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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

US spy chief becomes key envoy as Biden-Netanyahu ties fray

President Joe Biden, left, listens to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he joins a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.    (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Iain Marlow, Peter Martin and Sam Dagher Bloomberg News

One key American official is quietly keeping Washington’s lines of communication open across the Middle East as the U.S. and Israel endure their worst falling-out in decades over the war in Gaza.

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, a veteran diplomat and Arabic speaker, was in Cairo alongside Qatari and Egyptian mediators this week as U.S. President Joe Biden set off a political firestorm by halting the shipment of about 3,500 bombs to Israel. The White House is increasingly concerned about massive civilian casualties if Israel launches a ground offensive on Rafah, the southern Gaza city where 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering from the war.

Biden’s priority is winning a deal to release more of the hostages Hamas took in its deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel. And it’s fallen to the U.S. intelligence chief to balance Biden’s carrots-and-sticks approach as Washington struggles to keep the seven-month-old war from escalating further.

Burns is “a man of results and I think one of the best U.S. diplomats I have ever met,” said Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister.

His involvement, according to Moussa, is a recognition by the U.S. that “the rage” in the Middle East provoked by the Gaza war and Washington’s support for Israel has put the U.S.’s reputation and credibility on the line, particularly with traditional Arab allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They believe the White House should have put more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the conflict.

Burns “has assiduously developed personal relationships with leaders across the region for decades,” said William Usher, a former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA. “We are at a critical stage. All sides have incentives to back out of a deal and in moments like this, public posturing can often backfire.”

Burns played an integral role in helping craft the week-long cease-fire late last year that led to the release of dozens of prisoners on both sides. For a moment earlier this week, it almost seemed as if Burns and his counterparts had pulled it off again after Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and European Union, said it had accepted a Qatari and Egyptian proposal to halt hostilities.

But the talks quickly stalled again as it became clear Israel would not accept Hamas’s proposal for a truce effectively to be permanent.

While Burns appears to be the most prominent U.S. official on the Middle East file at the moment, given the importance of the ceasefire-for-hostages deal that might end the violence, he’s hardly the only official in what has at times seemed like a full-court press from the Biden administration.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, White House Middle East envoy Brett McGurk, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and the presidential coordinator on global infrastructure Amos Hochstein — who has experience negotiating with Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hezbollah militants are based — have all made extended trips to and within the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who’s made seven marathon trips to the region, has helped persuade the Israelis to open border crossings for aid, coordinate humanitarian pauses in the fighting and implement procedures to ensure aid workers don’t get killed in the crossfire, according to U.S. officials.

But Blinken’s extended tours in the region and public warnings have sometimes seemed to have little impact on the most right-wing government in Israeli history. The country’s air and ground assault on Gaza has killed more than 35,000 people in the Palestinian territory, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there. Hamas fighters killed 1,200 people and abducted 250 when they rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, starting the war.

“Arab public opinion has no faith in Biden’s statements and sees Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy over nearly eight months as futile,” said Mohammed Tal, former editor-in-chief of Al-Dustour, one of the main newspapers in Jordan, where Burns served as ambassador between 1998 and 2001. Burns’s involvement “has actually given some hope to people in the region — he does enjoy a certain level of credibility.”

The CIA director’s role as an intelligence chief allows him to keep a lower profile and deal directly with Israel’s external intelligence agency Mossad. A veteran State Department official with years of relationships in the Middle East, Burns also has a direct line to the White House. That gets him high-level access in Middle East capitals, where officials often prefer to deal with top spies.

The hostage-release assignment is only becoming more difficult as Israel insists on targeting thousands of fighters in Hamas battalions in Rafah. At the same time, Biden is ratcheting up pressure on Israel by saying he might halt even more weapons shipments. Israeli officials have reacted to Biden’s decision with fury. They argue that disrupting weapons shipments to Israel have sent the wrong message to Hamas at a time when the negotiations were at a critical stage.

Burns has also proved adept at using the respect he’s garnered in the region to deliver messages to Israel designed to be both warnings and reassurances of support. He demonstrated that tact last month as Israel was weighing the severity of its response to an attack that saw Iran launch hundreds of drones and missiles, almost all of which were repelled.

Burns told the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas that the response was Israel’s choice, though he suggested an overwhelming retaliation was unnecessary given how Israeli armed forces had already “clearly demonstrated their superiority.”

“It’s a reminder of the quality of the Israeli military,” he said. “It’s a reminder of the fact that the Israelis have friends, starting with the United States.”