Washington appears as steadfast as ever in support of Israel

As conflict with Palestinian militants escalates, Joe Biden makes clear where he stands

When Joe Biden assumed the US presidency in January he indicated that his first priority would be domestic concerns, primarily the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences. Foreign policy, it seemed, would have to wait.

But the moment may have come. While Biden's decision last month to wind down US troop presence in Afghanistan by September marked the first big foreign policy decision of his tenure, the resurgence of violence in the Middle East has catapulted the simmering region back to the centre of the global agenda. The United Nation has warned of the threat of "all-out war".

Biden showed no signs that he planned to prioritise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before or after the presidential election. He pointedly delayed phoning Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for several weeks after his inauguration, a decision that was seen by some as a snub, but also an indication that the region was not high on his agenda.

Further, Netanyahu was a strong ally of Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, and the Israeli leader was strongly opposed to the Biden administration's efforts to restart the Iran nuclear deal.

But the outbreak of violence has thrust the Israeli-Palestinian conflict centre stage. As the conflict escalated Biden faced criticism for not reaching out to Netanyahu or Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas earlier in the week.

A phone call between Biden and Netanyahu finally took place on Wednesday evening. Secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke to Abbas shortly after. The US has despatched a special envoy to the region, deputy assistant secretary of state Hady Amr. No US ambassador to Israel (like most countries in the world) has yet been named, complicating US efforts to engage in the region.

Two-state solution

While Biden officials – unlike the Trump administration – have again this week underlined their support for a two-state solution, supporters of Palestinian rights may be dismayed that the language coming from Washington has not strayed far from the traditional US stance.

Biden underlined his belief in Israel's right to defend itself "when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory" following his discussion with Netanyahu. Similarly, an official read-out from the White House after the call emphasised Israel's "legitimate right" to defend its people, while making scant reference to the Palestinians, though it noted engagement by the US with neighbouring countries like Jordan and Egypt.

Biden said on Thursday that he did not think there had been an overreaction by Israel towards the Palestinians.

While the state department last week said it was "deeply concerned" about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, its language has hardened this week.

Blinken, while conceding that the Palestinians "have the right to safety and security" on Wednesday, emphasised the Israeli perspective. He said there is "a very clear and absolute distinction between a terrorist organisation, Hamas, that is indiscriminately raining down rockets, in fact targeting civilians, and Israel's response, defending itself."

The comments were welcomed by the American Jewish Committee on Thursday, which tweeted: "Thank you Secretary Blinken for standing with Israel and making a clear distinction between Hamas's terror attacks and Israel's fundamental right to defend itself."

Discontent on left

But while the pro-Israeli stance of the US across the political spectrum appears as steadfast as ever, there are some murmurings of discontent from the left of the Democratic Party. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rebuked Biden for his statement on Israel for failing to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians. "This is not neutral language. It takes a side – the side of occupation," she said.

While there is a small but growing number of Democrats willing to challenge the pro-Israel orthodoxy of Washington politics, it is unclear how much this will weigh on Biden’s decision-making.

The president has shown no signs that he intends to reverse Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, making it one of the few countries to do so. Though Biden pledged during the election campaign to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington, this has not yet happened.

At the UN Security Council, US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is leading efforts to rein in UN condemnation of Israel and blocked the council from issuing a statement this week, putting Ireland and US on opposite sides of the debate.

Following his phone call with Netanyahu, Biden expressed optimism that the conflict may de-escalate. “My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later,” he said.

The US president may be hoping that one of the most intractable problems in international affairs may fade from view as he focuses his presidency on other matters. This, however, could be wishful thinking.