Al-Jazeera / February 17, 2023
Washington says it is ‘deeply troubled’ by settlement expansion but rejects UN efforts to denounce Israeli policies.
Washington, DC – The United States says it is “deeply dismayed” by Jewish settlement expansion plans. It also says a United Nations proposal to denounce the same settlements is “unhelpful”.
Palestinian rights advocates say the contradiction underscores President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to meaningfully counter violations that Israel’s far-right government has committed against Palestinians.
Without action, mere statements against Israeli policies are “meaningless”, said Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank.
“Israel knows it’s just an expression of dissatisfaction. Whether it’s a ‘regret’ or ‘deep concern’, whatever the diplomatic term du jour is, still the administration will not do anything practical about it to hold Israel responsible for its behaviour,” Jahshan told Al-Jazeera.
US President Joe Biden is a self-proclaimed Zionist and hawkish supporter of Israel. But on Monday, his administration issued rare, unsolicited criticism of an Israeli plan to build 10,000 settlement units in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, saying Washington was “deeply troubled” by the move.
A day later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom in rejecting the Israeli move.
“We strongly oppose these unilateral actions which will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and undermine efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution,” the diplomats said in a joint statement.
On Thursday, White House spokesperson Kaine Jean-Pierre said Washington was “deeply dismayed” by the Israeli announcement.
But an hour or so later, when State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel was asked about a draft UN Security Council resolution that would call on Israel to cease settlement activity, he denounced the measure.
“The introduction of this resolution is unhelpful in supporting the conditions necessary to advance negotiations for a two-state solution,” Patel told reporters without confirming whether Washington would veto the proposal.
Multiple media outlets have reported that the draft resolution could be up for a vote by the 15-member body as early as Monday.
The US has used its veto power at the UN Security Council dozens of times to protect Israel from criticism over its international law violations.
“The contradiction of the Biden administration’s stated position ‘opposing’ Israel’s settlement expansion yet rejecting any attempt to hold them legally accountable is proof of their complicity in the continuation of Israeli occupation and apartheid,” said Tariq Kenney-Shawa, US policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank.
“It’s simple — every US administration has said they oppose anything that will endanger a two-state solution, yet none have taken action to stop Israel’s illegal expansion,” Kenney-Shawa added in an email.
“This is because all the US cares about is preserving the status quo of Israeli domination — that is the heart of the issue.”
Israel, accused of imposing a system of apartheid by leading human rights organizations like Amnesty International, receives at least $3.8bn of US aid annually.
Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967. Since then, it has been building settlements housing hundreds of thousands of Israelis on the occupied lands, which Palestinians seek as part of their future state.
International law explicitly prohibits occupying powers from transferring their civilian population into occupied territories. The UN has called Jewish settlements a “war crime“.
Successive US administrations have said they are committed to the two-state solution while maintaining unconditional financial and diplomatic support for Israel — an approach that Jahshan said Biden has turned into an “art form”.
“He is not willing to somehow consider that Israel does something wrong and needs to be held accountable for it, even when he feels compelled to criticize it,” Jahshan said of Biden.
The recent US criticism of Israeli policies came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the country’s leadership in late 2022.
Many of Netanyahu’s domestic policies — including his anti-Palestinian rhetoric, efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary and alliance with ultranationalists — lower his appeal, even among staunch supporters of Israel.
Moreover, some US Democrats have been uneasy with the Israeli leader’s cosines with former President Donald Trump, while others have raised concerns over Netanyahu’s campaign to undermine Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, over the Iran nuclear deal.
But Biden has many times professed his “love” for Netanyahu. Even the Obama-Netanyahu rivalry did not lead to a significant change in Washington’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his final year in office, Obama signed a memorandum of understanding with Netanyahu granting Israel $38bn in US aid over 10 years.
The Obama administration, however, did withhold the US veto, allowing the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in December 2016.
Jahshan does not see a serious shift in US support for Israel or Biden pursuing practical consequences for Israel’s settlement policies because of Netanyahu.
Al-Shabaka’s Kenney-Shawa echoed that assessment. “Netanyahu may not be popular among swathes of the US public, even among Israel supporters, but that has never appeared to sway US administrations,” he said.
As it looks likely to block the UN Security Council proposal, the Biden administration also opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to peacefully pressure Israel to end abuses against Palestinians.
Washington has warned Palestinians against turning to the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice to pursue accountability for Israeli violations.
Asked what the US expects Palestinians to do about Israeli policies that Washington itself deems objectionable, Jahshan said: “Just basically take it and smile.”
Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC