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Tue 22 June 2021

The escalating conflict between Israeli forces, Palestinians and now Israeli Arabs makes the US President’s ‘bothsiderism’ increasingly untenable, says Jonathan Fenton Harvey

Scenes of citizens in the Palestinian Gaza strip losing their loved ones, and protestors being attacked by Israeli police in Jerusalem, have evoked outrage across the world. 

As the prospect of a new conflict grows, as least 65 civilians, including 16 children have been killed as Israeli airstrikes pound the blockaded Gaza strip, with at least 365 wounded. Israel’s military has also drawn up plans for a possible ground invasion into Gaza, which has already been battered by several wars in the last decade. 

That Biden had yet to even announce a new ambassador to Israel reveals that addressing the situation was never a priority for him.   

Gaza’s ruling Hamas party has also fired an extensive number of rockets towards Tel Aviv, seeking to penetrate Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system. The rocket attacks are reported to have killed six Israelis.

As Israel’s greatest military and political backer, the United States has been forced to address the violence, despite US President Joe Biden previously taking a stand-offish approach. 


‘Bothsiderism’

Though Biden fashioned himself as the ‘anti-Trump’ figure who sought to reverse Donald Trump’s warmth towards Washington’s autocratic Middle Eastern allies, he has indeed remained quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian question. This is after Trump’s courting of Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, striking the so-called “Deal of the Century” in January 2020 which entailed perpetual occupation rather than a peace solution, and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem in defiance of international law. 

However, Biden’s administration has so far adopted a stance of “bothsiderism,” portraying the Israel and Palestinians as on equal footing, which could harm diplomatic relations. 

That Biden had yet to even announce a new ambassador to Israel reveals that addressing the situation was never a priority for him. However, whether Biden likes it or not, the Israel-Palestine question is now back on the table and could prove a real test for his legacy.  

Those who have protested Israel’s actions in global capitals and called for the international community to step up its role may feel frustrated with the US’ response, as Biden has thus far failed at this challenge. 

Amid growing tensions in Jerusalem over Israel’s intentions to expel Palestinian residents from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, Washington released a statement simply voicing “concern” over subsequent protests and police violence, without explicitly calling on the Israeli Government to reverse its plans. 

“We call on Israeli and Palestinian officials to act decisively to deescalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence,” said Secretary of State spokesperson Ned Price on 7 May.

The intensifying violence has meant Biden’s administration can no longer take a mild stance. 

After announcing that Israel had eliminated four Hamas commanders, Netanyahu warned that “this is just the beginning.”

“We will inflict blows on them that they couldn’t even dream of,” while the Israeli military would use “increasing force”, he added.


Escalating Rhetoric

Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Tuesday that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad faction “have paid, and will pay, a heavy price.”

Despite Netanyahu’s rhetoric, Hamas cannot cause serious damage to Israeli territory, as its weapons arsenal consist of rockets that resemble firecrackers, as opposed to Israel’s powerful American-supported military machine.

Therefore, those who will pay the price will disproportionately be Palestinians in the Gaza strip, which has already become uninhabitable, in part due to a lack of electricity caused by past conflict’s damage to its only power plant, and around 96% of the water being undrinkable.

Even outside of Gaza, the situation has further heated up, with extremist Israelis taking to the streets this week to search for Palestinian citizens of Israel, while Israeli Public Security minister Amir Yohana seemingly justified their violence. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday announced Washington had dispatched a top State Department diplomat to the Middle East “immediately,” amid continued violence in Jerusalem. 

However, following a phone call with Netanyahu, Biden said that Israel has a right to defend itself, despite saying he hopes the violence will end “sooner than later.”

Such words suggest Biden will continue tolerating the actions of the Israeli Government. 


Biden’s Wider Policy in the Middle East

This stance also reflects Biden’s lacklustre stance towards some of Trump’s autocratic allies, namely Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Despite the Biden administration releasing a declassified intelligence report in February that proved bin Salman had sanctioned the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whom Saudi-backed assassins dismembered in Istanbul in October 2018, the US president later said he would not penalise bin Salman for Khashoggi’s killing, despite his previous promises to do so. 

The US has also not fully ended support for future Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen, as it still enforces a suffocating land, air, and sea blockade on the country. This is despite Biden’s pledges in February to end “relevant” arms sales to the kingdom.

Additionally, despite previously proclaiming there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’ [Sisi]” in his presidential campaign, Biden has still warmed towards the Egyptian strongman.

A key example came after family members of American-Egyptian activist Mohamed Soltan were detained in Cairo last February, over which Biden expressed concerns. Just a day before, however, Washington sanctioned a $197 million sale of naval surface-to-air missiles to Egypt’s military, stating that it “will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a Major Non-NATO Ally country that continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East.”

Israel and the United States’ historic partnership needs little explanation, with unconditional support for Israel ingrained in Washington’s establishment. Even Barack Obama upped American military aid to Israel to $3.8 billion per annum. It seems Biden will be unwilling to challenge any of Washington’s support. 

Though Biden delivered hopes of a more pro-human rights policy, his administration is instead keen to prioritise its commercial and geo-strategic relationships with the US’ Middle Eastern partners. 

Israel’s Supreme Court announced on 9 May that it has postponed the legal decision to displace Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah. Yet some Palestinians have warned that after losing face, Israel’s Government will later continue its mission and is merely biding its time, hoping attention towards its plans will fade. 

Growing international pressure may force Biden to condemn Israel’s stance, should a conflict escalate further. However, it is up to the President to take real leadership and hold those responsible for any humanitarian violations to account. 

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