The Time Has Come for an American Change on Israel

President Joe Biden has finally uttered the magic word of cease-fire in a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they discussed the ongoing military conflagration between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Previously, the Biden Administration had avoided the term and, instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of “sustainable calm,” as if to sidestep a term that may affect Netanyahu’s military “full-force” assault that will “take time.” But it appears that the US president’s wish to end the hostilities went by the wayside since Israel is continuing its punishing campaign against the besieged coastal enclave, as it did on many occasions before.

In the meantime, and despite the reluctant use of the word, President Biden and his administration have missed no opportunity to reiterate support for Israel’s “right to defend itself” against rocket attacks from Gaza. This right of self-defense, as of this writing, has killed at least 227 Palestinians, including 64 children, and injured more than 1,600. Rocket attacks from Gaza have killed 12 Israelis, including two children, and wounded some 300 others. Some 20 other Palestinians were killed in the West Bank in clashes with occupation forces. According to the United Nations, 58,000 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes because of indiscriminate Israeli bombardment of Gaza neighborhoods.

It is hard to interpret the Biden Administration’s objection to an immediate cease-fire but as an underhanded ploy to give Israel’s military machine extra time to inflict more harm on the already impoverished and besieged Gaza Strip and its people. 

It is hard to interpret the Biden Administration’s objection to an immediate cease-fire but as an underhanded ploy to give Israel’s military machine extra time to inflict more harm on the already impoverished and besieged Gaza Strip and its people. To be sure, Israel has succeeded once again in making the United States, and now the Biden White House, complicit in its policies and practices. Considering the domestic and international outcry against Israel’s latest assault on the Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem, Biden’s position will cause a serious dent in US credibility and in his claim of restoring the United States’ position as the premier defender of human rights and international law around the world.

Where the Administration Stands

At different junctures of communications with Israel and its leaders since the eruption of protests in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood during Ramadan, President Biden and administration officials have shown a clear preference for the Israeli story. Perhaps Blinken’s promise to the group, Democratic Majority for Israel, during the presidential campaign to keep differences between a Biden Administration and Israel from public view is responsible. It is also possible that responsibility lies in the president’s reluctance to devote too much time to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict now that he is focused on addressing Iran’s nuclear program and domestic concerns related to COVID-19, the economy, and climate change, among others. Then again, perhaps it is the likely combination of the two with Biden’s proven record of full-fledged advocacy for Israel. What is sure is that the last few weeks have seen an unfortunately tepid response from a young administration entrusted in shepherding through a new foreign policy that reclaims the moral compass lost during four years of the Trump Administration.

Reclaiming this moral ground requires some commitment to its requirements, such as devoting time and energy in a meaningful way. As the carnage continued in Gaza, and perhaps to signal that the United States would not consume itself in the Middle East, Secretary Blinken saw fit to visit Denmark for discussions with its leaders on bilateral relations. Not to be caught uninvolved, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated the Pentagon’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security, a position he had stated last April.

As he goes about his mission, Amr undoubtedly will be challenged by the administration’s obvious reluctance to question Israeli policies and practices.

The administration did send Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to try to de-escalate the situation between Israel and Hamas. As he goes about his mission, Amr undoubtedly will be challenged by the administration’s obvious reluctance to question Israeli policies and practices. He also will not find receptive Israeli officials, who are counting on the current campaign to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities and want more time to finish the job. Just as importantly, as casualties in Gaza mount and emotions become more raw with each passing day, Amr may likely find that negotiating with the Palestinians is fruitless at the present time, specifically because of the American position. Despite his experience, Amr may find that his mission is mere wheel-spinning as the administration dithers about its position vis-à-vis Israel.

As Amr was meeting with Middle Eastern officials, the United States was thwarting international attempts at the United Nations to arrive at a cease-fire. On May 16, and for the third time in a week, the United States blocked the issuing of a statement at the Security Council that would call for a cessation of hostilities. US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield justified that action by saying that the Biden Administration is “working tirelessly through diplomatic channels” to end the fighting, once the combatants decide to do so. That was an interesting claim because news had emerged that the administration had on May 5 submitted to Congress a request to supply Israel with $735 million worth of smart bombs and munitions for the Israeli army, just as the latter was targeting media centers, health facilities, and residential buildings in its relentless pursuit of war crimes in Gaza.

Perhaps the most significant and principled declaration by the US government since the start of the current bout of tensions was a State Department spokesperson’s statement that the administration is concerned about the eviction of Palestinians from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where they have lived “for generations.” That came as the Israeli government was calling the expulsion and displacement a “real estate” dispute that was being exploited by the Palestinian Authority and “terror groups.” At the same time, the administration has made no effort to reverse President Donald Trump’s designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights—both violations of international law—or to reopen the American consulate in Jerusalem that deals with the Palestinians. It is also noteworthy that President Biden has not yet appointed an American ambassador to Israel who could try to reverse the utter bias that the former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had practiced.

The Gradual Loss of the Political Base

The Biden Administration’s obvious reluctance to criticize Israel’s actions or try to effect some change in the course of US-Israel relations is only a continuation of a decades-old position that cannot be assumed to change overnight. But change is taking place, albeit slowly and gradually, among the political base of pro-Israel support in the United States. Such change is also happening in international public opinion toward Israel and the Palestinians, as has been demonstrated in myriad protests in many capitals against the Israeli assault on Gaza.

The Biden Administration’s obvious reluctance to criticize Israel’s actions or try to effect some change in the course of US-Israel relations is only a continuation of a decades-old position that cannot be assumed to change overnight. But change is taking place.

Among the general American public, Israel still commands high favorability, at 75 percent according to a recent Gallup poll. But another poll by the organization put cumulative support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state at 55 percent. There were increases in this support between 2019 and 2020 across the political spectrum of Independents (+3 percent to 57 percent), Democrats (+8 to 70 percent), and Republicans (+11 to 44 percent). Over the last few weeks, many protests against Israeli policies and demonstrations in support of Palestinian rights were organized in US cities that drew hundreds of thousands of Americans. To be sure, the outpouring of sentiment has been unprecedented in American society; some of it is a result of a deeper awareness and more exposure to daily events, but much is a reflection of a palpable rise in progressive ideals and increase in activism.

The US Congress has become a serious battleground between purveyors of the old American position on Israel/Palestine and holders of informed progressive views. As Republican representatives and senators in Congress continue to vocally defend Israeli policies—and indeed criticize none other than Joe Biden for his purportedly weak support of Israel—Democrats are seeing dramatic shifts. From Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), to progressive members of the House of Representatives, to a relatively large group of Democratic senators, the administration is under great pressure not only to be more even-handed but also to proactively denounce Israel’s policies and practices. More than 140 progressive organizations in the American mainstream as well as activist celebrities have also signed petitions demanding radical change in the US position.

Less prominent but important has been the call by half of the Jewish Democratic members of the House for more engagement by the administration in stopping the bloodshed in Gaza as President Biden was still dithering about calling for a cease-fire. Israel’s most ardent supporter in the Senate, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), issued a scathing statement following Israel’s destruction of a building housing media organizations in Gaza. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), another Israel supporter, could not but sign a bipartisan statement demanding a cease-fire in Gaza despite Israel’s rejection of it. Not to be outdone in his devotion to Israel, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) rejected said statement.

Restoring American Credibility

It would be wishful thinking that Israel will lose, any time soon, the broad bipartisan support that it has enjoyed in the American political arena for decades. Furthermore, it would be folly to discount the power its supporters and defenders wield, not only in the American capital but also around the country. Grassroots support, especially among right-wing evangelical Christians, has allowed for the passing of legislative and administrative measures practically criminalizing the criticism of Israel and characterizing it as a form of anti-Semitism.

The change currently taking place in the American mainstream, as Israel goes all out to punish the Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, is welcome. President Biden and his administration cannot afford to ignore it and continue to pretend that Israel commits no wrong and to defend it domestically and in the international arena. Credibility should not be taken lightly, and the administration would do well to address the hypocrisy evident in its claim of wanting to restore morality in its foreign policy and respect for human rights and international law while it defends Israeli actions. To be sure, President Biden will not be able to pressure Russia to withdraw from occupied Ukrainian territory or China to respect its Uyghurs if he keeps covering up for Israel’s war crimes in Gaza and its continued attempt to dispossess even more Palestinians.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here