Biden urged to threaten Israel weapons halt over far-right concerns

Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir, and other MKs from the Religious Zionism Party in front of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City (Yonatan Sindel - Flash90)

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  November 30, 2022

Pair urge president to withdraw military support to Netanyahu’s coalition government if Palestinians are expelled or land annexed.

Two former senior US diplomats have made a highly unusual call for the Biden administration to cut weapons supplies to Israel if the incoming far-right government uses them to annex Palestinian land, expel Palestinians or finally kill off the diminishing possibility of a Palestinian state.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel under George W Bush, and Aaron David Miller, a US Middle East peace negotiator during several administrations, have called for what they described as an “unprecedented and controversial” break from America’s largely unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel if “the most extreme government in the history of the state” pursues the stated aims of some of its members.

The pair warn that these could include “efforts to change the status of the West Bank”, in effect a warning against partial or wholesale annexation of Palestinian land to Israel. They also warned against increased use of force against Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel by incoming ministers who have espoused openly racist views, escalating settlement construction, and moves “to build infrastructure for settlers that is designed to foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution”.

“Israel should be told that, while the United States will continue to support its ally’s legitimate security requirements, it will not provide offensive weapons or other assistance for malign Israeli actions in Jerusalem or the occupied territories,” the pair wrote in The Washington Post.

Kurtzer and Miller also called for Washington to end its almost total protection of Israel in diplomatic forums, including the UN security council and the international court of justice, if its government takes “actions that deserve to be called out and condemned”.

The US almost always vetoes UN security council resolutions critical of Israel with a notable exception in 2016 when the Obama administration declined to block a resolution demanding an immediate halt to Israeli settlement construction.

“For a US president to put pressure on a democratically elected Israeli government would be unprecedented and controversial,” wrote Kurtzer and Miller. “But Israel has never before embarked on such a dangerous course. Political will matters, and this is a moment for Biden to show American strength and resolve.”

The pair said that pressure is warranted because the new coalition government under Israel’s incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has “brought to life the radical, racist, misogynistic and homophobic far-right parties”.

They noted that the new administration will include a “convicted inciter of hatred and violence” against Palestinians – Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party – as minister of national security “with far-reaching authority for the West Bank, Jerusalem and mixed Palestinian-Jewish cities in Israel proper”.

Israel’s outgoing defence minister, Benny Gantz, has warned that Ben Gvir’s authority over the border police in the West Bank will allow him to establish “a private army” in the occupied territories. The border police is armed with American weapons.

The new government is also expected to include Bezalel Smotrich, “who has called for the expulsion of Arabs [Palestinians]”. He is likely to have authority over the Civil Administration, which governs the West Bank. Gantz warned that would amount to “de facto annexation” of the occupied territories.

“Biden should also make it clear to Israel that his administration will have no dealings with Ben Gvir, Smotrich or their ministries if they continue to espouse racist policies and actions,” Kurtzer and Miller said.

Kurtzer and Miller also called for Washington to pressure the Palestinians to hold elections and to “curb violence and terrorism”.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem