Israeli airstrikes against the militant Hamas movement in Gaza have forced the Middle East to feature on Joe Biden’s agenda amid new questions about how his focus on human rights applies to Palestinians.
He also laid bare the extent to which the Israeli right was empowered in occupied East Jerusalem during Donald Trump’s presidency. The unrest there has sparked broader battles and could pull the Biden administration deeper into the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even after this latest seismic eruption ends.
It is a prospect that President Biden and his senior advisers would like to avoid.
They made it clear that their diplomatic priorities lie elsewhere. So far, they have taken a low-key minimalist approach to this graveyard of US-led peace initiatives, quietly trying to restore some elements of US policy shattered by the Trump administration’s staunchly pro-Israel stance. .
It has meant focusing on mending broken relations with the Palestinians and expressing rhetorical support for a viable Palestinian state as the key to lasting peace with Israel.
But they felt the prospects for a new round of negotiations were bleak and were determined to shift US foreign policy to China.
The sudden return to the Middle East this week saw a return to a traditional pattern.
In public statements, the president and his secretary of state Antony Blinken forcefully repeated the standard American formula regarding Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of Palestinian rocket fire.
While expressing concern at the growing number of Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikes, Blinken drew a “clear and absolute distinction” between “a terrorist organization targeting civilians and Israel … targeting terrorists”.
Biden saw no “significant overreaction” in the Israeli response to the Hamas missile barrage, a judgment some analysts have taken as an implicit green light for the operation to continue, despite US calls for calm.
Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute says that Washington generally gives Israel initial “carte blanche” to respond to rocket attacks “until they think Israel has had enough luck to do what they want. ‘he must do’ to destroy the militant infrastructure.
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The Biden administration also blocked action by the UN Security Council this week, where the United States is often alone in defending Israel against criticism, arguing that a statement or public meeting would hamper diplomacy in the United States. backstage. He has now agreed to an emergency session on Sunday.
But he had to quickly step up his game on the diplomatic front without a full team in place; there isn’t even a candidate for ambassador to Israel yet.
Mr. Blinken and other senior officials worked the phones with their Israeli counterparts. There have been urgent appeals with Arab countries to try to help shape an Egyptian-led regional response.
And the secretary of state dispatched his top Israeli and Palestinian affairs official, Hady Amr, to the region, despite Mr. Amr being a mid-level diplomat without the kind of rank held by special envoys in previous administrations.
“A sign of a more resolute stance in behind-the-scenes diplomacy would have been to send someone higher up,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel.
Red lines in Jerusalem
As devastating as they are, the airstrikes in Gaza are familiar territory, unlike the outbreak of unrest in Jerusalem that sparked them.
The eastern part of the city – captured by Israel in 1967, claimed by the Palestinians and home to holy sites for both – has always been a flashpoint. Its future had to be determined in the peace negotiations. But right-wing Israeli governments as well as Jewish settler groups ousted the Palestinians, and this activity has become particularly brazen under the Trump administration.
President Biden’s team didn’t notice any warning signs that it was getting combustible, says Hussein Ibish. “What he has failed to do is prevent the Israeli right, both the settler movement and the government, from moving forward with truly provocative movements on the ground. “
A campaign by settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families sparked protests. This was amplified by Palestinian anger at the harsh Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located on a hill revered by Muslims and Jews. There was also fury over plans for right-wing Jewish nationalists to march there through a Muslim neighborhood, which was called off at the last minute.
The conflagration spread to demonstrations of solidarity by Palestinian citizens of Israel. And it sparked a new and alarming wave of communal violence in Israeli towns with mixed Arab and Jewish populations.
The Biden administration must set red lines, says Daniel Kurtzer.
He must tell the Israeli government to “Stop this!” when it comes to provocative measures in East Jerusalem, he said. “They should say that we support Israel’s right to self-defense, but [this activity] must end. “
The State Department issued a statement calling for de-escalation on both sides in Jerusalem, shortly before Hamas rocket fire changed the conversation. And Mr. Blinken said he was deeply concerned about the “violence in the streets of Israel”.
But it is “a harbinger of things to come,” Ibish says.
What about the human rights agenda?
Another challenge for the Biden administration is how to apply its message of return to a values-based foreign policy to the realities on the ground in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
In recent statements, Blinken reiterated that Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of freedom, dignity, security and prosperity.”
Khaled El Gindy of the Brookings Institute calls the phrase “new and significant,” but also vague and confusing: “Does this apply to the here and now?” he’s asking himself. “Or is it an aspiration in a final status agreement? It hasn’t been operationalized, so we don’t know where it fits. I think they don’t.”
The left of the Democratic Party is making itself heard more and more to criticize what it sees as a blatant asymmetry in the exercise of the four values.
It’s unclear what kind of political impact this will have: Lawmakers challenging the Democrats’ traditional pro-Israel stance may not be inclined to a confrontation with Biden because he has championed key causes they cherish on the economy and the climate.
But they push for the application of universal standards of human rights and international law to the treatment of Palestinians. They are asking the administration to use the $ 3.8 billion in annual Israeli military aid as leverage for this purpose. And in speeches in the House on Thursday, some presented it as a matter of racial justice.
Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, who is black, said she was “no stranger to police brutality and state-sanctioned violence.”
What the Biden administration would like, says Kurtzer, is “to see the current cycle of fighting between Israel and Hamas end, the situation in Jerusalem turn to what you consider normal and then they can go back and focus on other things. “.
But the song “No Justice – No Peace”, one of the rallying cries of anti-racist protests in the United States, sounded during a Palestinian demonstration held outside the State Department this week.
Depending on the “new normal”, this may serve to be a persistent way to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Biden’s agenda.