Questions Israel’s PM must answer in Washington
Preparations for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s upcoming US visit have been unprecedented. Senior Israeli envoys have been in Washington and CIA Director William Burns has just spent three days visiting Israel and Palestine. A new Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, has been appointed for at least four years, spanning the administration of both Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is due to become prime minister if the rotation is honored in 2023.
The Iranian issue is expected to dominate the meeting in Washington. Israeli media is saying that Bennett will paint an ugly picture of newly elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as a hawkish leader with whom there should be no negotiation. The truth is that on the issue of the nuclear agreement it is Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and not the president who calls the shots.
Attempts to boost Raisi's negative profile simply avoid the reality that the Biden administration will most likely conclude a deal with Iran that will look more or less like the one that Obama signed and Trump tore up. Neither the US nor Israel will be able to restrict Iran’s missile development or its policies in the region, especially Tehran's support for Hezbollah and to a lesser extent Hamas and others.
Another issue on the table will be the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Biden administration signaled from Day 1 that this was not a White House priority, but it quickly became evident that there was no way to ignore the Middle East, especially once rockets started falling close to Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem.
The Biden team knows well that US support for Israel, including that of the current US Congress (where the Democrats hold a small majority), is not as strong as it was decades or even a few years ago. American progressives are serious about efforts to ensure a more evenly balanced US policy, which means that Washington will no longer tolerate Israeli excesses in the Occupied Territories, whether over human rights violations (especially against children), house demolitions or continued illegal settlement activities.
While the Biden administration has no vision for an overall response, it appears intent on making sure that the elusive two-state solution stays viable.
Nevertheless, it appears that Washington lacks any serious plans to deal with the larger picture and has chosen to take incremental steps in the hope of building confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. Hady Amr, deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs, has been asked to articulate this policy and has been meeting with all parties involved, including local leaders, civil society activists, and youth leaders.
These meetings are a clear signal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his assistants Hussein Al-Sheik, who handles Palestinian-Israeli relations, and Majid Faraj, head of the Palestinian intelligence service who coordinates with his counterparts in the US intelligence and security services. They signal that there are other Palestinians whose opinions the US values.
While the Biden administration has no vision for an overall response, it appears intent on making sure that the elusive two-state solution stays viable, which means Washington should insist on the illegality of the settlement enterprise. The question that remains is how much effort the Biden administration will be willing to spend on this critical issue.
Israeli media appears to understand this and has been floating ideas of supporting both Israeli and Palestinian building in Area C of the West Bank. This is a dangerous direction because it attempts to legitimize Jewish settlement activities by equating them with the natural right of the indigenous Palestinian population to make its own decisions on where and how it wants to build within the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.
Israeli settlement activities are illegal, according to UN Resolution 2334, which was not opposed by the Obama/Biden administration. But it appears that the Israelis are also using these activities to derail attempts by Palestinians to build the infrastructure of the independent Palestinian state envisioned as part of the two-state solution.
Recent Israeli land confiscations in the Jordan Valley area earmarked for a Palestinian airport, and the refusal to allow Palestinians to build in the Tayseer area, near the West Bank city of Jenin, are just two recent examples of Israeli efforts to disrupt Palestinian efforts.
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will no doubt give the Israeli prime minister a warm reception in Washington. The big questions are: Will US-Israeli relations be built on honesty and genuine support for peace in the Middle East? Or, will the Israelis continue to get away with violent occupation and illegal settlement?
• Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Twitter: @daoudkuttab