A bumbling Biden has deadly consequences for Palestinians
Joe Biden entered office in January promising to restore normalcy to US policy and to repair the damage caused by Donald Trump. But on Israel and Palestine, Biden has made very little progress.
Now, a crisis has erupted. The US was caught off guard, and the responses it has offered have been woefully inadequate, as Israeli bombardment of Gaza continues, killing over 220, and causing massive destruction. While Joe Biden has reluctantly agreed to “support,” though not actually call for, a ceasefire, he has repeatedly stressed Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
The United States insists it is working with "all parties" to bring about a ceasefire. Yet the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has vetoed three otherwise unanimous Security Council attempts to issue calls for ceasefires.
Such spineless action is consistent with past administrations, as are repeated statements from the president and senior officials supporting "Israel's right to self-defense" while - as Bernie Sanders points out - making no mention of similar rights for Palestinians.
While Biden has not strayed from the US’ traditional and staunchly pro-Israel stance, he is encountering a good deal more pushback from the progressive wing of the Democratic party than he might have seen as vice president five or more years ago. On a trip to Michigan on Tuesday, he was confronted by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib - the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress - who urged him to do more to protect Palestinian human rights.
"Biden has not even nominated an ambassador to Israel, nor appointed anyone to be an interlocutor with the Palestinians"
Last week, when New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang tweeted his unconditional support for Israel, the blowback was so fierce, he soon had to try to walk back his statement. In the Senate, Jon Ossoff, a Jewish Democrat from Georgia, led a statement of 29 Senators calling for Biden to press Israel for a ceasefire. That many Democrats calling for an action Israel opposes is unprecedented.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price found it difficult to answer when journalist Said Arikat asked him whether he condemned the killing of Palestinian children.
Biden seems to be caught between his professed desire to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, and his close ties to Israel and the pro-Israel wing of the Democratic party. He likely knew this quandary would arise and has been trying to keep his distance from the whole issue.
That was always going to be an exercise in futility and Biden and his experienced foreign policy team should have known better.
Earlier in his presidency Biden mused about restoring the two-state solution, which many serious observers dismissed as fantasy. But he also said he would not reverse many of Donald Trump's harmful actions, such as recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and moving the United States embassy there from Tel Aviv. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it clear that the administration does not see any opening for talks in the near future.
As a result, Biden has not even nominated an ambassador to Israel, nor appointed anyone to be an interlocutor with the Palestinians. That may seem like a bureaucratic nicety to some in this age of global phone calls and video meetings, but as tensions mounted over Israel impeding Palestinian access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan and the long-standing attempt by Israeli settlers, supported by the government, to take over homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, there was no one on the ground to meet with senior Israeli officials and try to head off some of their more provocative actions.
With Netanyahu hoping to escalate matters, it was left to the United States to try to deflect that effort. But vague calls for "restraint from all sides" were correctly understood by all parties as meaningless, and the violence in both Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa escalated. The US is still capable of restraining Israel, and these are precisely the times that such action is needed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, and quite possibly to stay out of jail, and he's not faring well. The current violence allows him to play the hardline role that suits him best, makes it harder for his opposition to rally against the sitting prime minister, and tempts some of his opponents to come over to his side.
Finally, as the annual Jerusalem Day march approached, the White House convinced Netanyahu to take a few measures that headed off even further provocations, but by that time, matters had gone too far. While Israel did refrain from these additional provocations, it maintained the massive police presence in the al-Aqsa compound. Given it was still Ramadan, anyone with knowledge of the situation should have known the other measures would be of little use if normal access to the mosque were not restored. Yet the Biden White House was apparently unaware of this.
Belatedly, Biden and Blinken have sent Hady Amr, the Undersecretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, to the region to try to secure a ceasefire. But he faces an uphill task as a mid-level diplomat who will not have the gravitas of an ambassador or a special envoy. More than that, the lack of clarity from Washington on policy will make his job even more difficult.
"This pullback only enables Israeli aggression while limiting Palestinian options even more"
While many of us have argued for years that the United States plays a counter-productive role in Israel and Palestine, this sort of half-hearted attempt to keep Washington's distance from the issue is even worse. As long as the US continues to unconditionally send Israel billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars in military aid every year, partners with it in weapons research and development, works closely with it on military and tactical plans in the region, and runs interference for Israel in international arenas, this pullback only enables Israeli aggression while limiting Palestinian options even more.
The US. is poised to sell Israel $735 million of equipment to create so-called “smart bombs.” There is strong Democratic pushback against this in Congress, which is hopeful. But it speaks volumes about the callousness of the Biden administration that they even need to be told not to do this when Israel is killing hundreds of civilians.
A ceasefire may be desirable, but by itself will only set the stage for the events of this week to start over again. The Biden administration’s endless refrain of “Israel’s right to self-defense” is being exposed as hypocritically hollow as the Palestinians, suffering far more devastation, are not extended that same right.
Some Democrats are starting to call out the White House on that contradiction. If we hope to reverse the United States’ counterproductive actions and policies, we need many more such voices, enough for the White House to hear them.
Biden can and must persuade Israel to accept the Hamas ceasefire offer. But until he treats Palestinians with the same respect he does Israelis, the US role will continue to be destructive.
Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.
Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick
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