JERUSALEM (AP) – An alarming rise in Israeli-Palestinian violence and harsh responses from both sides are testing the Biden administration as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plunges into a cauldron of growing distrust and anger over visits to Israel and the West Bank this week.
What was already expected to be a trip fraught with tension over differences between the administration and the new far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become significantly more complicated over the past four days with a series of deadly incidents. Blinken’s diplomatic stint begins Monday after he wrapped up a brief visit to Egypt that was almost entirely overshadowed by the deteriorating security situation in Israel and the West Bank.
US officials say the main theme of Blinken’s talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will be “de-escalation”. However, Blinken will arrive in Israel just a day after Netanyahu’s security cabinet announced a series of punitive measures against Palestinians in response to the weekend’s deadly shootings in which Palestinian gunmen killed seven Israelis and wounded five others in Jerusalem. The shootings followed a deadly Israeli attack on the West Bank on Thursday that killed 10 Palestinians, most of them militants.
The violence made January one of the bloodiest months in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in recent years. Although Blinken’s trip is scheduled for several weeks and will follow visits by President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns, it will be the highest-level US engagement with Netanyahu since he took office last month and the first of a surge violence.
Already grappling with the far-right policies of Israel’s new government and its opposition to resolving the long-running conflict between the two states, US officials have yet to assess retaliatory steps that include sealing off and demolishing the homes of Palestinian attackers, canceling social security for their families and handing out more weapons to Israeli civilians.
Perhaps most alarming was Netanyahu’s vague promise to “strengthen” Israeli settlements in the West Bank, built on occupied land that Palestinians claim is the heart of a future state. Bezalel Smotrich, the ultra-nationalist cabinet minister Netanyahu appointed in charge of settlement policy, said he would seek new construction in a strategic part of the West Bank called E1. The US has repeatedly blocked previous attempts by Israel to develop the area.
US officials, however, criticized Abbas’ decision to suspend Palestinian security cooperation with Israel after the raid in the West Bank.
“We want to get the sides not to end security cooperation, but to really improve security coordination,” said Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East. “We appeal to de-escalation and calm the situation.”
Ahead of the meeting with Blinken, Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel’s response was not aimed at exacerbating tensions.
“We are not looking for escalation, but we are ready for any scenario,” Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting. “Our response to terrorism is a heavy-handed and strong, swift and precise response.”
Palestinians and some human rights groups believe that Israeli retaliation, including the demolition of the homes of the attackers’ families, constitutes collective punishment and is illegal under international law. The turmoil added another item to Blinken’s long diplomatic agenda that was already set to include Russia’s war against Ukraine, tensions with Iran, and crises in Lebanon and Syria; all this has a great weight in American-Israeli relations.
Easing tensions over those issues, or at least avoiding new ones, is central to Blinken’s mission despite Netanyahu’s opposition to two of Biden’s top Middle East priorities: reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But with both of those things stalled and little hope of resuming negotiations, the administration is just trying to keep concepts on life support.
Meanwhile, the administration has moved to improve ties with the Palestinians that were severed by former President Donald Trump. Although it continued suspended US aid, its goal of reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem to address Palestinian issues and allowing the Palestinians to reopen their diplomatic mission in Washington have been blocked by a combination of Israeli opposition and US legal obstruction. Blinken is unlikely to be able to offer the Palestinians any sign of progress on any of these issues while insisting on further political reform in the Palestinian Authority.
The US has also been silent on Netanyahu’s proposal for sweeping changes to Israel’s judicial system, which would allow lawmakers to overturn Supreme Court rulings. In recent weeks, there have been mass protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over proposals that critics say would damage Israel’s democratic standing.
“Clearly, this issue of the judicial package is one that has generated intense, intense discussion, debate in Israeli society,” Leaf said. “It is obviously a measure of the vibrancy of democracy that this is so clearly contested in all segments of Israeli society.”
While she and other US officials have spoken of the importance of “shared values” with Israel, they have shied away from commenting on what they see as a purely domestic issue.
“But now it has become a problem” because of the proposed speed and scale, public outcry and growing concern among American Jewish leaders and members of Congress, said Eytan Gilboa, a US-Israel expert at Bar-Ilan University.
“There is a lot of confusion about what the Israeli government is up to,” he said. “If Netanyahu’s main issue is Iran, by pushing for judicial reform, he is diverting attention from the more critical number one issue of Iran’s nuclear program.”
AP correspondent Ilan Ben Zion reported from Jerusalem.