Why Biden Can’t Look Away From the Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

The United States deployed a top diplomat to Israel on Wednesday, in hopes of calming hostilities that have broken out between Israelis and Palestinians.

After throngs of Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets of East Jerusalem in recent days to protest Israeli settlements and the evictions of Palestinians there, particularly in the heavily Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a crackdown by security forces gave way to escalating violence. Hamas militants have launched rockets into Israel, and the Israeli military has carried out a series of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. On Wednesday, it assassinated a number of Hamas commanders and hinted at moves toward a possible invasion of Gaza.

No recent U.S. president has been able to avoid confronting the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis — but President Biden has shown little interest in getting deeply involved. Wednesday’s decision to send in the U.S. envoy, Hady Amr, reflects the urgency of a difficult situation more than any burning desire by the administration to play peacekeeper.

Still, the conflict comes at a moment of inflection — not only in Israeli politics, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s future as prime minister is in doubt — but also in terms of the United States’ approach to Israel. While the staunchly conservative Mr. Netanyahu closely aligned himself with President Donald J. Trump over the past four years, Democratic leaders in Washington have increasingly shown a willingness to criticize some elements of the Israeli government’s approach, particularly its support for settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods and territories.

Announcing Mr. Amr’s deployment, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken emphasized Israel’s right to continue “defending itself” but also its “extra burden” to prevent civilian deaths, mentioning that Israeli strikes had killed Palestinian children.

For an expert perspective, I turned to to Mark Perry, a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that advocates military restraint. He has traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories dozens of times, and is the author of 10 books, including “A Fire in Zion: Inside the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process” and “Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies.” Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Hi, Mark. The violence we’re seeing right now follows the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, moves that have led to Palestinian protests and an Israeli crackdown. Can you speak specifically to the significance of what’s going on in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood?

What’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah has been happening for a long time. It’s always been very much up in the air who owns the territory: If you go to the Palestinians, they’ll often show you deeds to the land, and some of those date back to Ottoman times, but they’re not necessarily accepted in Israeli courts. So it’s really been a contentious issue, particularly as Israelis have expanded their settlement activity in the West Bank.

But the demolitions and evictions have been going on long before the events in Sheikh Jarrah. They have been a constant since 1967, when the Israelis took over the West Bank.

How much have Netanyahu’s policies increased the trend?

He’s gotten his support from settler groups; that’s probably his primary base of support. He’s appealed to them by saying he will defend their claims to the land, which are based on the fact that Jewish people have had a presence in the area for 2,000 years. He believes that the ancient claims to the land are binding.

President Trump announced in 2017 that he would recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a move that was seen as essentially condoning the Israeli government’s push into Palestinian-held land. What was the effect of this on the grappling between Israelis and Palestinians there, and more broadly in terms of geopolitics?

We have to put this in context. There was no love lost between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, and Obama was seen in many Israeli neighborhoods, especially the Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, as being pro-Arab.

It was an easy alliance between Trump and Netanyahu. It wasn’t a direct swap — “You support me and I will give you annexation of East Jerusalem” — but it was nearly that. Netanyahu always praised Trump, and Trump gave Netanyahu what he wanted, which was Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

OK. But why did Trump stand to benefit from Netanyahu’s praise?

It used to be in Washington that support for Israel was bipartisan. Both parties supported Israel almost unconditionally. And the Jewish-American vote was primarily Democratic. But Israel shifted that position in the 1990s and early 2000s. I distinctly remember Israeli leaders coming here and kind of recruiting the evangelical Christian community — and that community is Republican.

Now, Israeli leaders will say that the reason they did that is that their support in the Democratic Party was eroding. And particularly among Jewish Americans, there was growing disaffection with Israeli policies.

And that’s had an effect on the Democratic Party. It is now possible for stalwart supporters of Israel to question Israeli policies and principles. So the change in the political calculus among Israel’s leaders has resulted in a change in the political calculus among Democrats and Republicans, and the parties’ leadership. And this has incredible implications for a guy like Joe Biden.

Let’s talk about Biden. Since taking office he’s been rather quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is he trying to draw back the United States’ involvement or otherwise make a change to the American status quo, or would he like to keep things about the way they are?

Biden’s been a longtime supporter of Israel. He tells a story about going to breakfast with his mother when he was a little boy, and his mother saying, “Joey, we always support Israel.” But he’s stopped telling the story. I think the Israeli-Palestinian issue just sucked up so much air in previous Democratic administrations that he’s really hesitant to allow that to happen again. We’ve got other equities in the Middle East other than Israel.

And I think there’s a certain amount of exhaustion among Middle East diplomats with the conflict. It’s intransigent. We’re not going to be the ones to solve it. If Israel isn’t ready to negotiate, and the Palestinians aren’t ready to negotiate and solve their problems, how are we going to possibly succeed?

So what’s Biden’s option? One option is to do what no other U.S. president has ever done, and that is to issue a statement like the one he issued on Saudi Arabia: “We support you, but our support is not unconditional. We expect that Israel will take steps to ensure the rights of the people they occupy.”

He would have support among a large number of Jewish Americans. Remember the battle over the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the Democratic plank? That was a sign of what’s coming. There were Democrats who supported Israel who saw the logic in saying that America’s support is conditioned on Israel’s support for human rights. And that Palestinians have a right to land and their freedom. If he would do that, the change that that could bring about could be unprecedented.

Isn’t there some fear among diplomats that anything short of unconditional support for Israel would upend U.S. interests in the region, given that Israel is such a major ally?

It’s significant to note that America’s pivot to Asia has not left a vacuum in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now conducting back-channel diplomacy with Iran. If Israel was to suddenly realize that America will no longer support them in every instance, they might make the moves that they have needed to make the last 70 years, and actually engage in diplomacy with their neighbors to a degree that they haven’t.

What about the argument that other nations in the region have their daggers behind their backs, and are just waiting for their chance to wipe out Israel?

Pushing back on Israel, and signaling to them that our support is conditional, is not an invitation to Egypt and Jordan to attack Israel. Were they to do so, they’d be defeated in 24 hours. We’d come to Israel’s support.

The fact that our support is conditional doesn’t mean they’re not an ally. Our support for allies has always been conditional. We made it clear to the British in World War II that we were their allies and we would support them, and that we’d even float money to support their economy, but that we were in charge of the relationship. We’re not in charge of the relationship with Israel, and we need to be. They’re in charge, and they’ve been in charge because they’ve always been able to count on bipartisan support in Congress. That is now changing.


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