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The US struggles to sway Israel on its treatment of Palestinians. Why Netanyahu is unlikely to yield

Jan 12, 2024, 9:16 PM

FILE - President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving a...

FILE - President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, on Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. Biden's administration keeps pressing Israel for better treatment of Palestinians. Netanyahu mostly keeps saying no. That cycle seems unlikely to end, despite U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's fourth urgent diplomatic trip this week to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war started. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration keeps pressing Israel to reengage with Palestinians as partners once fighting in Gaza is over and support their eventual independence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps saying no.

Even on actions to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians, the two allies are far apart.

That cycle, frustrating to much of the world, seems unlikely to end, despite U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s fourth urgent diplomatic trip this week to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war started. Though the United States, as Israel’s closest ally and largest weapons supplier, has stronger means to apply pressure on Israel, it shows no willingness to use them.

For both Netanyahu and Biden, popular opinion at home and deep personal conviction in the rightness of Israel’s cause, and each man’s battle for his own short-term political survival, are all combining to make it appear unlikely that Netanyahu will yield much on the U.S. demands regarding the Palestinians, or that Biden will get much tougher in trying to force them.

Support of Israel is a bedrock belief of many American voters. Biden’s presidential reelection bid this year puts him up against Republicans vying to outdo one another in support for Israel. For his part, Netanyahu is fighting to stay in office in the face of corruption charges.

Some experts warn it’s a formula that may lock the U.S. into deeper military and security engagement in the Middle East as hostilities worsen and Palestinian civilians continue to suffer.

“It’s a self-defeating policy,” said Brian Finucane, a former policy adviser in the State Department on counterterrorism and the use of military force.

“What may be expedient in terms of short-term domestic politics may not be in the long-term interests of the United States,” said Finucane, who is now a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group research organization. “Particularly if it results in the United States involving itself in further unnecessary wars in the Middle East.”

The administration says Biden’s approach of remaining Israel’s indispensable military ally and supporter is the best way to coax concessions from the often intractable Netanyahu, whose government ministers were trumpeting their rejection of some of the U.S. requests even as Blinken was still in the region.

Since Hamas attacked on Oct. 7, the U.S. has rushed arms and other aid to Israel, deployed forces to the region to confront escalated attacks by Hamas’ Iran-backed allies, and quashed moves in the United Nations to condemn Israel’s bombing of Palestinian civilians.

On Thursday U.S. time, the same day Blinken was wrapping up his diplomatic mission, U .S. warships and aircraft hit targets in Yemen, hoping to quell attacks that the country’s Iran-allied Houthis have launched on commercial shipping in the Red Sea since Israel started its devastating offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

American officials claim modest success for Blinken’s latest diplomatic efforts. He secured limited, conditional support from Arab leaders and Turkey for planning for reconstruction and governance in Gaza after the war ends. But prospects are uncertain because Israel’s far-right government is not on board with several key points.

The Biden administration has placed a particular premium on Israel reducing the number of civilian casualties in its military operations. The U.S. urging seemed to have some effect in recent days, as Israel began to withdraw some troops from northern Gaza and moved to a less-intensive campaign of airstrikes.

Israel has been not just uncooperative, but also openly hostile toward some smaller American requests, such as when Blinken pressed Israel to turn over the tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which Israel has refused to do.

“We will continue to fight with all of our might to destroy Hamas, and we will not transfer a shekel to the PA that will go to the families of Nazis in Gaza,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich wrote on X, in a message welcoming Blinken to Israel on Tuesday.

But the biggest U.S. disagreement with Israel has been with Netanyahu’s refusal to consider the creation of a Palestinian state. Arab states say a commitment on that point is essential to convincing them to participate in and contribute to postwar planning for Gaza.

Israelis and Americans are far apart on the matter.

The Palestinians have been divided politically and geographically since Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, overran Gaza in 2007, leaving internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with self-rule over isolated enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The U.S. wants Abbas’ Palestinian Authority to undergo administrative reforms before setting up a unified government in Gaza and the West Bank, as a precursor to statehood.

Blinken and his aides believe that Netanyahu — or his successor should Israel hold early elections — will eventually realize that Palestinian statehood is the key to Israel’s long-term security and accept it because it will have the effect of isolating Iran and its proxies, which are the biggest threat to Israel and the region.

“From Israel’s perspective, if you can have a future where they’re integrated into the region, relations are normalized with other countries, where they have the necessary assurances, commitments, guarantees for their security — that’s a very attractive pathway,” Blinken said in Cairo, his last stop. “But it’s also clear that that requires a pathway to a Palestinian state. We’ve heard that from every single country in the region.”

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., called Blinken’s remarks “tone deaf.” For Israelis, the U.S. push to revive negotiations for Palestinian statehood signals that American leaders haven’t realized how Israeli public opinion has hardened on Palestinian issues over the years, and especially since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

The Israeli public felt “hurt, insulted, fearful and concerned that this is the way our allies are talking,” Oren said.

Ultimately, he said, U.S. and Israeli interests don’t always converge. “At the end of the day, there’s a limit, because if (Biden) says stop, we’re not going to stop,” he said.

Israeli leaders know they’ll need to make some concessions to the United States, Oren said. Some they have already made, like letting limited amounts of fuel into the Gaza Strip, something Netanyahu adamantly refused to do in the early days of the war.

Biden has resisted calls from some in his Democratic Party to use U.S. leverage with Israel, chiefly U.S. military support, to try to force the issue.

The administration spoke out publicly against a move by some Democratic senators to tie U.S. military aid to Israel to ensuring that Israel take more concrete steps to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza. The administration says continuing to support Israel’s defense is in the interests of U.S. national security. Since then, it’s twice declared emergencies to authorize new arms sales to Israel without Congress’ OK.

Another attempt to pressure the Biden administration and Israel is expected next week, when Sen. Bernie Sanders plans a floor vote on compelling the State Department to tell Congress whether Israel is complying with international humanitarian law.

The United States also has some real incentives to use in encouraging Israel to improve its treatment of Palestinians, including when it comes to steering Israel and Israeli popular opinion toward a long-term political resolution. Israel knows the U.S. is likely to be key in rallying any Arab financial and political support for postwar Gaza, and to Israel’s deep desire to normalize relations with Arab nations, said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer for the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum.

But few expect big changes under Netanyahu. And some are skeptics on Biden.

“Blinken has turned into a political analyst who talks about things that may or may not happen,” said Hani al-Masri, director-general of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies.

The Biden administration “seems helpless in the face of Netanyahu’s government,” al-Masri said. “What is happening in the case of Israel makes it seem as if it is not serious in all the positive statements it makes about the Palestinian state and Palestinian rights.”

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Lidman reported from Tel Aviv.

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The US struggles to sway Israel on its treatment of Palestinians. Why Netanyahu is unlikely to yield