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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden caught in a political bind over Israel policy

Palestinian men work to repair cars damaged, like the building behind them, in a February settler rampage in the West Bank village of Huwara, March 15, 2023. The Biden administration’s reversal of Trump-era policy on settlements in the occupied West Bank reflects not just its rising frustration with Israel, but the political bind the president finds himself in. (Samar Hazboun/The New York Times)

By Aaron Boxerman and Jonathan Weisman

The Biden administration’s reversal of Trump-era policy on settlements in the occupied West Bank reflects not just its rising frustration with Israel, but the political bind the president finds himself in, just days before the Democratic primary in Michigan, where a large Arab American population is urging voters to register their anger by voting “uncommitted.”

During a trip to Argentina on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called any new settlements “inconsistent with international law,” a break with policy set under the Trump administration and a return to the decadeslong U.S. position.

The Biden administration is increasingly fed up with the Israeli government’s conduct in the war in the Gaza Strip and beyond, with officials speaking out more publicly on contentious issues, said Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum think tank. As an example, he cited a U.S. decision to slap financial sanctions on four Israelis — three of them settlers — accused of attacking Palestinians in the West Bank at a time when settler violence against Palestinians has increased.

Yet, Novik called Blinken’s remarks “too little, too late,” adding that the administration’s moves “in practice, are disjointed. The message is there, but it’s a tactical statement where the overall strategy is unclear.”

The United States has long been Israel’s most important international ally. Since the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 left 1,200 dead in Israel, mostly civilians, Washington has consistently backed Israel’s blistering campaign in Gaza. The Biden administration has also shielded Israel from international censure by blocking cease-fire resolutions at the U.N. Security Council, even as the death toll in Gaza nears 30,000, according to health officials in the enclave.

That stance has increasingly left President Joe Biden in a no-win situation. His recent moves to press the Israeli government to wind down the war in Gaza and enter negotiations toward a Palestinian state have angered some ardent supporters of Israel in the United States. Yet they have come nowhere close to placating Israel’s fiercest critics on the political left and the Arab American community.

Shortly after Oct. 7, Arab Americans and progressive voters were largely standing back as even Jewish Republicans were praising Biden’s pro-Israel response.

Those same Jewish Republicans are now castigating the president. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which had backed the administration after Oct. 7, called the new settlement policy “yet another lowlight to its campaign of undermining Israel.”

The group ticked off other policies the administration has aimed at reining in the Israeli response to the Hamas attacks, including sanctions against West Bank settlers who commit acts of violence and pressuring the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recognize a Palestinian state.

“The communities at issue, located west of the West Bank security barrier, are not preventing peace,” said Matt Brooks, the group’s longtime CEO. “Palestinian terrorism is.”

But those steps fall far short of what young progressive voters and Arab Americans are demanding: an immediate cease-fire in the war in Gaza and a halt to U.S. military aid to Israel. Those calls are only getting louder as Netanyahu shows no sign of relenting.

“Biden’s sanctions on settler violence and the declaration that settlements are illegal would be inadequate at any time in recent years given how deep Israel’s apartheid has become entrenched,” said Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American who heads the Palestine-Israel program at the Arab Center in Washington. “But now he’s backing a genocide in Gaza. This is like showing up to a five-alarm fire with a cup of water while giving fuel to the arsonist.”

In fact, the political imperatives for the Israeli prime minister and for the U.S. president are opposite. Biden needs the war to end so he can reassemble the coalition that got him elected in 2020. But Netanyahu wants it to continue until the complete rout of Hamas, to stave off his own political reckoning from an angry electorate — and potentially help his ally, Donald Trump, return to power.

Blinken’s declaration appears to have been triggered by an announcement by Bezalel Smotrich, a senior Israeli minister, that a planning committee would soon discuss moving ahead with over 3,000 new housing units in the settlements. Most would be in Ma’ale Adumim, where three Palestinian gunmen killed one Israeli and wounded several others Thursday.

Smotrich called the new units “an appropriate Zionist response” to the attack.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly condemned settlement expansion in the West Bank — where roughly 500,000 Israelis now live among some 2.7 million Palestinians — as an obstacle to the long-standing U.S. goal of a two-state solution. In recent weeks, Netanyahu has repeatedly said he worked for years to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, which he has long said would endanger Israel’s security.

Palestinians hope the West Bank will be an integral part of their future independent state, but Israeli settlements have slowly taken over sizable chunks of the territory. Palestinian officials called Blinken’s declaration long overdue and not nearly enough.

“Reversing an illegal act by the previous administration has been overdue for 3 1/2 years,” Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to Britain, said in a phone call Saturday. “For the love of God, I don’t understand why Blinken and President Biden sat on their hands on this issue — and many others — for all this time.”

Still, Blinken’s declaration was “better late than never,” Zomlot said, adding that Palestinians expected “real actions” against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank rather than “baby steps.”

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