Few signs that Biden is prepared to step up pressure on Israel

US insists it is working hard behind scenes to halt Gaza conflict as it again blocks UN statement

The heavily damaged Aqsa avenue in Gaza City’s Dahduh neighbourhood following an Israeli bombardment on Tuesday. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

The heavily damaged Aqsa avenue in Gaza City’s Dahduh neighbourhood following an Israeli bombardment on Tuesday. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

 

In his address to the United Nations Security Council on Sunday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned his colleagues that “the world is watching”. The latest recurrence of violence in the Middle East, he said, “shames all of us at the United Nations and as an international community”, and “reminds us again of the consequences of our collective inertia”.

His appeal fell on deaf ears – or at least the deaf ears of the United States.

In her intervention, US ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield did call on “all parties to ensure the protection of civilians and to respect international humanitarian law”.

But any hopes that the UN would at the very least call for a ceasefire were soon dashed.

The US declined to agree a joint statement on Sunday. In a depressingly familiar pattern, it again on Monday blocked a statement supported by all other 14 members calling for a cessation of violence.

China – which is chairing the council this month – has said it is continuing to work behind the scenes to secure agreement. Though more security council meetings are possible, attention will now turn to the UN General Assembly, which will hold an emergency session on Thursday at the request of Algeria and Niger to discuss the “grave deterioration” in the situation.

But the real decision about any meaningful change in the international community’s response to the crisis will be made in Washington.

While US president Joe Biden may not want to get involved in one of the world’s most intractable political issues, he is coming under increasing pressure to do so.

The conflict in Israel and Gaza is leading US media sites, even gaining ground on the usually Washington-focused cable TV news channels.

Biden is also facing pressure from within the Democratic party. While he may have kept the more left-wing elements of his party at bay with his ambitious American Rescue Plan and proposed infrastructure bills, a growing number of Democrats on the left are questioning Washington’s unwavering support for Israel, and its provision of almost $4 billion in military aid each year.

Biden has been a steadfast advocate for Israel throughout his political career, but a new generation of Democrats including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib are calling for the Palestinian voice to be heard.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times at the weekend in which he asked: “Why is the question almost never asked: ‘What are the rights of the Palestinian people?’”

The fact that the Biden administration approved the proposed sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel days before the recent hostilities erupted has also been noted.

Broad swathe

More centrist members of the party are also speaking up. Twenty-eight Democratic senators, representing a broad swathe of the party, issued a statement calling for both sides to agree a ceasefire.

The Biden administration has countered that it is pursuing efforts behind the scenes to encourage peace. The senior state department official who was despatched to Israel last week met Israeli leadership on Sunday, and Palestinian figures on Monday. Outreach is continuing with other players in the region, with secretary of state Antony Blinken speaking to the foreign ministers of Jordan and Tunisia on Monday.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan insisted on Monday that the US “is engaged in quiet, intensive diplomacy and our efforts will continue”, after speaking with members of the Egyptian government and his Israeli counterpart Ben Shabbat.

Sullivan’s language was later echoed by press secretary Jen Psaki, who noted that the United States was having conversations behind the scenes with the aim of “reducing the violence and bringing an end to the conflict on the ground”.

However, she sidestepped the question of whether Israel’s response to the Hamas rocket attacks was “proportionate”, saying the question was not “constructive”.

The sense that the United States is in no hurry to call for a ceasefire was underlined by Blinken’s comments in Copenhagen , where he said that the US was prepared to support the parties “should they seek a ceasefire”. Instead, he mentioned the “urgency of working towards a sustainable calm”.

With Biden due to speak to the Israeli leader later on Monday, there were few signs that he was prepared to step up pressure on Israel.

The US argument for not calling for a ceasefire, or joining UN Security Council efforts to de-escalate the situation, has been that it is pursuing its own diplomatic paths, particularly with players in the region.

But other members of the council, including Ireland, counter that the two paths are not mutually exclusive, and that there is no reason why diplomatic efforts cannot continue in parallel with security council activity.

What seems likely, however, is that Israel will take its cue from Washington rather than New York as it considers its next steps.

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