On Friday, I returned home from an intensive week in Israel and the Palestinian Territory with the J Street Education Fund’s latest Len Hill Congressional Delegation and Leadership Mission to the region.
The good news: this was our largest-ever delegation, with fifteen impressive Members of Congress determined to come to grips with the tremendous challenges of the moment and with what Congress and the US government can do about them.
I left feeling proud of the ground we cover on these nuanced trips and hopeful about the leadership of thoughtful Members of Congress like those who joined us on this trip.
Now for the bad news.
The situation in Israel, and particularly in the occupied West Bank, is about as dire as I have ever seen it — and growing worse every day. Just in the past 48 hours, we have seen appalling acts of violence and terror.
A Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis on Sunday as they drove through the Palestinian town of Huwara. Israeli settlers then carried out a devastating pogrom against Huwara, in which buildings were set on fire, nearly one hundred Palestinians were wounded and at least one was reported killed. On Monday, a Palestinian gunman killed a young Israeli-American man who was also a US citizen as he drove in the West Bank, near Jericho.
This surge in violence comes against the backdrop of the incendiary agenda being pursued by the far-right Netanyahu government.
This government has moved to dramatically undercut liberal democracy and the rule of law in Israel, promoting deeply unpopular legislation that would destroy the independence of the Supreme Court. This push has sparked a massive protest movement unlike any Israel has seen before.
At the same time, the government has made major moves toward annexation in the West Bank. Just last week, they decided to “legalize” nine settlement outposts previously unauthorized by the Israeli government; moved forward with the construction of over 7,000 new settlement housing units; and formally handed significant control over the West Bank to a civilian settler leader, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.
Let’s be clear: The two prongs of this agenda, undermining democracy and advancing annexation, are inextricably linked.
Our Len Hill Congressional Delegation and Leadership Mission began on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, just as tens of thousands of Israelis were taking to the streets to stand up for their democracy and against what many there refer to as a ‘judicial coup.’ We were in the Knesset last Monday as initial votes were taking place on these proposals.
The Members of Congress saw the passion that those who value Israel’s democracy bring to this battle over the future of the country. They saw the breadth and depth of the movement — that J Street supports — working to preserve the separation of powers, the independence of the courts and the rule of law.
They also heard from many of our Israeli allies that what underlies the right’s anti-democratic efforts is their belief that the Court is a major obstacle to their ambition to take over more and more Palestinian land.
J Street will continue to stress that opposition to the new government’s agenda must be an integrated package. The annexationist and anti-democratic elements of that agenda are two parts of one ideological whole that can’t be defeated if not recognized for what they are.
Our role in supporting those in Israel fighting for their democracy is to press the Biden Administration to take stronger steps to deter the far-right agenda. To date, the administration’s approach has been inadequate.
Consider what happened Sunday. As events in the West Bank spiraled further out of control, the US brought together in Aqaba, Jordan, officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan — something that hasn’t happened in years and is an important step.
The meeting led to a communique from the parties in which they committed to restore calm, and Israel specifically agreed not to further expand settlements or legalize outposts for several months.
Yet what is the value of such a commitment when it does nothing to roll back or penalize the dramatic steps Israel took just the week before? When someone has just cleaned out the grocery store of a year’s worth of supplies and then promises not to do it again for six months, what exactly has been gained if they don’t give back what they took?
Worse, the ink wasn’t even dry on the agreement when members of the security cabinet publicly denied its terms and stated that they would not abide by it. Finance Minister Smotrich said he “has no clue” what was said at this “superfluous summit” in Jordan and National Security Minister Ben Gvir said, “what happened in Jordan (if it happened), will stay in Jordan.” Netanyahu himself later said that “There is and will not be any freeze.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu assures the US that his “hands are on the wheel” and that he will “rein in” the extremists in his coalition. The truth is that he has not and cannot — and the car is heading off of a cliff.
The Biden Administration must be stronger in its opposition to the Israeli government’s agenda. The West Bank is on fire, Israel’s democracy hangs in the balance and the assurances of the Prime Minister that he has it all under control are simply not credible.
There must be clear redlines and tangible consequences for the steps that Israel is now taking.
I say this with a heavy heart, as someone deeply committed to the state of Israel and its security, democracy and Jewish character — all of which are at risk in the immediate future.
Ensuring that the US-Israel relationship remains rooted in the values we share means standing with Israelis fighting for the future and the soul of their country.
J Street and I are proud to back them, and we urge the Biden Administration and Congress to join us.