Unconditional U.S. support of Israel fuels Jewish extremist violence

Tariq Kenney-Shawa

Foreign Policy  /  March 2, 2023

The Israeli far right sees Washington’s refusal to get tough on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as a green light for ethnic cleansing.

In January, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken touched down in Israel at a time when prospects for reviving the so-called peace process looked grimmer than ever. A week before his arrival, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. The next day, a Palestinian opened fire on Israeli settlers in the illegal settlement of Neve Yaakov in occupied East Jerusalem, killing seven people.

The surge in violence was the consequence of disturbing wider trends. 2022 saw the most Palestinians killed by Israelis since 2006, and the election of a far-right Israeli governing coalition with prominent members openly calling for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians—not to mention an unprecedented expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, skyrocketing attacks by settlers, and the rapid displacement of Palestinians.

For the Biden administration, the Israeli government’s unapologetic embrace of the far right presented an opportunity to live up to its lofty human rights rhetoric and restore respect for U.S. diplomacy shattered by the Trump administration. It was an opportunity to demand accountability from the leaders responsible for the deteriorating situation.

Instead, Israel was let off the hook and Palestinians were being told, once again, that they must wait and put their faith in a process that betrayed them long ago. Standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Blinken mechanically reiterated Washington’s support for a “two-state solution” and pleaded for both sides to restore calm.

By reverting to obsolete talking points that are being abandoned across the board, including by the man standing beside him, Blinken proved that not only is the U.S. government out of touch with reality, but it is actively refusing to acknowledge it. More important, the events after Blinken’s visit showed the world that Washington’s strategy is backfiring.

Instead of preserving the status quo of a stable Israeli occupation with minimal resistance from Palestinians and the international community, the Biden administration’s obstinate refusal to hold Israel accountable is in fact enabling its violent implosion.

As the most powerful country in the world, the United States regularly wields its diplomatic, economic, and military influence around the globe to get what it wants. If the United States were really the “honest broker of peace” it has long claimed to be, then there are several steps the Biden administration could take to prove it.

For instance, it could condition the roughly $3 billion in U.S. tax dollars it provides to Israel annually on the country abiding by international law and ending the occupation. It could also recognize Israeli war crimes, such as the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, as violations of the Leahy Law, which stipulates that U.S. weapons must only be used for defensive purposes.

Alternatively, Washington could hold Israel to the same standards that it applies to other countries—by ending its practice of shielding Israel from accountability in international forums like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court. Of course, these would represent the bare minimum, a mere fraction of the tools available to the most powerful country in the world.

Washington is now reaping what it sowed. Blank checks and special treatment have fed Israeli hubris.

However, the United States has never been an honest broker of peace, and it is becoming clear that Washington is now reaping what it sowed. Blank checks and special treatment have fed Israeli hubris.

Following Blinken’s visit, the Biden administration excitedly announced that it had averted further crisis by effectively bribing the Palestinian Authority to withdraw support for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel settlement expansion in exchange for explicit Israeli commitments to reduce the number of deadly raids into Palestinian cities, temporarily freeze settlement construction, and pause home demolitions.

Just days after the agreement was reached, Israeli soldiers killed 11 Palestinians and injured nearly 500 people in a raid in Nablus, announced the construction of more than 7,000 settlement units, and demolished several Palestinian homes near Bethlehem. So much for U.S. influence.

Meanwhile, Israel is laying the foundation for a third intifada—illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand throughout the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem; Gaza remains under a suffocating blockade; and Israel’s leaders have made it clear that they have no interest in allowing Palestinian statehood.

Protesters wave Israeli flags in front of a large banner showing a scowling Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel on March 9.

All of this contributes to the realization that a Palestinian state formed under even the most idealistic circumstances would be sovereign in name only, a reality Palestinians have been alerting the world to for years. So confident in their immunity, Israeli forces have killed Palestinian American journalists, destroyed European Union-funded preschools, and ethnically cleansed entire neighborhoods without fear of facing justice. Indeed, this was all enabled by the most powerful country in the world, which has made clear time and again that it will prioritize frictionless ties with Israel over the human rights norms it claims to uphold and its own vision of a peace process.

By refusing to uphold its professed commitment to human rights when it comes to Palestinians, the United States is now facing the inevitable collapse of the status quo it has helped cultivate for so long. The Biden administration’s decision to ignore the Israeli government’s growing hubris and escalating violence in the West Bank will only add fuel to the fire.

By refusing to take a stand against Israeli extremism, Washington is effectively giving Israel’s leaders the green light to carry out their most violent fantasies.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich explicitly called on the state to carry out ethnic cleansing, saying Hawara should be “wiped out” by the Israeli military.

Last week, after two settlers were killed in the Palestinian town of Hawara, hundreds of Israeli settlers rampaged through the town in what many described as a pogrom. While Israeli soldiers looked on, they attacked Palestinians—killing at least one person and injuring around 390 others—and set fire to cars and homes.

In response, far-right Israeli lawmaker Zvika Fogel applauded the settler terrorism, saying: “A closed, burnt Hawara—that’s what I want to see.” Days later, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich explicitly called on the state to carry out ethnic cleansing, saying Hawara should be “wiped out” by the Israeli military.

These are not fringe voices; rather, they represent the widely held beliefs of a society built on the systematic dehumanization of Palestinians. Policymakers in Washington must recognize Israel’s popular embrace of far-right extremism as not merely an aberration but the logical culmination of decades of Israeli absolutism that has been rewarded and encouraged by its most powerful international benefactor at nearly every stage.

Things can get much worse. The facade of legitimacy that enshrouded the U.S.-led peace process has helped entrench Israeli domination by distracting Palestinians and the international community with myths of eventual statehood in exchange for submission. For decades, this approach achieved U.S. and Israeli goals of managing the status quo as quietly as possible—with minimal resistance. Now, when Israeli leaders call for ethnic cleansing, the world should take them seriously because they are confident that those with the power to stop them are unwilling to do so.

Tariq Kenney-Shawa is a U.S. policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network; he holds a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University and has previously worked at the Middle East Institute and MSA Security, a consulting firm