the de-facto consul general and point of contact to the Palestinians.

The state of play: Egyptian and UN mediators are talking to both parties, but were rebuffed by the Israeli government when they raised the possibility of a ceasefire, Israeli officials tell me.

"We’re escalating towards a full scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation. The cost of war in Gaza is devastating. Stop the violence now."
UN envoy Tor Wennesland on Tuesday.

What’s next: The Israeli security cabinet is expected to convene today to discuss the Gaza operation. Israeli officials say they want to hit Hamas harder is order to renew deterrence before engaging in ceasefire talks.

  • The UN Security Council will convene at 9am ET for a closed session to discuss the Gaza crisis. For now, the U.S. is still blocking any attempt to issue a joint statement on the situation.

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