I was part of a small delegation of Arab Americans invited to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the day before his recent visit to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. Our meeting came on the heels of two tragic days in Israel/Palestine.
On January 26th, 10 Palestinians were killed during an Israeli undercover raid into Jenin. Nightly Israeli invasions of heavily populated Palestinian communities have taken almost three dozen lives so far this year. These raids and killings coupled with a new round of mass expulsions and intensified settler violence have left Palestinians both seething in anger and despairing of any improvement in their lives.
The next day a lone Palestinian gunman murdered eight Israelis as they walked home from their synagogue in a settlement to the east of Jerusalem.
Both mass killings were deplorable and yet tragically predictable.
While all of this left the region concerned that the violence would spin out of control, it appears that things may remain on a low boil. While extremist elements in the Israeli government may want to accelerate matters with more violence, Netanyahu himself intensified a series of repressive measures that included: sealing the homes of the Palestinian attackers and the arrests and/or expulsion of their family members and friends; sending more Israeli forces into the Occupied Territories; and issuing more weapons to settlers. For its part, the Palestinian Authority condemned the raids into Jenin and said it would cease security cooperation with Israel, but both the PA and Hamas appeared to have more interest in tamping things down than accelerating toward more violence.
We met with Secretary Blinken against this tense backdrop. We expressed our concerns including: admitting Israel into the US visa waiver program without Israel guaranteeing full reciprocity and respect for the rights of Arab Americans to enter and depart without harassment; plans to build the U.S. embassy on Palestinian-owned land in Jerusalem; and the State Department’s definition of antisemitism which includes legitimate criticism of Israel.
In my remarks, I attempted to place the recent events in the context of decades of failed US policies that have brought us to where we are today. The asymmetry of power that has existed between the Israelis and Palestinians has been amplified by the US’s asymmetrical approach to both. We have given full-throated support to Israel, while applying pressure mainly to the Palestinians.
When Palestinians have taken actions with which the US has disagreed, we’ve called them out or taken punitive measures to sanction them. But when Israel has acted contrary to international law or our own policies, we’ve responded, when at all, timidly with private communiques or public statements of concern. Knowing that there would be no consequences to their bad behavior, the Israelis would either simply proceed, or delay until the heat was off.
The result of having no consequences for Israel’s bad behaviors has been devastating on multiple levels. We have enabled Israel’s drift to the far right. Our enabling of hardliners and their policies has weakened Israel’s peace forces, who came to realize that they would have no backing for their opposition to human rights violations and the deepening of the occupation. At the same time, as prospects for a two-state solution became impossible to implement, we have discredited those Palestinian moderates who endorsed the Oslo Accords, while also emboldening Palestinian hardliners and advocates of violence as the only way forward. I made it clear that this was not the result of the last two years, but decades of US failed policies.
It’s not enough for the US to express concern about Netanyahu’s efforts to run roughshod over Israel’s democracy, while falling silent in the face of his proposed responses to the recent terror attack—all of which (including home demolitions and expulsions) are clear violations of international law. And it’s not enough to continue to express support for a two-state solution and speak about “the equal worth of Israelis and Palestinians.” The two-state solution is no longer possible and US silence in the face of Israeli actions makes it clear that we will not defend Palestinian rights or respect their humanity.
To dig our way out of this hole and begin to transform the downward spiraling dynamic, I recommended that the US reverse course. The Israeli side needs to hear that there will be consequences to policies that violate rights and international law and provoke violence. I suggested that we remove the sanctions that have been placed on the ICC, meet with and offer direct financial support to the Palestinian human rights organizations that Israel has banned, and make it clear that there will be direct consequences in aid and political support for any further movement on settlement expansion, home demolitions, and expulsions.
Such actions won’t make immediate change, but they will send a message to the Israeli right that their decades-long impunity is over. It will strengthen those forces in Israel who support ending the occupation, give hope to Palestinians that they have US support, and open the door to new possibilities. Change will not be overnight. It’s taken us decades to dig this hole that we, Israelis, and Palestinians are in. There’s no time like the present to stop digging and reverse course. If we don’t, the violence and repression will continue, and we will have only our inaction to blame.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.