The Biden administration is concerned about Israel’s far-right government only as much as it impedes U.S. foreign policy. When it comes to the Palestinians, the U.S. simply doesn’t care.
PALESTINIANS TAKE PART IN A PROTEST AGAINST THE VISITING OF US SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN TO THE REGION, IN GAZA CITY ON JANUARY 31, 2023. (PHOTO: ASHRAF AMRA/APA IMAGES)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a quick tour of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine this week, and the results were both predictable and revealing. Blinken warned the new Israeli government that its efforts to limit the democracy it offered to its Jewish citizens, via the gutting of its judiciary, would cause Israel problems in the United States. And he made clear to the Palestinians that the administration of Joe Biden would remain indifferent to their plight, offering no more than a few meaningless and empty gestures.
Much of the coverage of Blinken’s time in Israel focused on the current Israeli government’s attack on its own judiciary. Less attention was paid to the Palestinians, either by that credulous media or by Blinken himself, despite the recent mass killing of ten Palestinians in Jenin by Israeli forces and the daily Israeli military incursions in the West Bank. Even the attack in the settlement of Neve Yaakov last week was not sufficient to draw more American attention than weak, pro forma statements about the need for “both sides” to “de-escalate the violence.”
Blinken’s approach here reflects the Biden administration’s decision to focus on the question of Israeli “democracy.” The administration has chosen to focus its attention there because if Israel cannot be portrayed as a democracy, it makes covering for its crimes harder and generally complicates efforts by Democrats to maintain their blind support for it. This is in keeping with the Biden agenda of ignoring the Palestinians as much as possible, while trying to maintain the customary flow of economic, military, intelligence, and other cooperation.
But Americans, particularly Biden’s constituents, want to believe their government is working for “Middle East peace,” so Blinken peppered his speech with occasional references to the Abraham Accords and how the administration will work to bring more countries into those agreements, a process he calls “expanding the circle of peace.”
The Abraham Accords “circle of peace”
What does that circle of peace look like? On Thursday, Israel announced that they had reached an agreement to move forward with a normalization process with Sudan, a country in turmoil because its military launched a coup against the democratic forces that forced out long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with Sudanese military dictator General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, who led the overthrow of the provisional civilian government that was working to take over in Sudan after Bashir’s ouster. Indeed, Sudanese civilian groups have largely opposed normalization with Israel and have stated that it should only come about if a civilian parliament ratified the agreement.
While Israel claims the agreement will take effect after Sudan “transitions to civilian rule,” that’s unlikely to be the case. Numerous attempts by the international community to bring about the transition have met resistance from the Sudanese military, despite their repeated claims that they agree to the transition. It appears that what they are aiming for is a sham civilian government that is dominated by the military. It is hard to imagine that al-Burhan does not hope and expect that Israel’s intelligence and spying capabilities, at the very least, will help him maintain power. That’s the “circle of peace” the Abraham Accords bring about.
All of this is taking place despite the Palestinians’ situation continuing a rapid downward spiral. Netanyahu, in a conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper, said, “If we make peace with Saudi Arabia – it depends on the Saudi leadership – and bring, effectively, the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end, I think we will circle back to the Palestinians and get a workable peace with the Palestinians.”
Saudi Arabia is, of course, the ultimate prize and, should Israel attain normalization with it, most of the rest of the Arab world, with a few exceptions, will very likely follow, in due course. Netanyahu’s point that it depends on the Saudis is accurate—Israel would, under current conditions, normalize relations without asking any more than that from the Saudis. It is the Saudis, even as self-interested and indifferent to the Palestinians as they are, who must consider the political ramifications in the wider Muslim world of normalization with Israel.
Netanyahu’s plan to “circle back” to the Palestinians is based on more than merely wanting to take one step before the other. The Arab leadership, as opposed to the popular Arab world, is much more interested in the gains it can make in technology, industry, intelligence, and other fields through partnering with Israel than it is in the plight of the Palestinians. Netanyahu wants to capitalize on and exacerbate that condition. The strategy is that, with the United States and Europe largely indifferent to the Palestinians and unwilling to pay the domestic political costs of pressing Israel for concessions, adding the Arab world to Israel’s list of allies, will leave the Palestinians no choice but to agree to whatever terms Israel offers.
Israel’s vision for Palestine
Netanyahu’s interview with Tapper made clear what those terms would look like. “[A]ny final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would have Israel controlling security – overriding security responsibility in the area west of the Jordan… you can’t divide who controls the airspace [between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean]. You have to cross it. It takes two minutes for an airplane to cross it. So what, one minute Israel controls it and the other minute the Palestinians? Of course, it’s not workable….I don’t know what you’d call it, but it gives them the opportunity to control their lives, to elect their officials, to run their economy, to run their institutions, to have their flag and to have their parliament, but we have to have overriding security control.”
That’s a little misleading, but overall, Netanyahu is laying out his vision pretty clearly. Palestinians would have no control over their borders. They’d have no ability to defend themselves. He’s of course lying about the inability for small airspaces to be controlled; it would work exactly as he described, and it would not be a problem. If, for example, Palestine closed its airspace, a flight would simply be diverted over Israel or Jordan or whatever appropriate country, It would require only the most minor course correction. If someone flies over a border, it is one country’s airspace one moment and over another’s the next.
Less nonsensical is Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel have “overriding security responsibility.” That means Israel would have the responsibility for defending Palestinian territory. How secure do you think Ukraine would feel if Russia was responsible for its defense?
More than that, such security responsibility would, necessarily mean a permanent Israeli military presence in Palestinian territory, full Israeli control of the borders, and the right for Israel to launch raids in Palestinian towns and villages at will. In other words, permanent military occupation, but without any of the responsibilities under international law of an occupying power. That’s not much different from what exists right now, except it would be based on agreements Netanyahu thinks he can force Palestinians to accept, so anyone acting against that arrangement would, by definition, be a criminal even according to the official Palestinian leadership.
In essence, Netanyahu is saying that he wants to make the current state of affairs permanent. He’d let Palestinians fly their flags, have their cute little elections, and deal with things like street crime, and trash collection. But Israeli settlements would not go away, nor would they stop expanding. Israeli soldiers would remain. And Israel could attack Palestinians at any time, would continue to control the Palestinian economy, would continue to collect VAT taxes which they could withhold at their whim as they do now. So, in Netanyahu’s description, what would change?
Very little, of course, and that’s what Netanyahu was telling Jake Tapper.
U.S. pressure on the PA
In the face of these plans and the United States’ apparent indifference to them, even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is abandoning his conciliatory rhetoric. In a public appearance with Blinken, Abbas opened and closed his remarks with welcomes to the Secretary of State, but between them, he listed the many grievances Palestinians have against Israel, but notably did not spare the United States.
“The continued opposition to the efforts of the Palestinian people to defend their existence and their legitimate rights in international forums and courts, and to provide international protection – to provide international protection for our people – is a policy that encourages the Israeli occupier to commit more crimes and violate international law,” Abbas told Blinken. This is a direct criticism of U.S. policy, not Israel’s.
Abbas continued by saying, “This comes at a time when Israel is being overlooked without deterrence or accountability,” which is another direct attack on U.S. policy.
If he was hoping to hear more from Blinken because of these statements, Abbas was sorely disappointed. Blinken said that Palestinians are experiencing “a shrinking horizon of hope, not an expanding one; and that, too, we believe needs to change.” Blinken made no mention of any steps to be taken to change this, nor who might be causing that “horizon of hope” to shrink.
Instead, Blinken pressed Abbas to implement a plan devised by the U.S. security coordinator to train a PA force to confront the armed Palestinian groups in Jenin and Nablus. Abbas has been reluctant to implement the plan because, as he rightly argues, the PA does not have the popular support to carry out such a program. The plan does not demand that Israel scale back its operations in the West Bank, and Abbas knows that this plan will certainly increase the illegitimacy of the PA among the Palestinian people—already considerable—significantly. But Blinken pressed Abbas to do it anyway, the latest in a long line of examples of the U.S. actively undermining the PA, despite its efforts to cooperate with the U.S. and Israel, efforts which seem more and more misguided.
Blinken talked, both In Ramallah and in Tel Aviv about meeting with members of civil society in both Israel and Palestine. But among those “civil society” groups in Israel, not one of them was an anti-occupation group, much less a human rights group. In the West Bank, Blinken made no effort to meet with the civil and human rights groups that Israel has attacked and is trying to criminalize, even though the State Department is well aware that the case against those groups is fabricated.
The message Blinken sent on this trip was clear: the Biden administration is worried that Israel will jeopardize the democracy for Jews only that exists now and make it harder for Washington to conduct business as usual with the Israeli government, no matter how radically racist and right-wing it becomes. And the Palestinians? The U.S. simply doesn’t care.
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