Biden finally flexes political muscles against Israeli settlers

Biden finally flexes political muscles against Israeli settlers

Biden finally flexes political muscles against Israeli settlers
President Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP)
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It is gradually creeping into the Biden administration’s consciousness that the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is much more than just the latest battle between these two sworn enemies.
The conflict is destabilizing the region, with dangerous geopolitical and economic implications that reach far beyond the Middle East and might take a long time to resolve.
One issue that has been neglected, not only by the current administration in Washington but a number of previous ones, is the need to take a firm stance against violence by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, which should never be tolerated, whatever one’s views might be on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its potential resolution.
This month, at last, the Biden administration decided to get off the fence on this issue. Instead of continuing to make ineffectual statements about such ugly behavior, the president imposed sanctions on four Israelis identified as having taken part in settler violence in the West Bank.
For now, it is a gesture with very limited scope, despite some expectations that such sanctions would affect other settlers involved in the violence, including more high-profile ones such as those who incite it.
But although the decision to impose such measures took some time to arrive, it is nonetheless a case of better late than never. It is to be hoped that the message it sends will have the desired effect.
Let us not kid ourselves, Biden’s intention here goes beyond merely making an example of four allegedly violent settlers, and even the issue of settler violence in general. It is also about Washington’s growing exasperation with the actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government on a wide range of issues, including the delaying tactics in efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza; the blocking of deliveries of humanitarian aid to the territory; allowing ultra-right members of the ruling coalition, several of whom are settlers themselves, to further inflame an already explosive situation; and for refusing to acknowledge the need for a political resolution to the wider conflict between Israel and Palestine based on a two-state solution.
If the US is to rescue what little credibility it still has in the region — which has been further eroded by its unconditional support for the way in which Israel has conducted its war in Gaza, and the horrific price this has exacted on the population of the territory — what is desperately required of Biden is some show of balance and integrity when it comes to the lives of the Palestinian people.
For years, successive American presidents have been warned that the violent, anti-Palestinian behavior of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank was exacerbating a situation that is now on the verge of exploding. It is especially provocative because such violence takes place not only with impunity but sometimes with the support, direct or indirect, of the Israeli army.
By avoiding taking any action to curb this criminal behavior, Washington has become complicit in it.
The moral imperative to intervene in defense of innocent civilians — and in most cases this violence affects some of the most vulnerable Palestinians, who live in remote farming communities in Area C of the West Bank, which is under complete Israeli control — should be beyond the need for explanation or justification. After all, the settler attacks are not only wrong but illegal according to the occupier’s own legal standards. 

Imposing sanctions on four settlers sends a clear warning that Israel’s closest ally will no longer tolerate settler violence.

Yossi Mekelberg

The US invests considerable resources in ensuring coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, which is aimed mainly at protecting Israel from acts of militancy. Because it does not provide equal protection to Palestinians from settler violence, it is failing both communities.
It is not exactly a state secret that the minority of settlers involved in attacking defenseless Palestinian civilians consists of a mob of mindless thugs motivated by a completely ignorant and excessively zealous interpretation of Judaism. For them, the law of the land is merely a suggestion. It is religious law — as interpreted, or more accurately, distorted, by their own rabbis — that guides them.
By imposing sanctions on a few of the settlers, Biden is making it clear to Israeli authorities that if the country’s financial institutions do not comply with the sanctions and freeze the bank accounts of the individuals involved, they will find themselves on a collision course with US banking authorities.
Settlers, especially those of the ultra-nationalist-religious-messianic ilk, have never lacked confidence in their belief that divinity is guiding them toward the eventual annexation of the West Bank, while in the meantime granting them the right to oppress Palestinians, while harboring plans to force them to move to other countries.
The fact that they now find themselves at the heart of an Israeli government has increased the arrogance of these settlers, leading them to believe they are free to harass and harm Palestinians with no consequences. This sense of invincible supremacy, and their desire for revenge, has become even more pronounced in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.
Not only did they feel vindicated in their expressed need to continue their own terrorist activities, they also saw an opportunity, while the country’s attention was focused on Gaza or Hezbollah, to step up their assaults on Palestinians.
The security forces did very little to stop them, mainly because at the head of Israeli decision-making there currently squats a weak and unscrupulous prime minister who does not dare to confront the extremist settlers because of his desperate need to maintain the support of their representatives in the Knesset and the Cabinet, to keep his coalition intact. No one is more afraid of another general election than Netanyahu himself.
In the absence of any moral or practical compass within the government, it falls to Washington to provide one, particularly as it finds itself deeply involved in other regional conflicts exacerbated by the war in Gaza.
As Netanyahu continues to operate at his most manipulative and evasive in efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement in exchange for the release of hostages and prisoner exchanges, and even more so regarding the prospects for a two-state solution, it is left to President Biden to attempt to rein him in, not only for the sake of the Palestinians, but for Israel and the US as well.
Imposing sanctions on four settlers is a step in the right direction, and is a warning to several Cabinet members that they might be next should they fail to halt their incitements to violence. The resultant outcry from far-right politicians was only to be expected. But the swift decisions by Israeli banks to comply with the sanctions and freeze the accounts of the sanctioned settlers sent a clear warning that Israel’s closest ally will no longer tolerate settler violence.
It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration is prepared, especially in a presidential election year, to go further by utilizing its financial powers, and other economic and political tools, not to harm or weaken Israel, but to coax it onto a path toward peace and away from the road to self-destruction, by taking steps to prevent political hoodlums from dictating Israeli policies.
For once, there is a flicker of hope about this.

Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House.
X: @YMekelberg

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