Violence in Israel, Palestine Draws Reluctant Biden into the Fray

Tensions in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories have escalated significantly in the last week. Israeli security forces and armed, violent Israeli settlers confronted Palestinians, who united in protest over forced evictions in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Israeli forces also tried to close off the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which led to protests and clashes that eventually drew Hamas and Israel into reciprocal attacks that have led to hundreds of deaths and injuries, mostly in the Gaza Strip, with thousands displaced. Up to now, President Joe Biden has been wary of wading too deeply into Middle East affairs, preferring instead to turbocharge his Democratic predecessor’s “pivot to Asia.”

However, pressure from Democratic lawmakers and activists, combined with the dreadful scenes of what some are suggesting could be a third Palestinian intifada, have drawn President Biden into a situation he clearly hoped he could avoid. Progressive lawmakers in the House of Representatives were particularly active in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Rep. Marie Newman (D-Illinois) and 24 of her colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken calling on the administration to pressure Israel to end its forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey) also urged the administration to get involved through congressional briefings and further diplomacy.

Thanks to this and other kinds of pressure, the White House and top administration officials were busy this week trying to de-escalate the situation facing Palestinians and Israelis through bilateral diplomacy and tepid calls for peace, though many have sardonically described the efforts as “bothsidesism.” As part of the administration’s diplomatic outreach, National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, multiple times over the last week, reportedly urging Israel to reach a “sustainable calm” with the occupied territories and “pursue appropriate measures” to keep the peace. In both cases, NSA Sullivan reaffirmed the United States’ longtime and one-sided policy of supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself” and condemned Palestinians for violence—this is despite the fact that the Israeli government clearly failed to “pursue appropriate measures” to maintain peace.

As part of US-Israeli talks, President Biden himself spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the ongoing situation, as did Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Blinken also spoke with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III held a call with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. In each case, the Biden team made clear that it steadfastly supports Israel in this latest conflict, only offering desultory remarks about Israel’s need to de-escalate tensions and avoid civilian deaths in Gaza. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) summed up the administration’s biased approach most succinctly, saying on the House floor, “To read the statements from [the Biden Administration] and leaders of both parties, you’d hardly know Palestinians existed at all.”

The administration’s outreach to Palestinian and other Arab officials arguably sends a worse message. Direct US-Palestinian discussions focused on what the Biden Administration considers to be Palestinians’ duty to avoid violence and lacked any clear support for Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves against Israel’s actions. President Biden penned a letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Secretary Blinken held a phone call with Abbas. More broadly, the administration attempted to mobilize other Arab leaders to pressure the Palestinians, perhaps inadvertently reinforcing the perception by many observers that officials in this administration hold the same biases against the Palestinians—and Arab nationals more generally—that Palestinians are inherently more violent than their Jewish neighbors. No efforts were made to ask foreign officials to reach out to the Israeli government to reduce tensions. NSA Sullivan held a call with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, as the latter was visiting Washington when the situation in Jerusalem began to escalate. Secretary Blinken also held a meeting with Safadi during his time in the US capital.

Aside from the flurry of diplomatic communications, the Biden Administration showed its true colors in the actions it took alongside its rhetoric. In a positive step, the State Department dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to Israel in order to reach out to both parties and de-escalate the situation. However, at the UN Security Council (UNSC), Washington appears to be defending Israel by scuttling multiple UNSC attempts to release a public statement criticizing Israel’s actions and urging restraint. While the administration claims its moves are solely meant to buy time while it conducts behind-the-scenes diplomacy, in practice, it fails to distinguish the policies of the current administration from those of the former one, and it further undermines Washington’s self-proclaimed status as “honest broker.”

It is cliché to say that every Middle East development is somehow a test for a US president, but in many ways, what is happening in Israel and Palestine is testing the resolve of a president who had little interest in wading into a conflict that his predecessor made a linchpin of his foreign policy. Furthermore, it tests President Biden’s relationship with the new Democratic Party he now leads—a party that is no longer reflexively pro-Israel and one that recognizes Palestinians’ struggles as central to the human rights-centered foreign policy President Biden promised.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarchate Religious Freedom Act. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) introduced H.R. 3056 that, according to the congresswoman’s press release, would hold Ankara accountable for its continued violations of “the religious freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Christians, and other religious minorities.” The bill requires the executive branch, among other things, to detail the secretary of state’s plan for using diplomacy, foreign assistance, and other means to promote religious freedom in Turkey.

Condemning Turkey’s Illegal Occupation of Cyprus. House Republicans also put forth a measure critical of Turkey, this one condemning Ankara for its occupation of part of the island of Cyprus. H. Res. 376 calls on Turkey to remove its 35,000 troops and some 200,000 Turkish settlers from that country.

Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. Senators Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) reintroduced a bill known as the TRAP Act that seeks to reform how the United States responds to requests made by authoritarian countries to the International Criminal Police Organization, or INTERPOL. S. 1591 specifically cites Turkey as an abuser of the system and essentially demands that US agencies refrain from extraditing anyone sought under an INTERPOL red notice without first determining that such a notice is valid. While not specifically mentioned, such a law would also interfere with other governments’—like Iran’s—attempted harassment.

Hezbollah Money Laundering Prevention Act. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) announced that she is proposing legislation to prohibit financial institutions of opening bank accounts for members of Hezbollah and to sanction those same financial institutions if they enable Hezbollah’s money laundering activities.

Senator Cruz Legislation on Israel. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is pushing a pair of pro-Israel legislative measures. First, he successfully ushered through committee an amendment to a bill focused on China that adopts a 2015 US definition of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and would reduce US engagement with states that decide to engage in BDS actions against Israel. Later it was reported that Cruz and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) are preparing to reintroduce legislation in their respective chambers that would bar the executive branch from withdrawing US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

Amending War Powers Resolution. Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 3129 that would reform how presidents wield war powers authorities by amending current law to ensure that presidents consult Congress annually to explain their use of military force abroad. This would help clarify how and why the United States uses force and would have an impact on Washington’s continued use of force in places such as Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Condemning Hamas, Supporting Israel. Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Florida) announced this week that he will put forward a resolution condemning Hamas for its role in the latest violence and expressing US support for Israel.

2) Hearings and Briefings

The Palestinian Nakba: What Happened in 1948 and Why It Still Matters. On May 10, the Middle East Institute hosted a virtual panel with Rep. Rashida Tlaib to discuss the significance and relevance of the Nakba, in which an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes in 1948 ahead of the creation of Israel. Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, explained that the Nakba continues today through legal maneuvers like the recent case in an Israeli court to expel six Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem (Israel’s Supreme Court postponed the hearing on this case on May 9). On US policy, Tlaib called out her colleagues in Congress for denying the history of discrimination against Palestinians in Israel and, while she commended the resumption of US funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, she criticized unconditional US support of Israeli apartheid, the denial of rights to refugees, and the erasure of Palestinian life and culture.

Senator Murphy Outlines Middle East Policy. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) made a round of press appearances this week, first outlining his recent trip to the Middle East and then sitting down for a conversation about the same. Murphy lauded the Biden Administration’s policy, which he says is focused on de-escalating tensions across the region. Most of his words in both briefings, however, focused on the Iran nuclear deal, and he reiterated calls for a swift return to the agreement.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Republicans Weigh in on Iran Policy. Senate Republicans have again taken measures to try and dissuade President Biden from returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Forty-four Republicans in the upper chamber signed onto a letter calling on the president to refrain from offering sanctions relief to Iran, contending that it would only jeopardize Israel’s security when Iran-backed Hamas is battling Israel from Gaza. Many of those same signatures showed up again on a separate letter to members of the international business community, warning them that their business constituents could face trouble should they resume business with Iranian companies after any sanctions are lifted. The senators assure these business leaders that a future Republican president would once again scuttle any diplomatic deal and, after that, companies doing business with Iran would be subject to sanctions. Finally, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee), who signed both letters mentioned above, penned an op-ed cautioning President Biden to reverse course on his preferred Iran policy and instead pursue a deal that would have the United States offering very few incentives while somehow putting an end to Iran’s contested behaviors in the region.

Lawmakers Write Letters on PLO Mission, Anti-Hamas Bill. Members of Congress delivered letters to key officials in an attempt to push their preferred policies. First, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) led a group of their Democratic colleagues in sending a letter to President Biden urging him to reengage, diplomatically, with the Palestinians by reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mission to the United States. On a different topic, Reps. Brian Mast (R-Florida) sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York) asking them to expedite consideration of his Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act, which looks to sanction any entity thought to be providing financial support to Hamas.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Vice President Harris Speaks with Tunisian President Saied. In one of her first forays into Middle East policy since leaving the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris held a phone call with Tunisian President Kais Saied this week. According to a White House readout, they talked about US-Tunisian relations and Harris reiterated US support for Tunis’s pursuit of difficult anti-corruption and economic reforms.

NSA Sullivan and Israeli Counterpart Agree to Working Group on Missiles. NSA Sullivan and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat reportedly agreed to stand up a bilateral working group to confront the threat of Iranian missiles that Tehran has supplied to its partners throughout the region.

President Biden Urged to Lift Some Iran Sanctions. This week, dozens of members of the Democratic National Committee wrote to President Biden and called on him to demonstrate good faith efforts to boost ongoing negotiation for a return to the JCPOA by lifting some Trump-era sanctions on Tehran.

White House Extends National Emergency on Yemen. The president extended a state of national emergency regarding Yemen this week. National emergency proclamations unlock a host of statutory powers like sanctions that the president intends to use to punish actors in Yemen responsible for undermining stability, security, and a potential peace agreement.

2) Department of State

Special Envoy Update. The State Department announced it would tap yet another special envoy, this one for Libya. Richard Norland, who was confirmed as US ambassador to Libya in 2019, will be critical to US efforts to broker a politically negotiated peace in Libya.

State Department Announces New Hezbollah Sanctions. The State Department announced a new slate of sanctions targeting seven members of Lebanese Hezbollah for their roles in the party and for facilitating its access to global financial institutions.

Iraq-US Relations under Changing Administrations. On May 10, the Brookings Institution hosted a virtual panel featuring Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood to discuss Iraqi-US relations under changing administrations. In his keynote remarks, Hood advocated for stronger ties between the United States and Iraq based on the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement. He emphasized the significance of US stabilization efforts that help rebuild communities and various institution building initiatives. Hood later said that American and Iraqi interests converge on promoting free and fair elections for Iraq and continuing the fight against the so-called Islamic State. On Iran, he expressed his concern for Iraq becoming a geopolitical battleground again and said an Iraqi-Iranian relationship should serve Iraqi national interests rather than exclusively those of Iran.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here