The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. struggles to face Israeli-Palestinian reality

6 min

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in a period of intense crisis. The deadliest Israeli army raid in years, which claimed at least nine Palestinian lives in the Jenin refugee camp, was followed by an attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem by a Palestinian gunman, who killed seven civilians. In a reflection of how entrenched the cycle of violence is in the Holy Land, it emerged that the assailant’s grandfather had been murdered 25 years ago allegedly by a Jewish supremacist. The ideological bedfellows of those extremists are now in power in Israel.

Arriving in Tel Aviv on Monday, the United States’ top diplomat called for “urgent steps to restore calm” between Israelis and Palestinians. But his entreaties may not go very far. Blinken’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, including sit-downs with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, comes at a fraught moment. Tensions are mounting between Israelis and Palestinians, after a surge in vigilante attacks carried out by Jewish settlers in the West Bank and raids by Israeli security forces, as well as a spike in attacks carried out by Palestinian militants. There is turmoil, too, within the Israeli political system, as Netanyahu’s new far-right ruling coalition appears bent on overhauling the country’s judiciary, a move critics fear would erode Israeli democracy and pave the way for further Palestinian dispossession.

There appears little love lost between Netanyahu and President Biden, no matter the latter’s long-standing embrace of Israel. Netanyahu pinned his sail to the mast of former president Donald Trump and has actively courted right-wing allies in the United States. The Biden administration, meanwhile, perhaps hoped that an earlier anti-Netanyahu coalition government in Israel would manage to hold its ground and lower the temperature around the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. But that seems a bet they lost — the fragile coalition, like fragile coalitions before it, collapsed and Netanyahu returned to power after elections last November with the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

In a joint news conference Monday alongside Netanyahu, Blinken gestured to the friction between Israel’s leader and the Biden administration. He suggested that Netanyahu’s legislative plans to curb the power of the judiciary would be best served by a genuine public “consensus” and noted that “we have seen lately how vibrant Israeli civil society is” — a reference to the mass protests against Netanyahu’s government that have rocked Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities for the past month.

Israelis and Palestinians both skeptical of U.S. role

If flustered, Netanyahu, a wily politician, did not show it. “We share common interests, and common values,” the Israeli leader said before Blinken. “We will remain, I assure you, two strong democracies.” Those common interests were high on Blinken’s own agenda — chiefly, shared concerns over Iran and the advances of its nuclear program, as well as shared aspirations for greater normalization of ties between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors. U.S. and Israeli officials are also working on clearing up bureaucratic hurdles to allow Israeli citizens visa-free travel to the United States.

What is far less clear is what, if anything, the Biden administration can do to revive the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and provide any substance to the United States’ insistence that it believes in the two-state solution — that is, the emergence of a viable, independent Palestinian state. The current Israeli government is the outcome of a long rightward shift in the country’s politics that has now installed extremist Jewish supremacists who actively oppose any Palestinian state and push for discriminatory policies against Arabs into top ministerial posts.

Meanwhile, the enfeebled and unpopular Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, is losing its grip over the West Bank, where many Palestinians now view the entity as an accomplice in the decades-old Israeli military occupation. For years, a status quo where millions of Palestinians exist with fewer rights than their Israeli neighbors has been acceptable to both the United States and Israel — the latter retained de facto military control over the West Bank, while the former shielded Israel from censure in international forums.

But the fig leaf of the peace process and the two-state solution is drying up. The Trump administration, which took many of its cues from the Jewish settler movement, touted a vision for peace that more or less dispensed with a real Palestinian state. Palestinians themselves have focused their appeals on their lack of rights, not statehood. Both international human rights organizations and Israeli ones have come out and declared the prevailing conditions in the occupied territories to be tantamount to apartheid.

Netanyahu drags Israeli democracy into the illiberal mire

You won’t hear much about these deeper concerns from Blinken. And Palestinian activists and analysts don’t see the United States as a good faith mediator between both sides. Blinken won’t “call for an end to the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands nor will he condemn the discourse and policy maneuvers of the new fascist coalition government,” Yara Hawari, a senior policy analyst at Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, told me. “For Palestinians, this visit is insignificant. We have very little expectations from the U.S. administration, the Israeli regime’s staunchest ally.”

Some Israelis, too, want to see stronger public rhetoric from Blinken and his colleagues, messages that would communicate the new gravity of the moment. “There is a sense that Washington is still in a mode relevant to last year — a combination of expressions of concern with anticipation of a need to tend to the issue once or twice a year, when firefighting is called for,” Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum and a former senior adviser to the late Israeli prime minister and president Shimon Peres, told me, referring to Biden’s engagement with the previous Israeli government. “This is hardly adequate given the nature of the emerging new Israel.”

“The breadth and pace of change, which threaten Israeli democracy, our security and regional stability, call for a much more forceful application of the brakes,” Novik added. “And there is only one player with the power to apply those brakes effectively.”

But the Biden administration is keen to not entangle itself further in the Middle East, and it’s hard to imagine it has the stomach for a real confrontation with Netanyahu.