Over the past few days, the situation in the West Bank, Jerusalem and beyond has horrifyingly gone from “very bad” to “much worse.” Six months ago, after leading a delegation to the region, I came back deeply concerned that we stood at the edge of another serious round of violence.
And that was before the election of Israel’s new radically right-wing government.
The events of recent days have confirmed my fears.
On Thursday, at least nine Palestinians were killed during a major IDF incursion into the city of Jenin, including Islamic Jihad militants and at least one civilian, with over twenty injured.
In the wake of that operation — which reportedly sought to prevent a potential terror attack — the Palestinian Authority suspended security cooperation with Israel. Meanwhile, terrorist factions in Gaza tried to exploit the situation with rocket fire directed at Israeli civilians, prompting IDF airstrikes on Gaza in response.
On Friday, during Shabbat and on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis and wounded three others outside a synagogue in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, the deadliest terror attack on Israelis in years. Just a day later, on Saturday, an Israeli father and son were shot and wounded in East Jerusalem — by an attacker who was just 13 years old.
Then, over the weekend, 144 acts of settler violence and harassment against Palestinians were reported throughout the occupied West Bank.
We know all too well that the nightmare of violent escalation, once begun, has a tendency to spiral further and further out of control — spreading suffering and grief for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Leadership is desperately needed — but is sorely lacking — to reduce tensions, pull back from the brink, and address the fundamental root causes of the conflict.
The role of the United States is vital in this regard. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on the ground on a pre-planned trip, one of a string of high-level visits from senior members of the Biden Administration. His visit provides a vital opportunity to deliver clear messages to both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
With Palestinian leaders, Secretary Blinken must stress the need to prevent incitement and acts of terror by militant groups. He should underscore the critical importance of security coordination with Israel to prevent further dangerous escalation in the West Bank. The absence of this coordination benefits no one.
With the hardline Netanyahu government, the Secretary must make clear that, along with its steadfast support for Israel’s security, the Biden Administration is unequivocally opposed to any acts of deepening occupation, annexation or collective punishment that further inflame tensions and undercut the rights and aspirations of Palestinians.
The US also needs to stress that recent policies designed to undermine and harshly penalize the Palestinian Authority as retribution for acts of lawful, nonviolent opposition to occupation will only empower extremist factions and endanger Israel’s security.
Without intervention, destructive impulses and ideologies focused on revenge and retaliation, on punishment and control, will continue to make the lives of Israelis and Palestinians worse, year after year.
Palestinian militant factions will laud acts of terror, pushing for more “violent resistance.” That’s the appalling impulse that apparently led some Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza to publicly celebrate Friday’s horrifying attack in Neve Yaakov.
Far-right Israeli leaders will push to further expand settlements, entrench the occupation, and make its system of control even more oppressive and painful for Palestinians. Already we’ve seen Prime Minister Netanyahu promise to “strengthen settlements” and propose harsh new policies of illegal collective punishment of the families of those who commit acts of terror.
Influential forces on both sides will chase the illusion that if only the other side is hit a little bit harder, they will finally submit.
Of course, the US government is not all-powerful. Faced with an immensely challenging and deteriorating situation, it cannot wave a magic wand to achieve peace, halt terror and end injustice.
Still, there is much that the US CAN and MUST do — and much for which pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy Americans can advocate.
Both the Biden Administration and Congress can push back against the failed, destructive logic of tit for tat, pain for pain, an eye for an eye, and push for an alternative path that leads instead toward diplomacy and compromise.
They can publicly and strongly push back against destructive policies and actions that undercut our core interests, international law and shared democratic values.
They can make clear that leaders who push for such policies will be met with firm red lines — not green lights or blank checks.
All of us at J Street know that stepping back from the challenge, or treating the situation simply as “business as usual,” should not and cannot be an option. There’s far too much on the line — for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for the United States’ own long-term hopes for the region.
As events on the ground unfold in the days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to promote a vision of a better future rooted in peace, justice and self-determination for both peoples, and continue to champion the American policies that we believe can help make that future possible.