President Joe Biden and his aides have signaled that they believe stepping back from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to focus on more direct threats to America is in the U.S. national interest.
But, as an outcry in Congress and beyond over an escalating, bloody crisis in Jerusalem shows, walking away may not be in Biden’s political interest.
Weeks of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over access to holy sites and the potential eviction of several Palestinian families from east Jerusalem exploded Monday, leaving more than 300 Palestinians hurt, according to media reports. That’s on top of other Palestinians and Israeli security officials hurt in earlier recent clashes.
As the situation spiraled, the Biden administration has publicly weighed in over the past three days with phone calls and official statements, after weeks of private engagement. The recent public moves may have helped nudge Israel into taking steps to defuse tensions, such as delaying the potential evictions and changing the route of a Jerusalem Day parade of nationalist Israelis on Monday.
But activists, analysts and several of Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress — including progressive favorites Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — say the administration should do more. Some said its public reaction so far has been too little, too late, too quiet and too equivocal for a crisis that has been brewing for weeks — and of which the administration had ample warning. Israeli officials, meanwhile, defended their government, even to the point where Israel’s ambassador to the United States accused a U.S. lawmaker of Arab descent of stoking terror.
The crisis, which also included rocket attacks aimed at Jerusalem on Monday from the Hamas militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, was playing out against a broader backdrop of political uncertainty. Israeli leaders are trying to form a new government after the country’s fourth election in two years, and Palestinians recently postponed planned elections indefinitely. Separately, Biden aides are trying to maintain a good relationship with Israel in hopes the country won’t derail efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposes.
“It might make sense to try to deprioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue given all of the other problems in the region and the world, however, what we have seen is that this is an issue that continues to have political traction in Washington,” said Ghaith Al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Even if you ignore this issue, it will not ignore you.”
‘We didn’t hear anything’
Some Middle East specialists have been warning the Biden administration since late April that Jerusalem was a tinderbox, that the parade route was a flashpoint, and that the administration needed to speak out about it.
“It was flagged to the State Department that everyone was nervous about the end of Ramadan, Jerusalem Day and the canceled elections, and that a strategy be created to deal with what could be a very violent situation,” one Washington-based think tanker said, requesting anonymity to describe private conversations. “Over the following weeks, we didn’t hear anything from the administration on the Israeli-Palestinian file.”
There have been behind-the-scenes discussions with the Israelis and Palestinians involving U.S. officials, such as embassy staffers in Israel, in recent weeks, a person familiar with the issue told POLITICO. The discussions covered the volatility of the situation given the confluence of the holy month, the parade and more. The governments of other countries in the region also have been talking to the various parties behind the scenes. Not counting the past three days, however, it wasn’t immediately clear how involved the most senior Biden administration officials have been as the crisis has played out.
The left-leaning pro-Israel organization J Street on Monday urged the Biden administration to get more involved.
“The ongoing conflict and occupation cannot be ignored,” the group said in a statement. “Simply working to reduce tensions when violence boils over is not enough. This conflict demands bold, proactive and continuous diplomatic engagement from the Biden administration and the international community.”
In a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. was tracking the issue.
“This is something that our national security team is closely monitoring, obviously, across government,” Psaki said, adding that Biden is being “kept abreast and is watching closely, as well.”
Fueling much of the friction was the looming eviction of several Palestinian families from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Palestinians or their relatives have lived in the homes there for decades. Israeli settlers have used legal means to try to take over their homes.
The potential evictions have led to protests and international attention toward what critics say is deeply biased Israeli law designed to push Palestinians out of the area. Israeli officials say the matter is a private real estate dispute being used by the Palestinians for international sympathy.
Israeli efforts to block some Palestinian gatherings at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan also fueled some clashes. Many of the confrontations have been in the Old City of Jerusalem, home to several important holy sites for Christians, Muslims and Jews, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Palestinians in particular have grown frustrated by Israeli Jewish efforts to access areas that are supposed to be off-limits to them.
And while the issue of holy sites and the evictions are major drivers of the tensions, anger over Israeli settler activities in the West Bank and Hamas militant moves in Gaza have added strains.
Up until late last week, the State Department was handing out statements about the situation only to people who requested comment, an approach it sometimes takes on especially sensitive issues that involve close allies like Israel. But on Friday, amid growing pressure from Capitol Hill, the department issued a public statement saying it was “extremely concerned” about the crisis, including the potential evictions.
“We call on Israeli and Palestinian officials to act decisively to deescalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence,” department spokesperson Ned Price said. “It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric.”
On Sunday, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. In a readout of the call released by the White House, Sullivan was said to have expressed serious concerns about the planned evictions and other tensions, but to also have “expressed the administration’s commitment to Israel’s security.”
The Biden aides’ weekend intervention may have had some effect.
Monday was Jerusalem Day, when Israelis celebrate the annexation of east Jerusalem, an area Israel captured in 1967. At nearly the last minute, Israeli leaders announced that a planned route of a march by ultranationalist Jews would not go through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. And Israel’s Supreme Court, at the request of the country’s attorney general, postponed a hearing on the evictions that was set to take place Monday.
But Sullivan’s call and Price’s statement is unlikely to assuage concerns among analysts, activists and others that the United States was simply — and by design — failing to seriously grapple with the situation. Some on the left also chided the administration for the statements that it did produce, saying they were too equivocal, blaming both sides when one, Israel, was the one with much of the military and legal power.
“If the Biden Administration puts the rule of law and human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, this is not a moment for tepid statements,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) tweeted along with a United Nations document that described Israel’s efforts to evict Palestinians from east Jerusalem as violating international law.
Warren, one of Biden’s rivals in the 2020 presidential campaign, last week urged his administration to “make clear to the Israeli government that these evictions are illegal and must stop immediately.”
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, wrote that “Israeli forces are forcing families from their homes during Ramadan and inflicting violence. It is inhumane and the US must show leadership in safeguarding the human rights of Palestinians.”
The U.S. lawmakers’ tweets critical of Israel came primarily from the left, progressive flank of the Democratic Party. But they reflected a broader trend of Democrats being increasingly willing to criticize Israel, a country that once enjoyed widespread and solid bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Those fissures in the Democratic Party add to the political pressure facing Biden when it comes to the region.
Some Israeli officials have brushed aside the criticisms while trying to highlight the rocket launches from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Among the most vocal defenders of Israel’s approach is Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
“The scenes from Jerusalem are disturbing but what is more disturbing is the hypocrisy of those who are cynically politicizing these events, inflaming tensions and holding Israel to a double standard, while ignoring the basic truths & realities in this sensitive & holy city,” Erdan wrote in a Twitter thread that highlighted some of the Palestinians’ incendiary rhetoric and actions in recent days.
In a tweet sent in Hebrew, Erdan attacked the Biden administration, writing: “The US State Department message is not acceptable to me! It is impossible to put in the same message statements by Israeli leaders who call for calm alongside instigators and terrorist organizations that launch missiles and rockets. This is not the way to achieve calm.”
Erdan further, and in English, attacked U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat who is of Palestinian descent, for her criticism of Israel. “Maybe you don’t realize that your words encourage terror groups such as Hamas to fire rockets into civilian populations and carry out attacks against Jews,” he wrote.
Escalating political drama
Unlike his modern predecessors, Biden came to the presidency with no expectation of resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His staffing choices so far have reflected that. The main person in charge of the portfolio is a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department. Biden has not appointed a special envoy to help jump-start peace talks. He also hasn’t picked an ambassador to Israel, and there is an ongoing fight over whom he should select.
The reasons for not prioritizing the conflict are many, including Biden’s desire to focus U.S. national security more on countering China and he and his team’s belief that neither Israelis nor Palestinians, for a host of reasons, are in a position to negotiate anyway.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in their own political dramas at the moment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to craft a coalition government after the most recent election. Other power players are now trying to build one in the hopes of avoiding a fifth election after having four in two years. Netanyahu, long the most high-profile Israeli politician, also faces legal problems over allegations of corruption.
Palestinians were due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections this year for the first time in 15 years, but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has postponed them. He said he did so in part because Israel wouldn’t guarantee that Palestinians in east Jerusalem would be allowed to vote. Critics say Abbas was afraid his party would lose, and that Hamas representatives would triumph.
The Biden administration also is trying to manage its relationship with Israel as sensitively as possible because of the differences between the two over the fate of the Iran nuclear agreement.
The Biden administration is trying to resurrect the 2015 agreement, which lifted nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. It is currently engaged in indirect negotiations with Iran over how both sides can return to compliance after former President Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018 and Iran restarted elements of its program.
Israel, however, is loudly opposed to returning to the 2015 deal, saying it is too weak. Israeli officials recently visited the White House to press this point, and Israel is believed to be behind a recent attack on an Iranian nuclear facility that some analysts suspect was an effort to derail the talks. Israel views Iran’s Islamist regime as a mortal enemy.
Iranian officials have pointed to the Jerusalem clashes and planned evictions as evidence of the injustices perpetrated by the Israeli state. In a tweet Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Israel of creating an “Apartheid regime.”
The situation in and around Jerusalem remained on edge late Monday, especially in the wake of the rocket attacks from Hamas. Israel responded with airstrikes in Gaza, and there were reports of at least nine people killed in the coastal Palestinian-controlled territory.
In a reflection of how tricky the topic has become for the Biden administration, during his daily press briefing on Monday, Price, the State Department spokesperson, began by condemning the Hamas rocket attacks and affirming Israel’s right to self-defense.
When asked if the Palestinians have a right to self-defense, Price said, “Broadly speaking … we believe in the concept of self-defense, we believe it applies to any state.” He declined, however, to comment on emerging reports of Palestinians killed in the Israeli airstrikes, saying the U.S. was still trying to verify the facts.
“Our priority is on de-escalation,” Price said.
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