As Israeli far-right rises, US wait-and-see approach leaves all options on the table

Acknowledging 2 states distant as ever, Blinken for the first time stresses equal rights and justice under the law for both sides, but otherwise sticks with script, for now

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as his image in seen on a large screen behind him at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, December 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as his image in seen on a large screen behind him at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, December 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Sunday address to the annual J Street conference was not particularly well received by delegates of the dovish Mideast lobby, who are itching for tougher treatment of Israel as politics there veer further to the right.

Instead, Blinken sought to present the delicate balance the Washington seeks to strike with its policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US, he said, will interact with the Israeli government based on the policies it implements, rather than the individuals who carry them out — no matter how radical they might be.

“We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Blinken told J Street, which has called on the Biden administration not to engage at all with Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party tapped by presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to become Israel’s national security minister.

“We will hold [Israel] to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades, and we will speak honestly and respectfully with our Israeli friends, as partners always should,” the secretary of state added.

The remarks appeared designed to leave all options on the table for an administration that has sought to avoid public spats with Israel — despite political differences — due to a belief that such disputes are a waste of political capital at a time when conditions on the ground are not ripe for significant progress toward a two-state solution anyway.

That logic, however, was rejected by many of the conference attendees who heard from dozens of other speakers about the repercussions of continued Israeli military rule over the Palestinians. A handful of the 1,000-plus in attendance even hissed as Blinken congratulated Netanyahu on his recent election win.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir arrive for the swearing-in ceremony for the new Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

The results of the November 1 vote are ushering in what will seemingly be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, with Netanyahu elevating ultra-nationalists and homophobic lawmakers to critical posts responsible for security and education policy.

The secretary of state hinted in his Sunday speech that this might lead to a policy adjustment and alluded to subtle changes already taking place in the administration’s rhetoric. For the most part, though, Blinken indicated the US is still sticking to its original script.

Juggling act

Rehashing familiar talking points, the secretary’s 25-minute address demonstrated the areas where the administration continues to grasp for balance in its Israel-Palestine policy:

  • Bolstering the US-Israel relationship and US security assistance to Israel on the one hand, while renewing diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians on the other.
  • Building on the Abraham Accords normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors on the one hand, while clarifying that these deals are “not a substitute for building peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
  • Accepting former president Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while insisting that the flashpoint city “must be a city for all of its people.”
  • Warning Israel against implementing unilateral measures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while calling out the PA for its payments to terrorists and their families and the need for institutional reform in Ramallah.
MK Avi Maoz, left, and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a coalition deal on November 27, 2022. (Courtesy, Likud)
  • Rejecting the “unfair treatment” of Israel at the UN, while vowing to support LGBT rights in Israel against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s decision to hand a key education role and other powers to the head of the homophobic Noam party, Avi Maoz.
  • Backing a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, but coming out against the Palestinian effort to be recognized as a state on those borders at the UN.

When talking points become policy

Blinken also pointed to an uptick in West Bank violence “perpetrated by both Palestinians and Israeli settlers,” while adding that the “perpetrators must face equal justice under the law.”

The latter clause was actually one Blinken hasn’t voiced before, indicating a growing frustration in the Biden administration with Israel’s failure to prosecute or even arrest suspects in attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

“We believe Palestinians and Israelis, like people everywhere, are entitled to the same rights and the same opportunities,” he added.

This also was a new position for an administration that is exceedingly careful with every word it publishes on the lightning-rod conflict.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich as party chiefs pose for a group photograph during the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

It will also mean that the administration’s go-to talking point about its desire for Palestinians and Israelis to “enjoy equal measures of freedom, security and opportunity” will likely be expanded to include “rights” and “justice” — two words that are becoming increasingly common in the Palestinian discourse as Ramallah moves away from a belief that full statehood is possible.

Blinken too recognized that reality, joking that calling prospects for a two-state solution remote would be “an understatement to some.”

“That’s why simply discouraging sides from taking steps that undermine the prospects of two states is insufficient,” he later said, pointing out that the US has also managed to coax Israel into legalizing the residency statuses of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and issuing tens of thousands of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza.

In the incoming government, however, the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) office, which facilitated those approvals, will be controlled by Bezalel Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism party, which has pushed views heavily antagonistic to the Palestinian cause.

How the US will react if the next government refuses to advance, or even rolls back, such steps, Blinken did not say. And based on his carefully worded speech to J Street, it appears that the administration is planning on only crossing, or burning, that bridge when it comes to it.

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