How the Biden Admin. Should Respond to the Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on May 12, 2021

With immense sadness and frustration, I write, not for the first time, in the midst of a serious escalation in violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territory.

All of us at J Street hold in our hearts at this difficult time our friends, family and loved ones in the line of fire — including members of J Street’s own staff who have spent the past day and night in and out of shelters. We are thinking as well of all of the Palestinian and Israeli families who are grieving losses and tending to the wounded.

While this moment bears resemblance to painful memories of prior rounds of conflict, the present violence is at the same time radically different. Some observers are calling the events of the past week a “civil war” within Israel itself as unprecedented scenes of fighting and violence are playing out in mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel.

Just days ago, we watched with growing alarm as efforts by radical Israeli settler groups to force Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes inflamed tensions and violence.

Thankfully, Israel’s Supreme Court postponed a decision about the evictions, but harsh police crackdowns against Palestinian protesters in Sheikh Jarrah and then at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount — during the holiday of Ramadan — sparked outrage across the city and the wider region.

And now, tragically, with Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities and Israel responding with massive airstrikes, there are over 100 Palestinians killed in Gaza and at least seven Israelis killed — including, horrifically, children on both sides. Many more have been wounded.

J Street supports Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rockets and acts of terror — which we unequivocally condemn.

The tragedy of this situation is that we know the cycle of retaliation, rockets and more retaliation will do nothing to provide long-term security for Israelis and will only leave more devastation for Gaza, many more deaths and injuries and deeper fear and hate in its wake.

J Street’s role is to outline what we would like the United States to do at moments like this, so here’s the agenda we’re putting forward to the Biden administration:

First, make addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority once again.

While resolution of the conflict should not — and we recognize will not — be at the very top of the administration’s priority list, a “hands-off approach” is not a policy either. Inattention to the conflict allows tensions to escalate that can then explode into precisely the kind of violence we are witnessing over the past week.

The administration’s top priority now must be to get Israel and Hamas to de-escalate and agree to a ceasefire. We’re also urging the administration to make clear publicly that Israeli efforts to evict and displace Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are unacceptable, as is the use of excessive force against protesters.

If you’ve not yet had the chance, I’d encourage you to add your name now to our petition calling for both immediate action, and a sustained diplomatic effort to support the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to peace, security and self-determination.

Read and sign the petition now

Beyond a push to stop the fighting immediately, the administration should quickly appoint a Special Envoy to direct and coordinate policy related to the conflict. The envoy’s mandate should be not to coordinate a return to the “status quo ante,” but to actually address the underlying issues that lead to regular outbreaks of violence — namely the unsustainability of permanent occupation of Palestinian territory and of governing millions of people who live there without full rights.

Next, the administration should immediately reverse steps taken by the Trump administration that have deepened the conflict and damaged America’s ability to be a mediator and arbiter. During its first 100 days, the Biden administration reversed some of the damage, but there is much, much more still to be done.

In particular, in Jerusalem, the US and the international community need to get Israel to stop the ongoing evictions and displacements in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. Radical right-wingers in Israel seeking to establish full Jewish sovereignty over the city and to change the status quo on the Temple Mount are playing with fire. The US must convey to the government of Israel that these actions must stop and that the potential for two capitals for two states in the city must be maintained.

Finally, the time has come for a reset of US policy overall when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, instead of easing the conflict over time, American policy contributed to making it ever deeper and never-ending.

The provision of a financial and diplomatic “blank check” by the United States to the state of Israel means that its current government feels little incentive to end occupation, pursue serious diplomacy or find a permanent solution to the conflict that provides Israel with real security and Palestinians with their rights. While remaining committed to Israel’s security and to the full amount of assistance currently promised to Israel, the US must recognize that by allowing US-sourced military equipment — including equipment bought with US aid — to be used in connection with evictions, demolitions and settlement expansion, it is facilitating the ongoing creeping annexation of Palestinian territory and cementing a permanent undemocratic and unacceptable one-state reality. That must stop.

It has to be noted that the bluff has also been called on the illusion presented by the prior administration with the encouragement of Israel’s right wing that somehow normalizing relations with Gulf States while circumventing the Palestinians can substitute for actual conflict resolution and peace.

It is Israelis and Palestinians who have been fighting for nearly a century now over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean — not Israelis and Emiratis or the Sudanese. It is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that needs to be addressed not ignored.

This is a painful and difficult situation — and many parties bear responsibility, from Hamas terrorists to far-right Kahanists to irresponsible politicians stoking tensions and hate. The US can’t wave a magic wand to bring it all to a peaceful end.

But it also can’t walk away.

Our government must do so much more to put real weight behind easily-uttered verbal commitments to peace, human rights and a two-state solution.

Together, we will continue to press the Biden administration and Congress — as well our own communal leadership — to chart a course that ensures that the rights and safety of both Israelis and Palestinians are respected, to move Israel away from the destructive path of permanent occupation and de facto annexation and to support Palestinians who are committed to a nonviolent, diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

Tell President Biden: We Need A Ceasefire Now Sign The Petition

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