Israeli-Palestinian conflict: an end to partisan US foreign policy?

Little appears to have changed in the fifty years since the Israeli occupation of Palestine began in 1967, with Israeli and Palestinian forces still caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of war and destruction. In the past weeks, a fresh escalation of violence — the most intense since the seven-week war of 2014 — has dominated the news. The latest bout of conflict between Israeli forces and Hamas, the Palestinian rebel group which controls the besieged Gaza strip, was precipitated by the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and violent raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque — Islam’s third holiest site — during Ramadan. After the demands that Israeli security forces be removed from these areas went unheeded, Hamas struck out with rocket attacks, to which Israel responded with amplified force. In eleven days of conflict, at least 242 people were killed in Gaza (129 of them civilians) and 13 in Israel. Reports from Gaza’s health ministry estimate that a further 1,900 people were wounded.  

With peace fragilely restored by an Egypt-brokered ceasefire, media attention is beginning to turn outward, with the Unites States under particular scrutiny for its reaction to the conflict.  

The US has consistently been a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, sharing sensitive intelligence with Israel and supplying it with vast amounts of military aid. This long-standing alliance was strengthened during Donald Trump’s premiership, which was marked by a breakdown in US-Palestinian relations. Whilst Trump was in office, the US controversially moved their Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, shut down their consulate in Palestinian-governed East Jerusalem, and cut off humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The administration’s Middle East peace plan (which proposed a two-state solution) was perceived by the PA, and many commentators around the world, to favour Israel.  

With a new, Democratic administration under President Joe Biden, many hoped that US foreign policy regarding the Middle East would cease to be so one-sided. Biden promised to heal the US’s diplomatic relationship with Palestine when he took office, proposing to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem and to resume aid payments. The US was heavily involved in the ceasefire negotiations and has offered $75m in aid to help rebuild Gaza. In a visit to the territory earlier this month, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, reaffirmed these intentions, announcing that his visit sought to “rebuild” relations with the PA.  

We must question, however, if the US has done enough. It is important to note that Biden was slow to call for a ceasefire; as Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, observed, “Washington […] stood alone among the members of the UN Security Council in its opposition to consensus on a ceasefire, not once, not twice, but three times”. Furthermore, the US’s history of providing military aid to Israel  — something that effectively facilitated this month’s violent attacks — cannot be ignored. A recent BBC News article revealed the vast amount of aid that Israel has received — and is set to receive — from the US. It reports that, in 2016, former president Barack Obama agreed that the US would provide Israel with an aggregate package of $38bn in the coming decade, almost all of it for military aid. This boils down to a pay-out of $3.8bn per year — which, by contrast, makes the $75m aid offered to Palestine appear a very paltry token gesture. 

The payment of military aid to Israel is causing division amongst members of the Democratic Party and Biden is coming under increasing pressure from party members to place conditions on how Israel can use US aid. On May 19, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Mark Pocan announced that they planned to introduce a resolution to block an upcoming $735m arms sale to Israel. Although the motion is unlikely to be passed, this is an indication of changing attitudes in a country where, just a decade ago, openly supporting Palestine over Israel was effectively political suicide.  

These changing attitudes within the Democratic party echo a broader shift amongst everyday Americans. Traditionally, the evangelical right has been the linchpin of US support for Israel; however, a recent survey commissioned by North Carolina University revealed that ‘support for Israel among young evangelicals dropped from 75% to 34%’ between 2018 and 2021. Pollster John Zogby describes a similarly ‘tectonic’ shift in Democrats’ attitudes towards the conflict, also noting that younger generations are becoming increasingly sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause. This dramatic change in outlook can be linked to growing public engagement with campaigns for social justice, such as ‘Black Lives Matter’. The racial component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not gone unnoticed, with people drawing parallels between the US’s own colonial past and the abuses of Palestinians at the hands of Israel. As US campaigner for Palestinian rights, Ahmad Abuznaid, argues “Palestine is part of a larger movement for racial justice and freedom“.  

As with any disagreement founded on religious or racial difference, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply divisive; made more so by our acute awareness of the horrors of the holocaust, and qualms about being labelled anti-Semitic. Although the violent rocket attacks of Hamas cannot be condoned, nor can the repression of the Palestinian people by Israeli forces. The credibility of Biden’s administration — and, more broadly, of the US as a diplomatic power — is, therefore, in jeopardy. The US is trying to have its cake and eat it; yet, in practice, it cannot both preserve the traditional US-Israeli alliance and also stay true to its policy of defending Human Rights.  

 

Image: U. S. Embassy Jerusalem via Flickr (CC2.0)

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