The horrific violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza this past week should be a wake-up call for U.S. and global policymakers. Lulled into a false sense of calm by the bitter quiet of successful Israeli repression, the world is seeing once again that there will never be durable peace in this region until the fallout from the creation of Israel in 1948 is addressed. With a government in Washington that is, unlike its predecessor, at least theoretically open to some kind of push for peace, the time to revisit stale assumptions about the conflict, and America's role in it, has arrived.
The proximate cause of the recent unrest was the Israeli government's efforts to evict dozens of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and to replace them with Jewish Israeli settlers, on the flimsy pretext that the houses were built on land owned by Jewish religious associations prior to the War of Independence (what the Palestinians call al-Nakba, the catastrophe). This small-scale ethnic cleansing, as one can imagine, did not go over well with Palestinians.
The Palestinians of East Jerusalem — a part of the city captured during the Six-Day War of 1967 and considered occupied territory pretty much everywhere in the world outside of Washington and Jerusalem — are mostly not citizens of Israel and face daily discrimination and oppression. Most regard the evictions as the leading edge of a much broader campaign to transfer the Palestinian population of the city, and perhaps the entire 2.7 million stateless Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank, elsewhere.
Tensions over the evictions boiled over on Friday, when Israeli security forces reportedly responded to rocks thrown by worshippers inside the Haram al-Sharif, the complex which contains the al-Aqsa mosque (and which naturally sits on top of Jewish holy sites), with rubber bullets and stun grenades. Israeli police then raided the compound again on Monday, saying they feared violence between Palestinians gathered there and the planned "Jerusalem Day" march, an annual event that celebrates the Israeli conquest of the city in 1967 and which is rather obviously a deliberate affront to the city's Palestinian residents.
When Israeli forces refused to withdraw from the area, the militant group Hamas, which controls the tiny Gaza Strip, began firing rockets indiscriminately into Israeli territory, inviting a predictably heavy-handed response including an air strike which destroyed a 13-story residential apartment building alleged to contain a Hamas office. At least 83 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed since last week, in keeping with the standard Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio of the conflict's history.
Meanwhile, coverage of the bloodshed in U.S. media rarely contains any historical context whatsoever and contributes to public confusion. "Fresh" violence is always "breaking out" or "erupting" as if the killing is an unstable volcano whose sudden wrath is unexplainable. It is described as "clashes" as if a nuclear-armed country with one of the most sophisticated and well-funded militaries in the world is somehow an even match for stateless, penniless Palestinian civilians, or even Hamas. The description of the conflict as a series of "cycles" reinforces the perception that there is little to be done.
What does the Biden administration have to say about all of this? So far, precious little. President Biden has almost no interest in wading into a conflict that has frustrated every post-WWII U.S. president. The last serious effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made during the first half of the George W. Bush administration, when the so-called Quartet (The U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — not exactly a band that's getting back together anytime soon) introduced something called the Road Map For Peace in 2003, largely as a way for the U.S. to build support in other Arab capitals for the Iraq misadventure that it was about to launch.
That was 18 years ago. When the Iraq War went sideways and the push for Palestinian democracy as a precondition for new negotiations resulted in the victory of the terrorist group Hamas in 2006, the Bush administration pretty much washed its hands of the conflict.
Despite the much ballyhooed hostility between the Obama administration and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama himself showed little inclination to expend political capital on reviving the peace process or challenging Israel. With the Israeli government in the hands of the far right, and Palestinians split between a Hamas-led government in Gaza and the remnants of the old revolutionary guard that negotiated the Oslo Accords in charge of the West Bank, it was not even obvious what the U.S. could do other than cut off aid to Israel. In the end, the worst thing Obama did to Netanyahu was not exercise America's veto of a 2016 UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity.
Netanyahu's dream came true when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. The former reality show star delivered nearly everything on the Israeli far-right's bucket list — the U.S. pulled out of the Iran Deal, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in defiance of decades of American policy, froze aid to the embattled Palestinian authority, and cut contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which oversees refugee settlements for Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967. The administration also banned federal funding for any group involved with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. In March 2019, the U.S. issued a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967. Perhaps most consequentially, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that same year that the U.S. no longer considered Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as violations of international law. In his last months in office, Trump succeeded in further splintering the Arab world by brokering bilateral peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.
These moves, considered together, effectively ended the pretense that the United States is some kind of neutral peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The president had a natural affinity for Israel's ruling government which, like Trump himself, seemed to take great pleasure in doling out violence and making life more and more unbearable for the Palestinians. He gave America's blessing to the entire post-1967 project of annexing and colonizing territories obtained through war, and co-signed the indefinite political and economic limbo of the Palestinians.
As a result, it doesn't seem like launching the latest in an endless series of peace "processes" will end any better for Biden than it did for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But at minimum, it is time for the U.S., in concert with allies and other major powers, to re-engage with this problem, to make it clear that the Jerusalem evictions are a violation of Palestinian human rights, and to reiterate past American positions on settlements, borders, and the eventual shape of an agreement that creates a Palestinian state.
Biden should also consider threatening to cut U.S. aid to Israel — which it no longer needs anyway — until Israel steps back from its campaign of ethnic cleansing. Now that Netanyahu and Trump have succeeded in turning Israel into a partisan issue, there may be less downside political risk to a modest pivot than is commonly believed. Israel still enjoys much more sympathy from the U.S. voting public than the Palestinians, although younger Americans seem more open to the Palestinian narrative.
It might seem like doing nothing is the best course of action when there is no clear path to peace or a resolution. But the long-range peril for Palestinians is growing. As hope for a two-state solution fades, and as the Israeli religious right gains strength, the risk of a darker ending to the conflict, one in which large numbers of Palestinians are expelled, both from the West Bank and even from pre-1967 Israel (where about 1.9 million Palestinians are second class citizens), becomes higher.
Honestly, who would stop it? The next Republican president, who will likely to be the product of a GOP with a well-documented taste for walls and expulsions and deportations and the infliction of human suffering on the less fortunate, won't be counted on to object to such a genocidal crime or to do anything about it.
And if that worst-case scenario comes to pass, it could lead to the kind of region-wide conflagration that analysts have long warned about. Peace treaties would mean nothing if Israel commits undeniable crimes against humanity, and a war could draw Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf States into a conflict that no one wants, to say nothing of the effects of yet another catastrophic refugee crisis. The plight of the Palestinians has also been one of the chief drivers of violent resentment against the United States across the region — should the situation continue to deteriorate, the U.S. can't be seen as just sitting on its hands unless it wants to witness another spasm of anti-Americanism and terrorism.
That means the time to play wait and see has come and gone.