Al-Jazeera / July 19, 2021
Two months after Gaza ceasefire, US is focused on preventing further crisis without a long-term strategy, say experts.
Washington, DC – The Israel-Palestine conflict is expected to take up much of the discussion between United States President Joe Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah II when the Jordanian leader visits the White House on Monday for the first time since Biden was elected.
The meeting comes two months after a shaky ceasefire took hold between Israelis and Palestinian faction Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and after a new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett emerged in June.
But while Israel and Palestine will be on the agenda in Washington, experts say Biden is not prepared to invest the political capital needed to help Israelis and Palestinians reach a solution to the decades-long conflict. Instead, they argue the administration is seeking to keep a lid on the conflict amid other, more pressing foreign and domestic challenges.
“Biden looks at this issue as a menace. And his instinct is stuck in another era of Democratic politics where you just don’t challenge Israel’s policies,” Shibley Telhami, a professor and pollster at the University of Maryland, told Al-Jazeera.
“Whereas the Democratic Party’s public opinion wants to have criticism of Israel,” Telhami told Al-Jazeera.
For decades, the US has been a staunch defender of Israel in the international arena such as the United Nations Security Council, while also providing the Israeli government with billions in military assistance.
The US currently provides $3.8bn in annual military aid to Israel and Biden has promised Israeli leaders an additional $1bn to replenish the Iron Dome missile defence system and $750m in precision-guided bombs and missiles.
As the Gaza war was under way in May, Biden and his team scrambled to gain a ceasefire with Egypt’s help and in the process, the US president leaned on the prospect of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a pillar of US policy in the Middle East.
“We still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer,” Biden told reporters at a White House press conference with South Korea President Ban Ki-Moon.
But many Palestinians say Israeli settlement-building in the occupied Palestinian territories has made a two-state solution impossible, and the promise of negotiations to that end are cover to maintain the status quo.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, also said Biden’s reference to a two-state solution “doesn’t mean anything, unless you’re prepared to tether your words to a set of policies designed to make that a reality”.
“Rhetoric without consequence is rhetoric without consequence,” Miller told Al-Jazeera.
Biden and his team say they are focused on the immediate imperative of re-engaging with Palestinians and avoiding confrontation with the new Bennett government as Washington seeks detente with Iran in stalled nuclear talks.
In May, Biden promised to marshal an international effort to help rebuild Gaza, called on Israel to treat “Israeli citizens, whether they be Arab or Jew” equally, and demanded a stop to the forced expulsions of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr was in the region last week meeting with Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials as well as civil society groups. The Biden administration has promised to reopen a US consulate in the Palestinian territories and Amr asked Israel to ease financial restrictions on the Palestinian Authority.
“We are re-engaging and building back that partnership with the Palestinian people,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on July 14, repeating a phrase that has become a mantra for Biden officials.
“Our policy is one that seeks to achieve equal measures of safety, of security, of prosperity, and, importantly, of dignity for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Price said.
Biden met at the White House in June with outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Rome. Biden has issued an invitation to Bennett to visit the White House in August, but no date has been released for that visit.
“It’s a policy of what I call the three Cs,” Miller said. “Number one, contain differences so there is no conflict, there’s no public soap opera. Number two, cooperate whenever you can and number three, avoid issues that are likely to be unbelievably contentious and provocative.”
For Palestinians, bringing about equal measures of security for Israelis and Palestinians is not realistic without challenging the system of Israeli apartheid, said Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
“It took the killing of over 250 Palestinians for President Biden to just say ‘ceasefire’,” Abuznaid told Al-Jazeera.
“Ceasefire doesn’t stop apartheid, ceasefire doesn’t stop the expulsion, ceasefire doesn’t stop the checkpoints, ceasefire hasn’t stopped the arrests, the oppression that we see in the West Bank or the blockade of Gaza,” Abuznaid said. “There’s no interest on behalf of the administration in putting forward the political capital necessary to achieve a solution.”
During the latest conflict, the US blocked the United Nations Security Council three times from condemning Israel’s bombing of Gaza and Biden was criticized for his slow reaction to the crisis. The Biden administration “blundered” when it failed to immediately condemn the forced expulsions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem that led to the May conflict, Telhami said.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of Democratic legislators are pushing the Biden administration to take a stronger line with Israeli leaders by conditioning US aid.
Last month, 73 Democrats in the US House of Representatives urged Biden to reverse policies set by the Trump administration, including a formal withdrawal of Trump’s “peace plan” proposed in January 2020 that many saw as opening a door to Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands.
The House members, led by Representative Gerry Connolly, called on Biden to “strongly oppose the forced expulsion via eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem” and to “make clear that the US considers settlements to be inconsistent with international law”.
Forced expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah have paused, but without intervention by the Israeli government in court proceedings to stop them, they will most likely begin again which means a renewed crisis lies ahead.
“The Bennett government has carte blanche, a free ticket to continue the status quo uninterrupted,” Abuznaid said.
William Roberts is an independent journalist, Washington, DC