The Sheikh Jarrah Intifada: Vital Lessons for President Biden

The recent Palestinian intifada instigated in early May by a series of local clashes between Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian activists over the anticipated expulsion of six Palestinian families from their residences in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, quickly developed a life of its own. It led to a national uprising throughout historical Palestine—the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, and Israel—and an eleven-day military confrontation in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. The quick and spontaneous sequence of events surprised all parties to the conflict including the United States, which was visibly caught unprepared and confounded by the nature and speed of the escalation.

The Biden Administration refrained for a long time from publicly calling for a cease-fire, continued to express its support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and obstructed United Nations efforts to end hostilities. But it dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to the Middle East to represent it in negotiations there. In the end, President Joe Biden broke with his own rule of never breaking with Israel and called for a cease-fire. On May 21, an-Egyptian brokered cease-fire was announced between Israel and Hamas that the administration is now hoping would hold.

To comment on the Biden Administration’s position during the crisis and to discuss potential lessons for the United States after the declaration of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) fellows and affiliates provided the following perspectives.

Three Significant Lessons for Washington
Khalil E. Jahshan, ACW Executive Director

The response by the US Administration was timid, slow and haphazard. President Joe Biden insisted on avoiding any confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu preferring instead to pursue two weeks of a quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomatic approach aimed at giving Israel ample time to inflict damage on Hamas’ military capabilities while farming out the pursuit of a cease-fire to Arab allies, particularly Egypt and Qatar. Eventually, a cease-fire was accepted by the parties but at a heavy price to everyone’s credibility, including the United States.

The two-week brutal and dramatic ordeal in Palestine presented Washington with three significant lessons to ponder. One, continued references to US unshakable support for Israeli military dominance that goes way beyond its “right to defend itself,” coupled with unjustified deference to Israel to dictate the nature and timing of a cease-fire was a sign of weakness on the part of a global power that has its own complex agenda for the region. This obsession with Israel’s security and equivocation tendency by Biden will come back to haunt him should he indeed pursue a negotiated settlement in the future to take advantage of the “genuine opportunity to make progress,” as he indicated on May 20.

Second, as an often ignored and protracted conflict, the Palestine issue has its own unpredictable time schedule that is quite difficult to synchronize with Washington’s complex global agenda. It tends to surprise American decision-makers when they least expect it. Washington must realize that its continued tendency to delay difficult decisions on Palestine will not serve long-term US interests in the region.

Third, the administration’s public emphasis on the next phase beyond the ceasefire is quite commendable. However, limiting the US role in post-ceasefire developments to humanitarian and reconstruction objectives is shortsighted and may be inconsequential. After all, the Palestine question is not simply a humanitarian crisis that can be rectified by outside financial assistance. It is vital that Secretary of State Antony Blinken—who is visiting the region today—take that into consideration as he meets with involved parties in the coming days.

The Chasm between the Administration and Public Opinion
Laurie King, Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown University

The United States knows very well that we have been here before—in 2006, 2008/09, 2012, 2014, and 2018/2019, when Israeli assaults on Gaza caused unimaginable horrors. If anything is new about this month’s criminal Israeli attack on the strip, it is that growing numbers of people throughout the world are no longer buying Israel’s media spin. Even ardent supporters of Israel have had to question the brutality with which its forces responded to attacks from Gaza, and they have indeed criticized the resort to indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and targets. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, the United Kingdom, and Israel itself. What was especially poignant was the unity displayed by Palestinians in all of historic Palestine, particularly in towns and villages inside Israel. The United States must understand this as an attestation to the fact that Palestinians are a national group whose aspirations for equality and justice can no longer be ignored.

Another new dimension that should give the Biden Administration pause is the growing resistance in the US House of Representatives and Senate to Israel’s criminal behavior and the widening chasm between the younger, progressive branch of the Democratic Party and the old guard, best represented by none other than President Joe Biden himself. This chasm is only going to widen as more Americans are exposed to increasingly unvarnished reporting on the conditions under which Palestinians inside Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the occupied West Bank live.

It is important that the Biden Administration not see the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, reached after 11 days of fighting, as ending the conflict. This month’s carnage is just one more reminder that the Palestinian Nakba continues. After a year in which Black Lives Matter protests and Native American activism in the United States have opened more eyes to the stark realities of racism and systemic violence at home, many Americans are now viewing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in a new, and harsher, light. Finally, although it is too early to declare that this is an historic inflection point in the United States’ treatment of Israelis and Palestinians, something is definitely shifting at the grassroots level in this country that bears watching—and encouraging.

The Two-State Solution Has Been Tried, and It Failed
Charles W. Dunne, ACW Non-resident Fellow

If anything has become clear in the last few weeks of violent chaos in the Holy Land, it is that Washington no longer has much of a constructive role to play in solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. The path to a “two-state” solution has been tried, and it failed: 30 years after the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords, Israel’s grip on the West Bank is tighter than ever, with no plausible path even to talking about how to separate the two peoples. President Donald Trump’s effort to ignore the Palestinians altogether and do a deal among Israel and key Arab states via the “Abraham Accords” has also proved to be a fiction. Even talk of a one-state solution is misleading, as if some political path to that bold future were even possible. In fact, thinking about the conflict as a negotiating problem is not only naive but actually harmful, inasmuch as the chimera of a political process simply wastes time while the situation on the ground becomes steadily worse.

It is best to realize that Israelis and Palestinians are now living in a one-state reality, as Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has argued, and act accordingly. For the US, this means dropping the diplomatic doublespeak and coming out in support of basic civil, political, economic, and human rights of all the peoples living on the land. As President Biden said last February, US diplomacy must be rooted in “America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Ultimately, the future of Israel/Palestine will be determined by the people who live there—Palestinian citizens of Israel very much included—and whatever the US does is largely irrelevant. Washington can help or hurt, but not impose or decide. If the Biden Administration does want to help, it should start by turning the president’s rhetoric into reality and apply it equally to all the people of the Holy Land.