In their public statements on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, US government officials have repeatedly emphasised that Israel has a right to defend itself. So it does, as do the Palestinians. But, as the Biden administration knows all too well, there is much more to the current fighting than that.
The broader context for the crisis is the complete failure to achieve a just and lasting peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and an end to the Jewish state’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Sooner or later, that failure was bound to spark conflict.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to launch a new drive for peace in the Middle East is clear and understandable. White House strategists want to concentrate their energies on dealing with the rise of China — and on America’s own domestic problems. The pursuit of a two-state solution has absorbed much US energy in recent decades, with little tangible return.
But President Joe Biden’s determination to reassert US global leadership means that he cannot ignore the current crisis or the broader Israeli-Palestinian question. At some point, efforts to achieve a peace settlement have to restart. Achieving a two-state solution that creates a Palestinian state remains a distant prospect. But there are other things that America and its European allies should be pushing for, in the short and medium term.
Biden has rightly now expressed support for a ceasefire to curtail the horrifying toll of civilian lives — though the US is still blocking a UN Security Council statement calling for de-escalation. Israel points out that the exchange of fire began with rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza. Yet the militant group did not fire in a vacuum, but after weeks of tensions fuelled by Israel’s planned eviction of Palestinian families from occupied East Jerusalem and the Israeli police’s heavy-handed treatment of protesters in the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. The compound is known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount and is sacred to both religions.
Israelis have also died in the current violence. But Palestinian casualties are far greater, exceeding 200, including scores of women and children. Israel’s premier Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear he is in no hurry to stop the bombing of Gaza. The US should step up public and private calls on Israel to move towards a rapid ceasefire, which must clearly also involve a cessation of rocket attacks from Gaza. Israel’s desire to restore deterrence cannot justify the collective punishment of 2m Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
The Biden administration should also increase pressure on Israel over time to improve Palestinians’ living conditions, and respect their rights. An early priority would be to ease and eventually lift the blockade on impoverished Gaza. The US and EU should also put overt pressure on Israel to stop land seizures and the demolition of Palestinian homes. A US administration that has made respect for human rights central to its foreign policy should make clear these principles also apply to Israel.
Even an increase in rhetorical pressure on the Netanyahu government will be controversial in the US. But the current situation poses a real long-term threat to the state of Israel. The outbreak of violence between minority Israeli Arabs and Jews in mixed towns and cities across Israel is ominous.
If it continues, it will mean Israelis’ aspirations to live lives as peaceful and normal as those of citizens of other wealthy countries are no longer tenable. The violence will radicalise opinion on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. That is why outside voices are necessary — to insist on the need to preserve prospects for peace.