How Hady Amr represents Biden to the Palestinians
As the first U.S. special representative for Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr talked to Jewish Insider about his hope of improving life for the Palestinians and helping keep the peace in the region
The same day President Joe Biden was inaugurated two years ago, Hady Amr was sworn in at the State Department as the deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. While Biden faced an urgent set of challenges both global and domestic, Amr was tasked with keeping things stable in the Holy Land, not pursuing any sweeping diplomatic agendas.
This past November, Amr got a promotion: He’s now the special representative for Palestinian affairs, the first time Washington has appointed a representative to the Palestinian people and leadership. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Amr’s goal is to “strengthen our engagement with the Palestinian people.”
He is essentially an envoy to a state that doesn’t yet exist, and his message to Palestinians adds up to two words: Trust me. He is a deep believer in the two-state solution, but in his new role he will not be focused on the peace process.
“Certainly, we would all love to be standing in the Rose Garden with a two-state solution, obviously, but I don’t think any of us believe today that’s going to be possible,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Jewish Insider when asked about Amr’s role. “But we can keep a vision of a two-state solution alive. We can work towards that goal. [Hady]’s a very pragmatic guy.”
Amr wouldn’t disagree. His background is in development economics, not diplomacy. His goal is to make life better, even incrementally, for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, on projects like increased 4G internet access in the West Bank, or the new 24/7 opening hours of the Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank.
“How do we move to making a world more equal for people?” Amr asked. “Whether that equality comes in the form of access to water or access to work or access to freedom of movement, better security, equal justice, that’s the legacy I want to leave behind in any and every bit of work that I have.”
A child of the 1960s, Amr was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States at a young age, where he grew up in suburban Northern Virginia. His prevailing worldview comes from Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was drawn to public service after learning about the activism of Martin Luther King Jr., and his commitment to equality,” said Amr, who is 55. “My political consciousness is about equal rights. It’s about equal justice.” His hero spoke of a country where all children could grow up with dignity and opportunities and the ability to achieve the same American dream. That’s also the prism through which Amr views his work with the Palestinians.
“We believe Palestinians and Israelis, like people everywhere, are entitled to the same rights and the same opportunities,” he told Jewish Insider in December during an hour-long phone interview. “To have a happy, safe, secure, prosperous future, their lives need to be as equal as possible, because they’re living in a tiny area, in an interconnected manner. And they’re joined at the hip.”
Observers of Biden administration policy on Israel will recognize in Amr’s comments the echo of a line — which Amr helped author — that has now become de rigueur in Foggy Bottom and at U.S. embassies in the Middle East.
“The Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that’s independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous, in addition to deserving to live — along with Israelis — safely and securely while enjoying equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Amr said in a November press briefing. Everyone from President Joe Biden to Blinken, down to Amr and any official working on Middle East issues, has used that line: that Israelis and Palestinians deserve “equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy.”
It’s an idealistic goal, but achieving it — and finding a way to measure that success, absent a negotiated end to the conflict — remains difficult..
“That wasn’t there before, that the United States will proceed in a way that is designed to try to establish equal treatment for Israelis and Palestinians,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who served as the U.S. envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the Obama administration. “In practice, it’s extremely difficult to do.”
“We’re focused,” Amr said at the November press briefing, “on the future and lifting up the lives of ordinary Palestinians.”
Like Amr, Biden supports a negotiated two-state solution. But unlike his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, Biden has taken less of an initiative to make that happen. There is no special envoy to the peace process; no team in the U.S. government is now actively focused on bringing the two sides to the negotiating table.
The Palestinian Authority is rife with corruption and led by an aging president, with no successor in sight. Israel just completed its fifth election in nearly four years and last week swore in a right-wing government, with several prominent anti-Arab voices. On Tuesday, U.S. officials contacted senior officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to criticize National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount in the Old City, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price. (Amr declined to comment on the new Israeli government.)
2022 was the deadliest year in the West Bank since 2006, and the security situation continues to deteriorate. For Amr, success will be hard to define and even harder to achieve.
How did Amr get here? The answer, as it often is in Washington, is that he knew the right person.
Amr’s first government position was in the Clinton administration, when he had a desk job at the Pentagon. He then worked on Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. Afterward, during the political wilderness of the George W. Bush years, he joined a think tank and started a consulting business.
In the years after Sept. 11, his firm sought to finesse American messaging to Muslims around the world who distrusted U.S. global leadership, and Amr wrote policy proposals suggesting how the U.S. could improve public diplomacy to the Muslim world.
At the time, Martin Indyk was running the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He hired Amr to go to Qatar and start an outpost of the think tank in Doha. Amr spent the next four years, from 2006 to 2010, running Brookings Doha.
“He was just fabulous,” Indyk recalled. A few years later, in 2013, Indyk brought Amr onto his peace process team to work on economic issues. It was Amr’s first time working full-time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Scott Lasensky, who served as a senior advisor to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, worked with Amr in the trenches of the Obama administration. Lasensky recalled the ease of working with Amr, as opposed to some of the more difficult diplomatic personalities.
“As I think back to my time in government, I sometimes wonder what was going on in the minds of those who screamed or threw things or slammed the phone down. He was never one of those people,” said Lasensky. (At the recent Zoom bar mitzvah of Lasensky’s son, Amr offered webcam advice.)
From the beginning of the Biden administration, Amr helped undo several of former President Donald Trump’s policies regarding the Palestinians, namely the cancellation of aid to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). He has also been a strong advocate for the reopening of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which served Palestinians and was shuttered when Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The Israeli government has to give its sign-off for the opening of any foreign diplomatic outpost and has thus far not approved the reopening of the consulate.
Amr has amassed some critics who allege that his desire to work with the Palestinian Authority necessitates forgiving some of the PA’s more egregious behavior, such as its “martyr payments” to the families of terrorists, banned under the 2018 Taylor Force Act.
“The administration is doing a very bad job. They’re not making known that the PA is rewarding and incentivizing terror,” said Sander Gerber, a hedge fund executive and activist who helped write the Taylor Force Act. “I found [Amr] to be clear-sighted on the problematic aspects of the Palestinian Authority, and he wants to find some kind of solution. He’s deeply committed to two states for two peoples. But he understands that the Palestinian Authority needs to undergo serious reforms for that to happen.”
In the November press briefing, Amr said the U.S. will continue to “build our relationship with the Palestinian Authority,” and pledged to work with the PA to deescalate tensions in the West Bank. “We’re also going to engage with the Palestinian Authority on important reforms that we believe are important to make Palestinian society more vibrant and more free,” he said, without naming specifics.
“His reputation on the right is that he’s not a friend to Israel. I have not found that to be the case,” Gerber added.
“I think that that’s probably characteristic of the far right, where people are suspicious of anyone who supports a Palestinian state,” said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at Israel Policy Forum, who authored several reports with Amr during the Trump administration. “I don’t think it’s representative of Israelis writ large.”
Still, Amr has managed to gain the support of a number of groups in the U.S. Jewish community and the Palestinian and Arab American communities. After Amr’s appointment to be special representative for Palestinian affairs, the American Jewish Committee congratulated him in a tweet, calling Amr “our friend.”
At J Street’s national conference in Washington in December, Blinken mentioned Amr in his address and received raucous applause. (Amr did not speak at the confab, but when he attended its gala dinner, he was quickly mobbed by attendees.)
After Israel’s founding, the State Department had an informal policy of keeping Jews out of positions that dealt with Israel. Indyk broke that streak when former President Bill Clinton named him the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to the Jewish state.
Lasensky has discussed this difficult history, which also kept Arab Americans from important State Department positions that touched on the Arab world, with Amr.
“The Jewish community largely has gotten over those barriers unscathed, but they were tough. In some ways, it’s gone the other way, that you can only have a Jewish ambassador to Israel,” Lasensky told JI. “Arab Americans, I think, are still dealing with more of the questions and suspicions as a class.”
Amr, who declined to speak about his faith, has Jewish, Muslim and Christian family members, and he identifies as Muslim.
“The notion that’s about in the Jewish community that somehow there’s something wrong with Hady Amr in his position because he’s an Arab American is just wrongheaded,” said Indyk. “What’s good for Jewish Americans should be good for Arab Americans. Americans cannot have a double standard.”
In his role, Amr sees himself most of all as a representative of the United States, rather than any one constituency or ethnic group.
“I’m working on behalf of the United States. I am here to advance U.S. interests,” he explained. His goals are not his alone: “The president has said, Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity. That’s what I’m working towards, along with a two-state solution, and those are the pillars of my work.”
Before ever reaching a peace accord, or even making the small improvements Amr desires, he knows he needs to lower the temperature in the region.
“The big charge now, clearly, and he knows it very well, is that the situation in the West Bank is explosive,” Indyk said.
“We are remaining actively engaged with Israeli and Palestinian counterparts to urge them to work cooperatively to lower tensions and discourage armed conflict. And, you know, specifically we’re urging Israel to ensure policies and procedures do not lead to civilian harm,” Amr said in an October speech to the Arab Center D.C.
In that presentation, Amr ticked off Biden administration actions: hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians, largely through UNRWA; $100 million to support the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which Biden announced while in Jerusalem in July; improving water flow to Palestinians; and approving thousands of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza to work in Israel. He also pointed out that one of Blinken’s first civil society meetings in 2021 was with the Palestinian American community.
“We are engaging, and we are not walking through the world with blinders on, to hear the concerns that the community has,” Amr said.
Palestinian leadership and many left-wing pro-Palestinian activists have criticized the Abraham Accords, the 2020 agreements that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab nations. For decades, the prevailing foreign policy worldview in the Middle East had been that Israel could not have strong relationships in the region until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved.
“Israel’s growing integration and broad-based opportunities it creates — this is something that we can leverage to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza,” Amr told JI. “I think there’s real interest, particularly with Morocco, to work for ways to improve quality of life for the Palestinian people. When a country like Morocco shows that it is able to work with Israel, and work with the Palestinians to take steps to make improvements for Palestinian lives, it makes it easier for other countries to normalize relations with Israel.”
How does Amr measure his success, and the nebulous goal of what he described as “preserving a horizon of hope”?
It starts with a family tradition he incorporated into his office culture.
“The way I think about my family and my work is this: “How did I — how did we — make the world a better place this week?” he told JI. Amr, his wife and children discuss that question every Friday night over dinner. “Whose lives did we improve this week? ‘I wrote a memo that was great’ doesn’t cut it. Whose life is better because of what we did that week?”