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Opinion Blinken’s Israel visit is an exercise in damage control

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (Ronaldo Schemidt/REUTERS)
4 min

You had to feel for Secretary of State Antony Blinken. When he decided to visit Israeli and Palestinian leaders, he no doubt intended to preach restraint on both sides and express concern about inclusion of overtly racist voices in the Israeli government. But by the time he arrived, an Israeli raid in Jenin had resulted in seven deaths, six Israelis and one Ukrainian had been killed near a synagogue (followed by a separate attack in which a father and son were shot), and Israeli settlers had staged scores of attacks on Palestinians. Events were spinning out of control.

Meanwhile, Israelis protested planned “reforms” of the judiciary that would undermine a cornerstone of democracy: an independent judiciary. (The most alarming reform would allow a bare majority of the parliament — i.e. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — to override a court decision finding a government action or law unconstitutional. That, by definition, would make the courts subservient to the prime minister.)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 30 in Jerusalem. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Debbie Hill/Pool Photo via AP/The Washington Post)

“Cycle of violence” is an overused description of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rarely has the violence — attacks followed by counterattacks — appeared so furious and senseless. Asking Who started it? has become fruitless.

As Blinken said at the end of his trip, the immediate task is “defusing the current situation, the current cycle of violence; reducing tensions, not escalating them; calming things down, not ramping things up.” He vaguely suggested that his team would continue conversations with the parties. It didn’t provide much cause for optimism that things will change for the better.

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A day later, Americans got a hint of what Blinken is facing. In a CNN interview Wednesday, Netanyahu brushed aside questions about restoring prospects for peace. We shouldn’t get “hung up” on the issue, he intoned. Instead, he brought up his favorite topic — the Abraham Accords, which have improved Israeli relations with some Arab countries. What he calls “going around the Palestinians” in layman’s terms amounts to abandoning attempts to improve the volatile situation. Netanyahu’s response to greater conflict with the Palestinians is a non sequitur.

Blinken recalls all too well the acrimonious state of U.S.-Israeli relations during the Obama years. Slamming Israel in public proved counterproductive then, serving only to make Netanyahu more intransigent and aggressive while giving the Palestinians incentive to exploit a breach in U.S.-Israel relations.

Blinken therefore avoided public confrontation during the trip, expressing sympathy with Israeli families of victims and reaffirming “to Israel and its people the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.”

But there were signs that Blinken’s private conversations with Netanyahu (as well as with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas) were candid, at least. Blinken indicated he had raised the judicial reforms with Netanyahu and suggested that he had words with Netanyahu about the state of Israel’s democracy. (He spoke of shared values including “our support for core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society.”)

Blinken also told the press that he had affirmed that the United States would “oppose anything” that puts the goal of a two-state solution “further from reach, including but not limited to settlement expansion, legalization of illegal outposts, a move towards annexation of the West Bank, disruption to the historic status quo on Jerusalem’s holy sites, demolitions and evictions, and incitement and acquiescence to violence.” Reports indicate he pressed Abbas to reassert Palestinian Authority control of areas such as Jenin to prevent violent flare-ups.

Netanyahu, for his part, disingenuously claimed his judicial reforms would bolster Israeli democracy and insisted he was the one with the “hands on the wheel,” not the more extremist ministers in his government. (That might be little comfort to those who consider Netanyahu a large part of the problem.)

The prospects for improved relations between Israel and the Palestinians — let alone any possibility of a lasting peace — have never seemed so remote, in large part because the Israeli government has never seemed so bent on aggravating tensions.

In the case of the Israel, the Biden administration would do well to speak not just to the government but to the people of the still-democratic country, many of whom are newly energized and alarmed by the right-wing government. Is this the Israel they want? Is endless antagonism and constant retaliation what they want from their government?

After all, power in Israel rests in the hands of the voters who, albeit in a baroque system where small parties hold disproportionate weight, choose their leaders. Ultimately, they’re the ones in a position to say to their government: “Enough.”