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Biden can neither ignore nor address Israeli-Palestinian violence

As President Biden is preparing to engage in talks with Republican leaders on a bold infrastructure package, a rash of events in the Middle East is threatening to pull the U.S. back into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Biden administration immediately condemned “in the strongest terms” the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel late Monday, expressing support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

The statement was in stark contrast to those issued by the White House and congressional Democrats over the weekend criticizing Israel’s planned evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Since he came into office, President Joe Biden has signaled that Washington would step back from its historic role in helping manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in order to focus on domestic issues and more pressing global affairs. But the spiral of events on Monday — a day of clashes in the Old City of Jerusalem, an evening barrage of missiles from Gaza aimed at Jerusalem and other major cities, and retaliatory airstrikes by Israel that Palestinian officials said killed 20 people, including nine children, in Gaza — proved once again that the conflict cannot easily be back-burnered.

“The region has a tendency of imposing itself on the American agenda in the most brutal ways,” said Nimrod Novik, a fellow at Israel Policy Forum and former advisor to Shimon Peres, the late prime minister and president. “This is what low-priority looks like. When you leave the disturbed children of Abraham without a babysitter, we tend to mess things up.”

The events, Novick added, are “just one manifestation that’s been going on for decades.”

Israelis take part in the annual “Jerusalem Day” march to mark the reunification of Jerusalem after Israel captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images

The specific situation that exploded on Monday has been building for weeks and represented several long standing conflicts coming together at a particularly unfortuitous time.

There has been major activism around the slated evictions of four Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood that has for years been a hotspot of tensions as Jewish settlers took over numerous homes; Israel’s Supreme Court delayed a hearing about the evictions on Sunday amid international outcry, including from several mainstream U.S. politicians and groups. And Monday was “Jerusalem Day,” which marks the anniversary of when Israeli paratroopers reclaimed control of the Western Wall and the Old City, a day that has also for years drawn clashes between ultra-nationalist Jewish celebrants and Palestinian protesters.

Underpinning those events were several other factors:

  • the recent indefinite postponement of Palestinian national elections, which only inflamed the tensions between the militant Hamas movement and the more moderate Fatah factions;

  • the instability of Israel’s political landscape, and four elections in two years without conclusive results, and opponents to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now scrambling to assemble a governing coalition that could oust him;

  • and the fact that Jerusalem Day fell this year during Ramadan, when access to the Old City and its Al Aqsa Mosque compound is particularly important to Palestinians.

“It was all anticipated and could have been avoided,” said Novick, who is affiliated with Commanders for Israel’s Security, an advocacy group of former senior Israeli security officials.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at the daily news briefing on Monday that the U.S. is “closely monitoring” the situation.

“The launching of rocket attacks and incendiary balloons from Gaza towards Israel is unacceptable and must be condemned,” she said. “So, this is something that our national security team is closely monitoring, obviously, across government. Certainly, the president is kept abreast and is watching closely as well.”

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that “if the administration were interested in tamping down the violence, they would have to do more than just issue a strong series of statements.” But, he added, “I am not sure whether or not they’re prepared for anything more.”

David Makovksy, director of the program on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, suggested that the administration’s hands-off approach was the result of the ongoing political stalemate in Israel.

“I think they took a position that we cannot solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue as long as Netanyahu and Abbas are the leaders,” he said in an interview, noting that it is common for Washington to step back while another country’s electoral process is underway. “The venn diagram does not overlap in their position, and so the focus was more on restoring the U.S.-Palestinian relations.”

Palestinian medics evacuate a wounded protester from the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City amidst clashes with Israeli security forces.

Palestinian medics evacuate a wounded protester from the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City amidst clashes with Israeli security forces. Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

To no surprise, the escalating violence has postponed for now the latest moves towards the formation of a national unity government. Last week, President Reuven Rivlin tapped Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, to form a government after Netanyahu failed to cobble together the required support of 61 of the 120 Knesset members in the 28 days allotted to him. Lapid, whose party won the second-highest number of Knesset seats, 17, in the March 3 election, has offered Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing Yamina party, to serve as prime minister for the first two years in a power-sharing rotation government.

The sides had reported progress in recent days as the Islamist United Arab List agreed to join such a government. But Mansour Abbas, that party’s leader, canceled a scheduled meeting with Bennett and Lapid on Monday afternoon in the wake of the Jerusalem clashes. The Gaza flare-up froze the political situation even further.

Novick said that while the crisis puts constraints on the efforts, “if things calm down relatively rapidly, we are going to see the resumption of negotiations.”

But it may be even more difficult now for the left-leaning parties and Arab-Israeli lawmakers to accept the idea of Bennett, a former settler leader with a nationalist ideology that includes Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank, as head of government. The original idea for the so-called “change government,” made up of parties who agree on little other than their desire to remove Netanyahu, was to avoid contentious issues like security and Palestinian rights to focus on rebuilding the economy and domestic reforms.

That is much harder to imagine after a day of red-alerts sending Israelis into bomb shelters and ambulances rushing Palestinians to hospitals.

But Makovksy, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said it also means the Biden administration would have trouble putting too much capital into the conflict. “The government will be very fragile,” he said. “The Palestinian issue is going to be the one issue that could break up the anti-Bibi coalition.”

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