Turning a page from the Trump era will take more than rhetoric, but rather a serious and sober acknowledgement of how bad things have gotten
The last 48 hours should be a lesson for US President Joe Biden’s administration: You can’t outrun history with good intentions.
What began years ago as a legal dispute over the right of Palestinians to avoid expulsion from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem has evolved, at this hour, to bombs dropped on Gaza by Israeli warplanes and rockets fired at Israel.
As of this writing, at least 83 Palestinians have been killed, among them 17 children, in Israeli strikes. Of those dead, only a few were members of militant leadership. At least 388 Palestinians have been injured. Rocket barrages fired from Gaza into Israel have killed at least seven people in Israel, including a five-year-old child. When you’re reading this, it’s likely those numbers will be higher. An Israeli ground invasion of Gaza may come soon.
On Wednesday night, Israeli police were unable or unwilling to stop Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel from beating each other in the streets. Israeli police assaulted Palestinians in the city Haifa, in majority Palestinian northern Israel.
Palestinians set fire to a synagogue in Lod, a farming town in majority Jewish central Israel. Israelis retaliated by burning a mosque in Lod. In Bat Yam, bands of Israelis carrying Israeli flags attacked their Palestinian neighbours and smashed Palestinian-owned storefronts.
A man was pulled out of his car by a Israeli mob presuming he was a Palestinian and severely beaten on live television. At least 400 people have been arrested in the riots and reprisals. After a vaccination campaign that saw coronavirus cases among Israelis plummet, authorities have put in place a curfew intended to quell communal violence.
None of these catastrophes were mentioned in a White House readout of a call on Wednesday between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden ‘’conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians,’’ the press release read. ‘’He also conveyed the United States’ encouragement of a pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm. He shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace.’’
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Biden did not reveal much more than glum resignation to headlines he’d seen before, or enthusiasm for a pathway to ‘’restoring sustainable calm.’’
"My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory," Biden said.
That represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the horror here. Israel strikes carried out in the name of self-defence are stoking communal violence between Palestinian Muslim and Jewish citizens of Israel, tearing at Israeli civil society itself. Biden’s characterisation of the bombing campaign fails to appreciate the immediate and long term consequences, the broken lives that will be left by the bombing campaign or potential ground invasion.
Biden also ignores the reality that Israel remains responsible for the well-being of Palestinians in Gaza, and mischaracterises the territory as being separate from Israel. That assessment might have made some kind of sense before 1967, but after six decades of occupation or siege, the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a civil war. Treating it as a clash between equal states, where each can exercise their own right to self defence, is a recipe for continuing to fail to find diplomatic solutions.
There are basic steps the US can take to improve the precarious and impoverished situation of Palestinians, beyond restoring aid. Providing Palestinians surplus American coronavirus vaccines is one way to both save lives and build some measure of goodwill.
For now, however, the American public diplomacy achievements of the US are happening in spite of the White House and not because of it, carried out over sympathetic social media accounts, through a caucus of concerned congressional representatives and via viral interviews with Palestinians on American cable television.
Biden is likely incapable of honestly addressing the larger problem of Israeli democracy being broken, incapable of either forming a government or containing civil unrest boiling beneath the surface, pulled apart by partisan polarisation, tension between secular and religious factions in society and now marred by a new eruption of interethnic unrest. There’s an irony to this, perhaps, given that Biden was able to win his presidential election based on the promise of mending similar fissures in American society.
Violence flaring between citizens of Israel has created a new dimension of danger. It also undermines Israel’s message that it is the only functioning multiethnic democracy in the region. The hard-right turn of Israeli political discourse, amplified by the mind-altering effects of social media, turning every glance at a smartphone into a new psychological provocation.
The scenes of violence between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis a reminiscent of the Second Intifada two decades ago, an outbreak of bloodshed set off by chaos at Al Aqsa. In 2021, the widening conflagration came after days of chaos in occupied East Jerusalem when Israeli forces entered Al Aqsa firing tear gas.
The Biden Administration seems to have been caught off guard by the rapid escalation of violence, ironically enough in a place where rapid escalations of violence are common. Biden promised to reorient US foreign policy around human rights in order to shake off the transactional callousness of former President Donald Trump.
For Palestinians, Trump’s transactional callousness, his courting and Biden’s policy paralysis can have the same results, even if the tone of the official statements changes. Biden is sending a special envoy to Israel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian affairs Hady Amr.
‘’What’s happening today in the occupied territory, including Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, is a real test of Biden’s government. While Biden shows that he prioritizes human rights in his foreign policy, his reaction should be more than just expressing concern over the escalation of violence,’’ Ramy Abdu, a Palestinian attorney and founder of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, told TRT World.
‘’Today, more than ever, Biden has to demonstrate his will to be ‘committed to a world in which human rights are protected’ as he said. This does not happen with expressing concern but with taking tangible steps to condemn Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The United States would contradict itself if it says it wants human rights in the centre of its foreign policy while it also allows the occupation and gross Israeli human rights violations to continue in Palestine.’’
Biden has also framed that competition as a matter of democracy and human rights against the forces of authoritarianism and autocracy. The sentimentality of the American president suggests that viewpoint is a sincere one. But sincerity in itself doesn’t promote human dignity. Indeed, neglecting Israel’s occupation seems to say to the world that the US under Biden is just as insincere and cynical as it was under Trump.
‘’The current crisis presents a perfect opportunity for the Biden administration to live up to its pledge to center human rights across its foreign policy,’’ Elisa Epstein, an advocacy officer at Human RIghts Watch told TRT World.
‘’That framework must include holding Israel accountable for abuses of human rights, not just condemning rocket attacks from Hamas. By being consistent in condemning human rights violations, the Biden administration will be better positioned to press both Israeli and Palestinian officials to comply with international law.’’
In his first days in office, Biden blasted geopolitical rivals Russia and China for human rights violations and the stifling of dissent. But there’s little political risk to doing so. No politician would agree that the US should ‘’lose the 21st century’’ to nuclear-armed great power competitors. That’s a sincerely held opinion, albeit a rather superficial one. Believe it or not, sincerity is not the rarest commodity in Washington; political courage is far harder to find.
And that political courage might entail a forthright assessment of how far Israel’s political values have drifted away from the American mainstream. Or, more precisely, how Israel’s occupation of Palestinians, overseen by the illiberal rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has become a reflection of what Biden wants to wring out of American society.
Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank, says that forthright discussion is what’s needed, rather than the ‘’industry standard’’ condemnation of attacks and appeals for calm.
‘’The latest violence demonstrates that the way the US has approached the relationship with Israel over the Palestinian issue is in deep crisis,’’ Bassuener told TRT World. ‘’If America is going to be a country that respects human rights, we should expect our friends to do so too.’’
Bassuener noted that the perception of Israeli policy towards Palestinians has shifted markedly in the US, with more politicians in the Democratic Party taking far more critical positions on the occupation. The Palestinian diaspora in the US has also become more vocal and politically powerful.
Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American US representative from the state of Michigan, was able to use to Twitter to express her outrage over an attack by Israelis on Palestinians in Haifa, tagging both Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
‘’If you're having trouble finding the courage to speak up against Israel's actions and stop supporting this inhumane violence, try imagining that this family isn't Palestinian. Maybe then they'll deserve human rights?’’ Tlaib wrote.
During the first and second Intifadas, the brand of politics Tlaib represents today simply did not exist, to say nothing of the technology.
The proliferation of Palestinian voices on social media has also made it harder to maintain the kind of mechanical narrative expressed in Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu.
‘’It’s very hard to maintain a policy priority transgenerationally,’’ Bassuener added.
The bipartisan consensus on Israel has had a difficult time remaining intact, especially following the cosy relationship between Trump and Netanyahu. But the issue is deeper than Netanyahu, with its root in the impossibility of maintaining a permanent state of low level warfare in the occupation of Palestinians and expecting political life to remain civil.
Recognising that Israeli politics under Netanyahu has become too extreme for any Oslo-era peace process to resume is still only an initial step. Acknowledging that the course of Israeli politics has become incompatible with peacemaking is a fact that is hard for the White House to admit, but is crucial to presenting a truthful picture of the problem to the American people.
‘’Expressions of concern by the state department are useless against the F-16s dropping precision munitions on Gaza. The only thing Israel understands is what hurts its interests in material ways,’’ Richard Silverstein, an American commentator on Israeli-Palestinian affairs and author of the Tikkun Olam blog, told TRT World. ‘’The US should immediately suspend all aid to israel until Israel stops attacking Gaza, removes Border Police from Haram al Sharif, and ends evictions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.’’
Creating material consequences for civilian casualties caused by weapons paid for by American taxpayers is not guaranteed to staunch the bleeding immediately. As Silverstein notes in his latest post, Trump torpedoed diplomacy with Iran in such a way that its leadership has little reason not to supply Hamas with increasingly sophisticated weapons, ones that can evade Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.
But even being able to pass through those defences, or overwhelm them, Palestinian militants in Gaza will not be able to achieve what can be called self defence. For what it’s worth, the same goes for Israel. Each side can only achieve the right to retaliate, but never fully defend itself. And the ‘’right to retaliate’’ is not a way to bring a cycle of bloodshed to a conclusion, where one side knows its attacks will be useless.
In truth, we see a vicious cycle of opportunistic vengeance carried out on a vastly asymmetric scale. Palestinians can’t reasonably defend themselves from American-made warplanes, but they can retaliate. Amid exchanges of retaliatory fire, there’s no reason to come to the negotiating table, just reasons to wait for the next chance at exacting revenge. That’s the grim reality Biden needs to publicly acknowledge.
The US cannot hope to advance human rights anywhere if it remains paralysed in its response to the crisis in Israel/Palestine. Deciding that the problem is too politically risky to solve or not worth prioritisation is not a solution. Until there is peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the US will not be able to say it promotes peace, human rights and dignity around the world without fear or favour.