Middle East crises have a habit of sucking in US administrations whether they like it or not. So it was for Joe Biden when conflict erupted last month between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, triggering a maelstrom of unrest that spread across mixed Israeli towns and the occupied West Bank.
The US president, grappling with coronavirus at home, and with China and Russia as his foreign policy priorities, appeared loath to intervene. He declared US support for Israel, saying he had not seen a “significant overreaction” by the Jewish state, even as its US-made warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip, and blocked the UN Security Council calling for a de-escalation.
That stance changed after Israeli air strikes destroyed a building housing media organisations, including the Associated Press, the US agency. It was only after the bombing sparked an outcry at a time when Biden faced increasing domestic criticism over his refusal to pressure Israel to end its offensive, that he backed calls for a ceasefire.
Intensified US diplomacy was then vital to ending the 11-day conflict. By that time, Israeli strikes had killed at least 254 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them women and children. Hamas rockets killed 13 people in Israel, including two children.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken has since visited the region and rightly reversed some of the recklessly pro-Israeli measures taken by Donald Trump. This included a pledge to accelerate the reopening of a consulate in Jerusalem that serves as a diplomatic channel to the Palestinians. He also announced increased aid to the Palestinians and some $5.5m in disaster relief to help impoverished Gaza begin yet another rebuilding process.
Much more needs to be done. The ceasefire may have ended the fighting, but it will not end the decades-long cycle of uneasy calm followed by bloodshed. That will cease only when the Palestinians no longer live under occupation, Gaza is not akin to an open-air prison, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship do not face discrimination.
As Israel’s main ally, the US has a moral obligation to hold the Jewish state to account. It should use its leverage to end maltreatment of Palestinians, whether it be evictions, settlement expansion or the harassment occupied Palestinians endure from Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers.
Doing so would lay the foundations necessary to revive an equitable peace process in the hope of securing a just settlement. To do nothing would be to sow the seeds of the next inevitable bout of violence — be it in the occupied territories, inside Israel, or both. Intransigence only serves the interests of groups, such as Hamas, that capitalise on Israel’s abuses to bolster their support and justify their militancy, while muting moderate voices.
Washington must also pressure the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, to hold elections to give Palestinians the chance to elect a more representative leadership. Abbas’s decision last month to cancel what would have been the first Palestinian election in 16 years was wrong and motivated by self-preservation. Palestinians must get their act in order and present a credible partner for Washington and others to engage with.
But their failings should not excuse the US turning a blind eye to Israel’s creeping colonisation of occupied territories and abuse of Palestinians’ rights. Biden, who has described himself as a Zionist, must stay engaged with the crisis. The US has a choice: appear ever more to be Israel’s cheerleader as the conflict simmers, or be the serious and objective player it should be.