Unrest in East Jerusalem has escalated prior to an anticipated Israeli Supreme Court ruling Monday on the eviction of families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in the city. Disturbances have spread beyond Sheikh Jarrah to other parts of East Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Worshippers leaving prayer services on Friday threw stones at Israeli police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets that wounded more than 150 people.
The families facing eviction have lived in Sheikh Jarrah for generations. They originally resided in coastal areas such as Jaffa and Haifa, from which they were displaced during the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel. In 1956, the families reached agreement with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Ministry of Construction and Development of Jordan — the governing authority until Israel conquered the area in the 1967 war — to establish ownership of their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in return for payment of a small fee and renunciation of refugee status.
That arrangement was upset in the early 1970s, as Israeli groups seeking to place Jewish settlers in the neighborhood claimed pre-1948 ownership. That claim is subject to dispute, but whether or not the claim is valid, the Israeli procedure for resolving land ownership issues is markedly one-sided. The Law on Legal and Administrative Affairs, which Israel enacted in 1970, says Jews can reclaim property in East Jerusalem lost during the 1948 fighting, while Palestinian Arabs have no means of reclaiming the property that they lost in the same war and is now deemed part of Israel.
Israel has sought to play down the current conflict as, in the words of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a “real-estate dispute between private parties.” It is much more than that. It is part of a larger effort, very much government-promoted, to de-Arabize East Jerusalem. Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Aryeh King, who also is a leader of the Jewish settlement movement, is quite open about this. “Of course” the evictions from Sheikh Jarrah are part of a wider strategy to implant “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem, according to King. The purpose, he says, is “to secure the future of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital for the Jewish people.”
According to Zakariah Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, 2020 saw a record rate of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem. During the same year, authorities demolished 170 Palestinian structures in the city, including 105 homes, resulting in the displacement of 385 people.
The Israeli strategy for East Jerusalem is part of a still larger program of displacing Palestinians and demolishing their homes throughout the West Bank. That program, which has been in train since the 1967 Israeli conquest, exhibited a crescendo in the months in the run-up to last year’s U.S. election. If Tucker Carlson really wants to talk about schemes to “replace” one demographic group with another, he ought to look at what Israel has been doing for years with its occupation of Palestinian-inhabited territories.
The demolition and displacement are part of an even larger Israeli affront to human rights, as documented in the recently released report on the subject by the respected watchdog organization Human Rights Watch. The report’s thorough documentation amply supports its conclusion that Israeli authorities “have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity” and that in certain areas, “these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” The aforementioned Israeli law that explicitly permits Jews, but not Arabs, to reclaim property lost in wartime is but one example of the institutionalized racism that is apartheid.
Although there have been some welcome indications that mainstream American discourse is more openly addressing this Israeli conduct — and some U.S. politicians have in recent days criticized the Sheikh Jarrah eviction — most of the mainstream hesitates to squarely confront both the reality on the ground and the proper implications for U.S. foreign policy. This has been true even of some of the more knowledgeable and thoughtful observers who havecommented on the Human Rights Watch report.
One common feature of such hesitation is to criticize any criticism of Israel that does not give equal time to criticizing the things that Palestinians have done wrong — which indeed they have, including committing destructive acts of violence. But this tries to inject symmetry into a highly asymmetrical situation. Israel has the guns, the power, and ultimately control of the land; Palestinians do not. Israel can take actions today, by itself, that would go a very long way to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Palestinians cannot.
Another usual feature is to invoke Israel’s need for security, and of course Israel has every right to defend itself and to provide for its citizens’ security. But what is immediately at stake is Palestinians’ security — and there are few greater blows to one’s security than to have one’s home demolished and to be driven from where one has lived. Moreover, the great majority of offenses against the Palestinians do absolutely nothing to enhance Israeli security. Many of those offenses degrade Israeli security, either by inciting violent responses or by imposing additional burdens on the Israel Defense Forces.
Mainstream commentary ritually invokes the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but it routinely omits dissecting what is required for mutually beneficial cooperation — such as on technology — to continue. Such cooperation can flow from a normal, healthy bilateral relationship; it does not need an extraordinary relationship that tacitly condones through unconditional financial aid and diplomatic cover the sorts of behavior the Human Rights Watch report describes.
Implications for Biden administration policy
President Joe Biden faces a serious human rights problem in this part of the Middle East. He cannot overlook it, not least of all because of that extraordinary relationship and the damage-by-association it does to U.S. interests. He does not need to make human rights as central a theme in his presidency as did Jimmy Carter, who was attacked for later calling out the Israeli version of apartheid for what it is, but he cannot brush it aside, no matter the identity of the offending state. Explicit use of the A-word — and Biden’s spokesperson has declined to apply the word to the Israeli-Palestinian situation — is less important than addressing the substance behind the word and the implications for the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
The history of U.S. consideration of human rights has often seen the issue take a back seat to maintaining smooth relations with repressive governments that supported U.S. foreign policy in other respects. This was especially true during the Cold War, regarding some odious regimes whose transgressions were overlooked because they could be counted on as reliable allies in the global contest with the Communists. But the most conspicuous direction of current Israeli policy is more to undermine U.S. foreign policy than to support it, as in the sabotage of negotiations to restore compliance with the multilateral agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear activities. The sabotage does not enhance Israeli security — an agreement with verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear doings is clearly in Israel’s security interests — and instead is intended partly to hogtie U.S. foreign relations in the Middle East and to prevent the United States from doing business with any state in the region that the Israeli government, for its own reasons, doesn’t want anyone to do business with.
President Biden evidently has decided not to invest political capital in what is still habitually called the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” That may be a prudent decision, given the need to spend that capital on other domestic and foreign priorities and given how the Israeli settlement project may have already put a workable two-state solution out of reach. But he should take a cue from those who have adapted to the latter consideration and recommended an approach that prioritizes human rights as well as security, for Palestinians as well as Israelis.
Without change in the plight of the Palestinians, there will be no end to the sort of thing going on in East Jerusalem now, and to more violent and destabilizing versions of it.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
An Israeli policeman detains a Palestinian protester amid ongoing tension ahead of an upcoming court hearing in an Israel-Palestinian land-ownership dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem May 5, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.