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Amos Hochstein, Biden’s go-anywhere, get-things-done guy, faces his toughest deal yet
The longtime staffer has Biden’s ear and an expansive portfolio. Can he prevent an all-out war in Lebanon?
On a mild Wednesday in September, a genteel century-old Upper East Side mansion played host to some of the biggest names in the Middle East — and optimistic conversations that now, in the altered post-Oct. 7 reality, seem almost quaint.
King Abdullah II of Jordan stopped by amid a busy week of meetings to speak to the few hundred Middle East watchers, fixers, journalists and diplomats gathered on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Other speakers at the Al-Monitor/Semafor Middle East Global Forum included the prime minister of Iraq, the foreign ministers of Oman and Tunisia and a top Emirati diplomat.
By late afternoon, after hours of speeches and panels, attendees perked up when Amos Hochstein, an aide to President Joe Biden, took the stage.
“Of all the speakers today,” said Andrew Parasiliti, president of Al-Monitor, “the one who least needs an introduction is Amos.”
Hochstein’s official title is deputy assistant to the president and senior advisor for energy and investment. Unofficially, he’s Biden’s go-anywhere, get-things-done guy — someone whose job is ostensibly to focus on wonky energy issues but who is increasingly the person dispatched by the president to deal with the most challenging global issues from Mexico to Africa to the Middle East.
Early in the moderated conversation, Hochstein was asked to address one such quest. In 2022, he negotiated a deal between Israel and Lebanon to resolve a long-running dispute over the countries’ maritime border. It was the first official agreement between the two nations, which are technically still at war.
“Everyone told me it wasn’t possible, which is why it happened,” Hochstein said. “Then everybody leaves you alone. They think you’re crazy and you go and negotiate something.”
It was a line that sounded a lot like language used by another recent White House official who had served as an important deputy to a president.
“Whenever I spoke with colleagues and confidants … they thought the concept was impossible,” Jared Kushner wrote in his 2022 book, referring to the 2020 Abraham Accords negotiations. “Lots of things could go wrong. We had to keep it quiet.”
Like Hochstein, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law became a key foreign policy advisor to the commander-in-chief in the Middle East and beyond. (Hochstein, like Kushner, is also an Orthodox Jew.)
Both of them “have the complete trust and confidence of the White House,” said a former Trump administration official who worked on foreign policy. “Hochstein has that aura, the dealmaker, the guy who can finish.”
Now, he has to prove it again — in the middle of a growing war. Everyone is again telling him it can’t be done. But this time, they might be right.
Two and a half weeks after that high-energy event in New York, the Middle East described by Hochstein and the other prominent speakers imploded.
Hamas terrorists invaded Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7 launching a massive terror attack that killed more than 1,200 people, and taking over 200 hostages back to the enclave. In response, Israel launched a major offensive in Gaza, aiming to eradicate Hamas and bring home the hostages.
A smaller-scale war of attrition is playing out on Israel’s border with Lebanon. Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon have lobbed missiles into northern Israel, leading tens of thousands of Israelis who live close to the border to flee. Houthi fighters in Yemen have carried out two dozen attacks on commercial shipping vessels and paralyzed global shipping in the Red Sea.
Hochstein’s services as a high-stakes negotiator are again being employed by Biden — but this time, the consequences of failing to reach a deal could be much deadlier. And if convincing Israel and Lebanon to sign onto the maritime border deal during peacetime was a yearslong challenge, then persuading both countries, and Hezbollah, to put down arms will be even harder. Not that the maritime deal was easy: “There are not many people who could have pulled off the successful conclusion of the Lebanon-Israel maritime border deal,” United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba told Jewish Insider. “Most leaders I know trust and respect Amos and his ability to get things done,” Otaiba added.
For a region that is constantly on the brink of conflict, the threat of an all-out regional war has never felt closer. Preventing the war from growing is a key goal of Biden administration diplomacy. But that objective, though largely successful thus far, may prove difficult in the longer term.
“To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said in an Oct. 10 address about the Hamas attacks. He and other top diplomats have stuck with that simple message, but whether it is effective remains an open question. (The White House declined to comment for this story and did not make Hochstein available for an interview.)
Last week, Hochstein met in Washington with Lebanon’s foreign minister before traveling to Israel for a series of high-level meetings with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is in Beirut this week, while Secretary of State Tony Blinken visits Israel to push diplomacy. Both have visited the Middle East several times since Oct. 7.
Gallant and Netanyahu told Hochstein that their preferred outcome for the increasingly unpredictable situation on Israel’s border with Lebanon is diplomatic — reaching a deal to push Hezbollah’s fighters back to the demarcation line in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. (Recent actions, though, suggest otherwise; this week, Israeli forces killed the commander of a major Hezbollah unit and three other Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah responded with a rocket barrage on northern Israel.)
This stated desire for diplomacy in the north stands in contrast to the Israeli government’s goal in Gaza, which is the total eradication of Hamas by military means.
Netanyahu told Hochstein on Thursday that Israel “is committed to bringing about a fundamental change on its border with Lebanon,” according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office. “The Prime Minister emphasized that we will not stop until this goal has been achieved, whether diplomatically, which Israel prefers, or in some other way.” Without a solution, Netanyahu and Gallant both conveyed to Hochstein, the 80,000 displaced residents of Israeli border communities cannot return to their homes.
It’s a difficult task, given how Hezbollah — designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. — maintains a stronghold on Beirut. On the same day he met with Hochstein in Washington, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib gave an interview to CNN in which he revealed the extent to which the Lebanese government is in the thrall of Hezbollah.
“The decision is theirs,” Bou Habib said of Hezbollah, when asked whether the Shiite militia will respond to the killing of a senior Hamas official in Beirut last week. “We hope they don’t commit themselves to a larger war.”
That makes resolution much harder, even for a savvy negotiator like Hochstein. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Tuesday the country is ready to discuss negotiations “to achieve a long-term process of stability in southern Lebanon,” he told a U.N. official.
But Hezbollah “is an organic part of the society of south Lebanon,” said Sarit Zehavi, president of the Alma Research and Education Center, a think tank located 7 ½ miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. She does not believe that a diplomatic agreement will last, pointing to the failed cease-fire at the end of the 2006 Lebanon war that culminated in a strong Hezbollah faction with a large cache of missiles directed at Israel.
“For all of us that live here, you — I mean the international community — cannot fool us again with a fake diplomatic arrangement. We’ve been there, done that 17 years ago, and nothing happened,” said Zehavi. Polling shows that most Israelis think the Hezbollah threat warrants a military response.
This is the crucial distinction between Hochstein’s current task and what he accomplished in the maritime negotiations: The people calling the shots in Lebanon now are Hezbollah terrorists, backed by Iran.
“The maritime border was mostly about the gas, and it was more of a Lebanon-Israel agreement. Hezbollah had a say in it, but it was really about Lebanon, and the economy and the gas of Lebanon. It was not about the security risks between Hezbollah and Israel,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanon expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The current escalation, meanwhile, “is not a Lebanese issue. It’s Hezbollah. It’s an Iranian issue.”
For nearly 30 years, Hochstein diligently but ambitiously worked his way up the Washington ladder. It’s a fairly typical path for a career politico — Capitol Hill aide, lobbyist, presidential campaign staffer (Chris Dodd’s failed 2008 bid), State Department official, private sector work when his party didn’t control the presidency — that has culminated in a particularly close relationship with the president.
“People like people that are connected,” said Tom Nides, who was serving as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Israel-Lebanon maritime negotiations. “It’s not easy getting into the Biden inner circle, but [Hochstein] is certainly part of it.”
Hochstein started his Biden administration tenure in the State Department before moving to the White House, where he could be closer to Biden and have more leeway to pursue bigger projects.
“The reason that people are so happy that he moved to the White House is that he’s a dealmaker,” one Israeli who knows Hochstein told JI in the fall. “He’s not into just academic bullshit.”
His portfolio entails a broad remit that reaches from China to Africa to the American heartland, encompassing everything from electric vehicle manufacturing domestically to the clean energy transition to the war in Ukraine. Before joining the Biden administration, he was an executive at a natural gas company.
Hochstein first met Biden on a 2011 trip to Europe when he was working in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Soon after, he began to brief then-Vice President Biden occasionally on energy-related matters. By the second term of the Obama-Biden administration, Hochstein was on the plane with Biden — or sitting next to him in meetings — nearly every time the former vice president traveled overseas.
“You’ll have a rotating cast of policy experts who will brief the then-vice president, now-president, on issues. Amos really stood out and built a relationship with the vice president by being somebody that the VP could rely on to be direct,” said a former senior official who worked under both President and Vice President Biden.
Before Oct. 7, Hochstein was a key negotiating partner, alongside White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, in efforts to bridge ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The team’s momentum gained prior to the Hamas attacks has mostly stalled, at least publicly. But even this week, Saudi officials admit they remain interested in a deal with Israel and the U.S., while also seeking the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Saudi portfolio played on Hochstein’s strengths as an energy expert. He took on the Israel-Lebanon maritime deal in the first place because, at its core, it was about energy; defining the countries’ maritime border really meant deciding ownership of natural gas fields at sea.
“It can take many years to establish a boundary, particularly when you have oil and gas resources at play, because even small movements of the line in one direction or the other can have implications in millions or billions of dollars,” said Alisa Newman Hood, an energy industry executive who was an advisor to Hochstein at the State Department in the Obama administration, when the negotiations first started. “And that timing is for friendly neighbors.”
In October 2022, to mark the completion of the deal, Hochstein flew first to Lebanon and later to Israel to get the document signed. Officials from Lebanon and Israel would not appear in the same room together. His Lebanese counterpart, Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab, proposed calling the agreement “the Amos Hochstein accord.”
Later, in Jerusalem, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid was blunt: “Nobody had faith in you,” he said to Hochstein. “Whatsoever.” The men laughed loudly over a long handshake.
This time around, Hochstein faces even longer odds than he did on the maritime issue. It could be said, again, that no one has any real faith that the negotiations will proceed to any kind of long-lasting solution.
But that hasn’t stopped Hochstein yet.