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Joe Biden Can’t Duck the Jerusalem Crisis

Israel’s latest Palestinian crackdown cries out to be condemned by this administration. Will he break from the deadly status quo?

Ahmad Gharabli/Getty Images

Israeli security forces spent the weekend beating and arresting Palestinian worshippers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Coming late in the holy month of Ramadan, these attacks—featuring batons, tear gas, stun grenades, and other weapons, and which followed the deadly shooting of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in the West Bank by Israeli forces—have been widely broadcast on social media. Videos show terrified barefoot worshippers rushing toward exits and children being pushed around by well-armored police. Hundreds of Palestinians have been hospitalized.

Nothing here is going to improve without outside diplomatic intervention, and that responsibility can only fall to the one country with the potential to seriously influence Israeli decision-making: the United States. But to do that, the Biden administration would have to risk antagonizing its most prickly and politically influential ally and upsetting the domestic bipartisan, pro-Israel consensus. So far, the president seems content to sit back quietly and let senior officials issue tepid pleas for order. It won’t work, and the consequences of such failure are grave.

To the Biden administration and much of the Western media, these attacks, perhaps because they feature the occasional thrown shoe or stone, can be described as “clashes” between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police, as if these were equal forces with equal capacities for destruction. But this is, as it’s long been, an asymmetric conflict, driven by the daily indignity and injustice of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its siege of Gaza. Now, as the Israeli government prepares to evict several hundred Palestinian residents from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinian activists and their supporters are crying out for justice. In response, the Biden administration is playing it safe, which means quietly adhering to the same deadly status quo. The most substantial statement so far has come on behalf of national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who, in a both-sides gesture, asked Israeli and Palestinian officials to “ensure calm, deescalate tensions, and denounce violence.” The statement concluded, as these messages tend to, with a pledge of support for Israeli security, without mentioning Palestinian rights or security.

In recent years, this modest but biased approach may have been considered acceptable because Palestinian life was treated as cheap, with a typical example of this dynamic found in an Israeli soldier being sentenced to community service—for three months—for killing a Palestinian. The Trump administration made no secret of its overweening loyalty to Israel and its contempt for the Palestinian cause, and it suffered little political blowback for it, even managing to broker official relations between Israel and several Arab governments under the baksheesh-fueled auspices of the Abraham Accords. But Trump also benefited from a period of relative stability in Israel and Palestine. Biden, who pledged to renew his country’s diplomatic commitments, has not been so lucky: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has declared that the U.S. and other countries should stay out of the crisis, seems content to ratchet up the tension by further cracking down on the rights of Palestinians to move freely, attend mosque, and live in homes that Jewish settlers wish to claim.

With political instability increasing—opposition leader Yair Lapid is attempting to negotiate a governing coalition to avoid a fifth election in less than two years—the Israeli government shows little sign of letting up its renewed restrictions on Palestinian freedoms, which have been spurred in part by raucous protests over forced evictions of Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Netanyahu faces not only a loss of power but also a trial for corruption charges, giving him no incentive to relent, despite widespread criticism. (He’s indicated that his government will continue building in occupied areas.)

The Biden administration considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be “a very low priority,” according to Axios, perhaps because the issue remains a fault line in U.S. politics that might be more profitable to ignore. The current Israeli crackdown should make that impossible, provoking a necessary reckoning with one of our more vexing allies. American opinion tends to favor Israel, but sympathy for Palestinians is rising, especially among Democrats, 38 percent of whom say they now favor the Palestinian position. Progressive members of Congress, led by Representative Betty McCollum, have put forth a bill that conditions America’s $3.8 billion in annual aid to Israel on its human rights record, including the annexation of Palestinian land. (The bill is supported by J Street and Americans for Peace Now.) And just last month, Human Rights Watch declared that the threshold of apartheid had been crossed, at least in the areas of Israel and Palestine “where Israeli authorities exercise control.” To many, Israel is now an apartheid state in the mold of 1980s South Africa.

There are clear ways for Biden to break with what’s become a shameful tradition of overlooking Israeli oppression. “One of the first steps Biden could take is to unequivocally disavow the Trump administration’s January 2020 ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan, which put a stamp of approval on Israel’s taking of land and resources by force and excluded Palestinians from the process outright,” Mairav Zonszein wrote in The Prospect. The U.S. could apply its own laws about distributing foreign aid to human rights abusers, she added, and it could forcefully condemn Palestinian evictions, as some U.S. allies have. Finally, Zonszein noted, the U.S. could end “the practice of defending Israel against international censure” at international organizations like the United Nations Security Council. For too long, the U.S. has armed Israel while providing indiscriminate diplomatic cover that no human rights abuser deserves.

The question is whether everyday Americans, along with other, more moderate members of the Democratic Party, including Joe Biden, will recognize the uncomfortable, and politically explosive, truth of what’s happening in Israel and Palestine. People are being kicked out of homes and mosques, beaten and arrested in the streets, simply because they are Palestinians in a place where being Palestinian is practically against the law. For anyone who had any doubt, this is apartheid in action.

Successive U.S. administrations have gotten far by showing unwavering loyalty to our Israeli allies. With global opinion largely united in outrage over these latest abuses, the Biden administration has the chance to carve out a new path, based on the human rights commitments it claims to uphold. But beyond the administration’s hushed statements, it’s hard to believe that it’ll take this fraught moment to do anything of substance. And once again, the Palestinian struggle will be ignored by the one country with the most potential to do something about it.