JERUSALEM (UKTN) — An alarming spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence and sharp responses from both sides are testing the Biden administration as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plunges into a cauldron of growing distrust and anger during visits this week to Israel and the West Bank. .
What was already expected to be a journey fraught with tensions over disagreements between the government and the new far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become considerably more complicated in the past four days with a spate of deadly incidents. Blinken’s act of diplomacy begins Monday after he made a brief visit to Egypt that was almost completely overshadowed by the deteriorating security situation in Israel and the West Bank.
US officials say the main theme of Blinken’s talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will be “de-escalation.” Yet Blinken will arrive in Israel just a day after Netanyahu’s security cabinet announced a series of punitive measures against Palestinians in response to a weekend of deadly shootings in which Palestinian attackers killed seven Israelis and wounded five others in Jerusalem. Those shootings followed a deadly Israeli raid on the West Bank on Thursday that left 10 Palestinians dead, most of them militants.
The violence has made January one of the bloodiest months in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in years. While Blinken’s trip has been planned for several weeks and will follow visits from Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, and CIA Director Willian Burns, it will be the highest US involvement with Netanyahu since he took office last month. regained power and the first since the wave of violence.
Already battling the far-right policies of the new Israeli administration and its opposition to a two-state solution to the long-running conflict, US officials have yet to consider retaliatory measures, including sealing and demolishing the homes of Palestinian attackers, canceling Social Security benefits for their families and the distribution of more weapons to Israeli citizens.
Perhaps most disturbing was Netanyahu’s vague promise to “fortify” Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, built on occupied land that the Palestinians believe is the heart of a future state. Bezalel Smotrich, an ultra-nationalist cabinet minister whom Netanyahu has appointed as responsible for settlement policy, said he would seek new constructions in a strategic part of the West Bank called E1. The US has repeatedly blocked Israel’s previous attempts to develop the area.
However, US officials have criticized Abbas’s decision to suspend Palestinian security cooperation with Israel following the incursion into the West Bank.
“We want the parties not to stop security cooperation, but to really improve security coordination,” said Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East. “We are urging de-escalation and calming of the situation.”
Ahead of his meeting with Blinken, Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel’s response is not intended to increase tensions.
“We are not looking for an escalation, but we are prepared for any scenario,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting. “Our response to terrorism is a firm hand and a strong, rapid and accurate response.”
Palestinians and some human rights groups believe that Israeli retaliation, which includes demolishing the homes of the attackers’ families, amounts to collective punishment and is illegal under international law. The unrest has added yet another item to Blinken’s longstanding diplomatic agenda, which was already set to include Russia’s war against Ukraine, tensions with Iran, and crises in Lebanon and Syria; all of which weigh heavily in the US-Israel relationship.
Alleviating those problems, or at least preventing new ones, is central to Blinken’s mission, despite Netanyahu’s opposition to two of Biden’s top priorities in the Middle East: reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But with both cases stalled and with little hope of resuming negotiations, the government is simply trying to keep drafts on life support.
Meanwhile, the government has decided to improve ties with the Palestinians that former President Donald Trump cut. While it has resumed suspended US aid, its goal of reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem to Palestinian issues and the possibility of allowing the Palestinians to reopen their diplomatic mission in Washington have been blocked by a combination of Israeli opposition and US legal hurdles. Blinken is unlikely to offer the Palestinians any sign of progress on any of these matters as he pushes for further political reform in the Palestinian Authority.
The US has also been silent on Netanyahu’s proposed sweeping changes to Israel’s legal system that could allow lawmakers to override Supreme Court decisions. In recent weeks, there have been massive protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the proposals that critics say would seriously damage Israel’s democratic position.
“It is clear that this issue of the judicial legislative packages is one that has generated intense, intense discussion and debate in Israeli society,” Leaf said. “It is clearly a measure of the vibrancy of democracy that this is so clearly contested up and down by segments of Israeli society.”
While she and other US officials have spoken about the importance of “shared values” with Israel, they have not commented on what they consider to be a purely domestic issue.
“But now it became a problem” because of the proposed speed and scope, the public outcry and growing concern among American Jewish leaders and members of Congress, said Eytan Gilboa, an American-Israel expert at Bar-Ilan University.
“There is a lot of confusion about what the Israeli government is up to,” he said. “If for Netanyahu Iran is the main problem, by pushing through the legal reform he is diverting attention from the main, more critical problem of Iran’s nuclear program.”
UKTN correspondent Ilan Ben Zion contributed from Jerusalem.