Biden’s trip to Israel is getting trickier by the day
President Joe Biden is expected to make his first visit to Israel since taking office in late June. The past week has certainly given him more than enough to fill his agenda when he arrives.
When Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was gunned down in Jenin, the usual war of narratives began. Even though all eyewitness accounts unambiguously report that it was Israeli soldiers who killed Abu Akleh, and Israel’s theories trying to either blame Palestinians or blur the realities were debunked by several sources, the U.S. continues to support an investigation led by Israel and insists that the situation remains unclear.
The government in Tel Aviv is clearly confident that any reaction from the Biden Administration will be tempered, and above all Washington ’s support — to the tune of $3 billion in aid annually, mostly military — won’t be affected by its actions. Officials there have good reason to be, if the past is any indication. Yet, it may be harder to maintain the pretense that facts on the ground are ambiguous when the whole world watched in horror as Israeli police attacked mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral procession, even beating the pallbearers, and very nearly causing her casket to fall to the ground.
Israel’s behavior garnered even more scorn on Monday when Palestinian Christian leaders showed a video of Israeli police storming the hospital where Shireen Abu Akleh’s body had been, even throwing a man on crutches to the ground.
The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, lodged a protest with the Israeli government, which had promised that the funeral would be respectful and that all who wanted to attend would be granted access. The Biden administration was clearly irked that Israel had broken that pledge and put the United States in a position where it was forced to mildly rebuke Israel over its actions.
But while Abu Akleh’s death has dominated the news, the Biden administration was faced with yet another difficulty in its already thorny effort to maintain relative neutrality toward Israel’s behavior. On Thursday, the day after Abu Akleh’s killing, Israel announced that it had approved plans for 4,427 new settlement housing units throughout the West Bank, according to reports.
This represents the biggest expansion of settlements since Biden took office. Yet the administration appears to be taking advantage of the focus on Abu Akleh’s killing and her funeral to stay silent on the matter.
Hagit Ofran of Settlement Watch tweeted that Israel was, “Deepening the occupation and furthering us from peace. It’s bad news for Israel and for anyone who cares about the people in our region.”
Back in October 2021, Israel approved some 3,000 units, drawing a verbal rebuke from the Biden administration, but no other action. According to Axios, Nides signaled the administration’s displeasure to Israeli officials two weeks ago over this latest announcement. He was reportedly told that the new units were part of a political promise made to prevent defections from PM Naftali Bennett’s party and to keep its fragile ruling coalition together.
All of this is occurring against an already tense backdrop in Israel and Palestine, including Israel’s aggressive approach on the Temple Mount last month, coupled with a recent decision by the Israeli High Court to expel over one thousand Palestinian residents of the Masafer Yatta region in the West Bank.
All of this will be difficult for Biden to ignore when he travels to Israel in June. The trip was intended to follow up on the recent Negev summit, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted to strengthen the partnerships between Israel and friendly Arab states forged in the Abraham Accords with an eye toward constructing a bloc to counter Iran and to help accommodate a diminished U.S. role in the region.
That is still likely to be central to Biden’s agenda, but he is also going to have to consider how his laissez-faire approach to Israel’s continuing repression of the Palestinians is playing out in the region. These recent incidents reflect a gathering storm, and Biden will find it impossible to continue the pivot away from the Middle East if the increasingly tight Israeli grip on the Palestinians and mounting Palestinian despair continues to breed violence of the kind seen in recent weeks in Jenin, Jerusalem, and in Elad — itself the inevitable result of the kind of violence Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza experience every day.
While the Arab leaders who have normalized relations with Israel are already perceived as having abandoned the Palestinian cause, the killing of Abu Akleh and the police attack on her funeral was broadcast far and wide throughout the Arab world. It cannot be in Washington’s interest to be seen as holding the bag for Israel’s actions, nor to be paying for the privilege, all while lecturing human rights to other Middle Eastern governments.
But given everything on Biden’s foreign affairs plate today — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the struggle to revive the Iran nuclear deal, the high price of oil — the president clearly cannot afford a confrontation with Israel right now, and likely won’t be looking for one when he visits next month.
This is especially so since both Bennett — due to the loss of his parliamentary majority — and Biden — facing midterm elections where pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel are mobilizing unprecedented amounts of money against anyone who has even the mildest criticism of Israel — are both treading on shaky political ground.
Still, the long term harm to U.S. interests won’t go away. It doesn’t seem like the outrage over Abu Akleh’s death is going to evaporate quickly. And the administration needs to respond more forcefully to settlement expansion if it is to maintain the notion that the two-state solution has any chance of survival. So what can Biden realistically ask for?
First and foremost, the administration must make it clear that it supports a fully independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing. State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s initial statement, that “the Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation,” was utterly unconvincing. Even Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Nachman Shai of the Labor Party, said that, “with all due respect to us, let’s say that Israel’s credibility is not very high in such events.”
An international investigation, with a team of experts from all over the world, including the Arabs, Europe, Africa, and Asia, could have credibility. Of course, if history is any guide, Israel will not cooperate with such an inquiry and will condemn its findings if they deviate in the slightest from whatever narrative Israel prefers. But advocating such a thing would help bolster whatever image Washington wants to project as a good faith mediator.
A bolder move for Biden would be to visit the family of Shireen Abu Akleh in East Jerusalem. Before Abu Akleh’s killing, there were rumors that Biden was considering visiting the eastern, predominantly Palestinian part of the city.
Biden could argue that this was merely a courtesy visit to the family of a journalist who lost her life for her profession. Such a visit would send a signal that the Biden administration still believes that Jerusalem is an issue that must be negotiated, and this, along with a clear statement of opposition to settlement expansion would be welcomed by Palestinians. The gesture is well short of reversing Donald Trump’s de facto recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but it would at least be a tangible indication of a step away from that decision.
Biden’s track record indicates that he will likely do none of this, opting instead for a quick visit to convey, once again, the “unbreakable bond” with Israel. That bond seems destined to keep the United States moored in the Middle East amid distrust and insecurity between states that are now just starting to build bridges. Biden will likely eschew politically courageous options that might make the situation just a little bit better, choosing instead to reinforce the idea that the U.S. supports double standards in the region, and that is no good for anyone involved.