Why Is Israel Dictating America’s Mideast Policy?

The Biden administration should be pushing back against Israel's interference in its policymaking on the Palestinians. But it’s doing the exact opposite

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Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and President Joe Biden: Who actually decides U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinians?
Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) and President Joe Biden: Who actually decides U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinians?Credit: Evan Vucci/AP, Olivier Douliery/AFP
Dalal Iriqat
Dalal Iriqat

Ever since the U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, came to the region in May 2021, Palestinians have been waiting for his promise to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which served Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, to be implemented.

That the U.S. has worthy intentions regarding the consulate is not contested. The main obstacle is its apparent insistence on getting Israel to greenlight U.S. policy.

Israeli hegemony has become so evident in its relationship with the U.S. that ministers in Naftali Bennett's government opposed the whole concept of reopening the consulate, and for now, their stance is determining U.S. actions. 

The Israeli narrative today revolves around the threat any controversial steps would pose to the stability and survival of Bennett's post-Netanyahu government, whose collapse the Biden administration would do almost anything to prevent. In the waiting period before its first budget is passed, Israeli government officials are, with some audacity, explicitly challenging (if not blocking) the reopening of the Jerusalem consulate.

Israelis protest against the possible reopening of the American consulate in Jerusalem that served Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza until it was shuttered by President Trump Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Here are some points the Biden administration should be considering in pushing back against Israel's interference in its policymaking and to affirm its autonomy:

First: The American consulate in Jerusalem existed even before the State of Israel came into existence, long before the Basel Conference where Herzl proclaimed the idea of establishing the Zionist state. Biden is not innovating or upsetting a long-established status quo: he is restoring what was the accepted legal and moral situation until his predecessor's disruption.

Second: The U.S. administration appears committed not to interfere in Israel's internal affairs. But the Trump administration showed no such hesitancy: It didn't only interfere, loudly, but also imposed facts on the ground, violated the rights of the Palestinians and contravened international law.

Third: The U.S. gives Israel $3.8 billion annually for weapons and military aid, in addition to subsidized arms sales. That financial support, despite the beginnings of a progressive revolt in Congress, is watertight, no matter what.

But aid to the Palestinians is entirely conditional. U.S. administrations have repeatedly threatened to stop aid in response to any perceived Palestinian intransigence, and they have made good on their threats, from halting support for UNRWA, interrupting USAID projects, and withdrawing from international organizations that support the Palestinians. 

At the UN, successive American administrations have given Israel cover to commit war crimes, vetoing resolutions on the occupation unfavorable to Israel at the UN Security Council. Most recently, Biden’s ambassador vetoed a UNSC resolution this summer calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

If the U.S. employs coercive diplomacy against the Palestinians as a matter of routine, why can't it employ the same coercive diplomacy using financial aid against Israel, in order to achieve the policy aims the administration itself professes? 

Construction of new houses in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Bruchin near the Palestinian town of Nablus, earlier this monthCredit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Fourth: There is no reason for the Biden administration to perpetuate Trump's foreign policy debacles in regard to Israel-Palestine, when it has  retracted Trump decisions from Europe to Mexico, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan, and not least when Trump's decision to close the consulate was, as a unilateral step, a breach of Article 7 of the 1995 Declaration of Principles agreement ("Oslo II").

Moreover, the move constituted a violation of international law, the Geneva Conventions, and UN Security Council resolutions that preserve the rights of Palestinians within the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem.

Fifth: It's not enough just to try and roll back the most damaging acts of his predecessor: President Biden needs to proactively push back against the repercussions of those acts, some of which threaten to change the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its entirety.

Instead of appealing to both sides to refrain from unilateral steps that undermine the two-state solution, including Israeli settlement activities, Biden needs to admit that Trump facilitated the process of Judaizing and annexing Jerusalem. In doing so, he facilitated the transformation of the conflict into a religious battle.

To prove his standing as a real peace process mediator, Biden should correct this dangerous deviation and state clearly that the U.S. policy respects signed and binding agreements over the legal status of Jerusalem, and to commit to tackling the real roots of the problem: Israel’s seemingly open-ended and belligerent occupation. 

Israeli border police officers and Palestinians clash during a protest against the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements near the West Bank town of Salfit, December 3, 2020.Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

While there is talk in the air of Middle East peace "confidence building measures," on the ground, Israel continues its settler project, its forced transfers, evictions and displacements, its raids, aggressions and targeted killings, for all of which it enjoys full impunity. 

If Israel's government does pass its budget, the time for procrastination ends and the U.S. consulate is re-opened as promised, analysts speculate that would trigger tension between Israel and the U.S. But what is more likely to happen is a strategy of sweeteners – from Biden to Israel.

To compensate for its hurt feelings over the consulate, Israel will get a reward. And one direction this could take is for the Biden administration's eventual acquiescence to Bennett's announcement of the first settlement expansion plans since the president took office.

Biden has clarified privately to Bennett that he expected Israel to show restraint on settlements, and Bennett replied that Israel would build only according to needs arising from "natural growth," but that's an endlessly elastic, exploitable and extendable term: Bennett states that 4,400 new settlement homes will be built. The Biden administration has expressed "deep concern," but how long will that last?

There is a lingering question, too, that this rebuke of Bennett's plans may be more performative than real. Perhaps these settlements units are what Israel gets in return for giving Biden its "permission" to re-open the U.S. consulate. Or maybe there are more financial, military and political incentives for Israel, about which we are not yet aware.

Dalal Iriqat, PhD is the vice president for International Relations at the Arab American University in Palestine and a weekly columnist at the Al Quds newspaper. Twitter: @Dalaliriqat

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