High-level visit highlights US balancing act on Israel, Palestinians
The Washington Post January 29, 2023
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken lands in Israel this week, he will step into a hotbed of violence and political strife, signs of the chronic challenges that have kept the Middle East among America’s most urgent global concerns despite the Biden administration’s attempt to reengineer its foreign policy.
The diplomat’s visit to Israel and the West Bank will mark the highest-profile U.S. engagement to date with the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose far-right coalition, critics say, has taken steps to weaken Israel’s democratic system and further inflame the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, generating global condemnation.
Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said the Biden administration initially sought to avoid deep involvement with a part of the world that dominated U.S. foreign policy for the two decades following the 9/11 attacks at great financial and human cost to Americans.
“But if you don’t do the region, it does you,” Katulis said. “So they’re now tying to find a pathway to keep it on the rails while remaining hesitant to invest relative to challenges like Russia and China.”
Blinken’s two-day stay coincides with a major flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence, following an Israeli raid that killed nine people in the West Bank and set off a cascade of bloodshed. The tense moment underscores the delicate course the Biden administration must tread as it attempts to sustain its most prized Middle Eastern alliance while also pushing back on what it sees as problematic moves by Netanyahu’s political partners and attempting to salvage a measure of stability with Palestinians.
A swift return to calm appears unlikely amid the renewed fighting that followed last week’s military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, the deadliest incident in the West Bank in two decades. The episode capped a near-daily series of raids, which Israeli authorities have used to seek out militants they say are stoking violence against Israelis.
The raid was followed by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel, and Israeli airstrikes on targets in Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamist movement Hamas. In response, the Palestinian Authority suspended security cooperation with the Israeli government. Then, on Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed at least seven people during evening prayers at an East Jerusalem synagogue in what Hamas called a “quick response” to the deaths in Jenin. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre denounced the “heinous terror attack,” which occurred on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
While Blinken’s arrival in Israel follows visits by CIA Director William J. Burns and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, his role as chief diplomat will allow him to convey a more public message of continued support for both parties at a moment when the Ukraine war and the White House focus on competing with China have triggered concerns that Washington could abandon the Middle East entirely.
Just last week, the U.S. and Israeli militaries concluded their largest-ever joint exercise. Despite a reduced footprint in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon retains a network of bases across the region and, bucking criticism from some fellow Democrats, President Biden has maintained deep security ties with Saudi Arabia.
Blinken’s tour also offers an opportunity to underscore Biden’s position on key issues: his desire for a two-state solution between Israelis and the Palestinians, however remote that possibility now appears; his opposition to changes to the status quo on issues including the Temple Mount, a sensitive holy site; and his call for governance reforms by Palestinian authorities. Blinken is also scheduled to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah in the West Bank.
In articulating those positions, the Biden administration will highlight the areas where it has differed from the Trump administration, which took a less critical position toward Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians.
It is less clear how forcefully Blinken will press Netanyahu on political positions from certain elements of his coalition, some of whom have espoused anti-LGBT views or called for the annexation of the West Bank.
The most high-profile among them is Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right politician whom Netanyahu appointed as national security minister. Ben Gvir - who also banned public display of the Palestinian flag, deeming it tantamount to supporting terrorism — ignited global criticism earlier this month when he made a rare visit to a Jerusalem site venerated by both Muslims and Jews. The Temple Mount visit defied warnings from within his own government and drew a U.S. rebuke.
Another test for Blinken will be his approach to proposed changes to Israel’s judiciary that critics say will demolish critical checks and balances. Those and other measures have prompted tens of thousands of Israelis to take to the streets in protest and elicited concerns from supporters of Israel in the United States. The measures, which would erode judicial power, occur as Netanyahu faces multiple corruption cases and deep questions about Israel’s political health following a series of elections that culminated in Netanyahu’s return to power for a third term.
Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, declined to say in a call with reporters Thursday whether Blinken would push Netanyahu on the judicial proposals. Biden has made the promotion of democratic norms at a time of advancing autocracies a signature issue of his presidency.
David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he expected Blinken and his advisers to raise their concerns to Netanyahu’s government in private.
“The key, though, is what I call the Biden vibe: Work it out quietly; don’t convene a press conference; don’t thunder from a State Department podium,” he said. “There might be a few words out there, but I don’t think they want to do anything that will be interpreted as publicly intervening” in a domestic issue.
For some in Washington, Blinken’s trip is likely to recall the unusual speech that Netanyahu gave before the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015 in which he issued a fiery denunciation of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. The address did lasting damage to the Israeli leader’s relationship with many Democrats.
Makovsky said some public critiques from Blinken would probably be welcomed by Netanyahu, who could employ concerns articulated by Israel’s most important ally in his attempt to wrangle members of his unwieldy coalition.
Addressing the Biden administration’s interactions with Netanyahu, Makovsky said: “You should not rule out that there is some good cop, bad cop.”
Shira Rubin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.