On Wednesday, the US-Israel relationship seemed, well, normal. The US was supporting Israel in the ways it always has in the repeated confrontations with Hamas since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The US blocked the United Nations Security Council from making a statement that was critical of Israel.
US President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas… [and] conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself, while protecting civilians.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that “there is a very clear and absolute distinction between the terrorist organization Hamas that is indiscriminately raining down rockets targeting civilians, and Israel’s response defending itself, targeting the terrorists raining down rockets on Israel.”
Blinken dispatched Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to Israel to help in the de-escalation efforts.
But all that happened on Wednesday, three days after Hamas shot rockets into Jerusalem and five days after a serious uptick in violence in Jerusalem. These are short amounts of time in the grand scheme of things, but a long time in terms of an escalation.
The night before that, at the very same time that Hamas shot 150 rockets into Tel Aviv and central Israel, sending millions of Israelis into bomb shelters, the Biden administration’s spokespeople synced up on a “both sides” message, despite one side being Israel, a US ally and a democracy, and the other being Hamas, designated by the US as a terrorist organization.
“We condemn ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including against Jerusalem. We also stand against extremism that has inflicted violence on both communities,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Psaki soon moved on to adopt the Palestinians’ narrative that this is about the Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatzadik land dispute – the ruling on which has yet to be made, and whose residents have not actually been evicted – rather than taking in the context of rising Palestinian and Arab violence for the past month.
“We believe Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity, and prosperity,” Psaki said. “And US officials, in recent weeks, have spoken candidly with Israeli officials about how evictions of Palestinian families who have lived for years, sometimes decades, in their homes and of demolitions of these homes work against our common interests in achieving a solution to the conflict.”
Similarly, State Department spokesman Ned Price said minutes earlier that “Israel has the right to defend itself and to respond to rocket attacks. The Palestinian people also have the right to safety and security, just as Israelis do.
“We are also deeply concerned about the reported loss of life in Gaza and Israel, including the deaths of children as well as many innocent civilians injured. Similarly, in Jerusalem, where there reportedly have been hundreds of Palestinians injured, as well as Israeli police, we call on all sides to exercise restraint and to exercise calm.”
Emerging from bomb shelters soon after those statements were made, the Israelis paying attention to Psaki and Price may have scratched their heads as to why Israel’s greatest ally was lecturing them while they were rushing their families to safety from rockets launched indiscriminately at civilians by a terrorist organization.
Over the past week, the Biden administration’s messages also focused on “de-escalation.” They’re engaging at all levels, officials and spokespeople said, to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to de-escalate. Pushed by journalists in numerous press briefings to explain what that means, what they’re actually doing to bring the sides away from the brink of war, the members and representatives of the administration didn’t have much to say.
MORE THAN one senior Israeli official said they’re satisfied with the US position, pointing to statements by Biden and Blinken, as well as another by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, as “very supportive,” as well as to American efforts in the UN to block the statement against Israel.
In other words, the things that they are doing, on a practical level, are supportive of Israel, and they are keeping Israel in the loop, as an ally would be expected to do.
Israeli officials also said they don’t feel that the US is pressuring them to stop the operation in Gaza, another clear sign of support.
But one of those Israeli officials also said that they “don’t have a clue.”
For four months, the Biden administration made Israel and the Palestinians a low priority.
“They didn’t even think about Gaza and Hamas,” the official said. “When the Palestinian election came up, they didn’t know how to handle it. Elections are a democratic value, but Hamas could be elected, so they played the same game Israel did. They didn’t oppose it publicly, but they sent messages they won’t be mad if it’s postponed…. And now Hamas is frustrated.”
On the one hand, the Biden administration – from Blinken and Sullivan to Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield to State Department officials – really is constantly in contact with Israelis, as its members have been saying in their statements and briefings.
On the other, the administration has been fixated on Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah in private conversations, accepting the Palestinian narrative on the events.
“Nothing changed on the Temple Mount, except that Hamas is trying to present itself as defending the holy places, like Arafat did in 2000…. Hamas is frustrated that the Palestinian Authority postponed the election, thought it would strengthen them, and now they’re trying to build themselves up. The narrative that Jerusalem is the real problem is that of our opponents,” the Israeli official said.
Israeli officials have found themselves being asked by members of the Biden administration to stop a possible Supreme Court ruling to evict four Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.
“I don’t even understand the argument,” the official said. “We’re a democracy. We did the maximum to postpone the ruling, but we don’t control the courts. It’s the same court that evicts settlers.”
As for complaints about Israel using stun grenades in the al-Aksa Mosque, the official pointed out that Israeli police do not use guns at the holy site, but that people throwing boulders at worshipers at the Western Wall and Molotov cocktails at police cannot be given immunity just because they use a mosque as a launching pad.
An Israeli official also expressed concern that the Biden administration is more supportive in private conversations than in public statements.
“They used to say that Israel doesn’t have foreign policy, only domestic politics. Our feeling is they’re constantly looking at the left-wing extremes [of the Democratic Party] that are against us and their pressure on them,” the official said. “They’re putting Jerusalem in all their messages, even though it’s not really connected, and then they talk about the need for restraint on both sides.”
In a way, it seemed like the administration was caught off guard when the violence spiraled.
Some have argued that the government in Jerusalem did not take the potential for a conflagration seriously enough, and Israel will have to reckon with how its leadership vacuum left it unprepared. That may have colored Washington’s initial reaction.
But it didn’t have to be that way. UAE-based news site The National said that “Washington began to pay attention to messages from Arab governments only last week,” after weeks of warnings that a crisis was brewing in Jerusalem.
Shira Efron, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, also noted the “bifurcated message” coming from the Biden administration, with messages that create an equivalence between Israel and its enemies, while also saying “this is a just fight, Hamas is a cruel terrorist organization and Israel should fight back.”
Reading between the lines, Efron said she thinks the Biden administration is “saying Israel has got it; they can handle it. I don’t see them actively working to de-escalate.”
Even Amr’s visit may be largely symbolic, because, as Efron pointed out, the US doesn’t speak with Hamas. At most, Amr can work with other mediators that do speak with Hamas, like Turkey, Qatar or Egypt, and then relay messages to Israel.
Efron questioned whether the Biden administration has “a road map for de-escalation.”
She noted the Biden administration has de-emphasized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “They have bigger fish to fry, like China or climate change, but the fact is that there is no assistant secretary for Near East affairs, and there is no ambassador here.
“Even the most competent and well-meaning person – and I think [Amr] does mean well – cannot do this on his own,” Efron said. “He has no staff, and I don’t think this is a priority issue” for the Biden administration.
If the latest events are a wake-up call for the administration, it still cannot immediately solve its lack of preparation for a crisis in the region, Efron said. It will take time for Congress to confirm presidential appointments.
The tone from Washington would have been drastically different if former president Donald Trump were still in office, but Efron pushed back against the argument that there would be significant changes on the ground.
“I don’t think this has much to do with the US approach. Biden said they’re going to go back to a more traditional approach, but the fact is that not much has changed. It hasn’t been transformational; it’s not like the Palestinians are now welcome in Washington with a PLO mission,” she said.
Rather, Efron argued, between Ramadan, COVID-19 frustrations and the cancellation of the Palestinian election, violence against Israel was a “win-win” for Hamas, and the US reaction was unlikely to be a primary or even secondary consideration.
“In 2009, 2012 and 2014, there were lengthy IDF operations where we had a US that was more active in favor of the Palestinians, and that didn’t help either,” she said.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University, however, argued that Trump would have more full-throatedly condemned Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that would have had a palpable impact.
“Trump punished the Palestinians. Biden is trying to appease them. So I think there would have been a different story if Trump had been in the White House, in terms of opposing and condemning Islamic Jihad and Hamas and supporting Israel more,” he said.
Israel’s strategy, Gilboa explained, is to punish Hamas and Islamic Jihad severely, which will take time. US statements calling to stop hostilities weakens Israel in pursuit of that strategy.
“The American response overall has been timid, disappointing and irrelevant… saying Palestinians in Gaza have the right for safety and security just as Israelis do… as if this is a confrontation between equals,” Gilboa said. “Both sides are called on to reduce hostilities – Israel and a terrorist organization designated by the US.
“It’s not evenhandedness. It’s stupidity. This inadvertently encourages Hamas and Islamic Jihad to continue,” he added.
Similar to the Israeli official, Gilboa thought the Biden administration has read the situation wrong by focusing on Sheikh Jarrah, which he called “irrelevant.”
“The main point is Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s goal of turning the West Bank into Gaza, of taking it over…. If you don’t understand that, then your policies will miss the point,” he stated. “The alumni of the Obama administration seem to have learned nothing. They’re presented as very experienced in foreign policy and national security; that has yet to be proven.”
By making the Middle East a lower priority, Biden will now learn that “if you run away from the Middle East, the Middle East runs after you,” Gilboa warned. “The US has to take a position…. It requires fresh thinking, but what I see are old habits.”
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