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Inside story'You can't have economic empowerment sans political rights'

US rep after trip: Israeli gov’t knows top threat to coalition is Jerusalem violence

Congressman Ro Khanna tells ToI that Israeli leaders he met relayed they’re committed to calming tensions, says Abbas understands PA payments to security prisoners are problematic

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli policemen try to clear Palestinians and activists gathering to demonstrate in the flashpoint neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, on February 18, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)
Israeli policemen try to clear Palestinians and activists gathering to demonstrate in the flashpoint neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, on February 18, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

A delegation of visiting congressional Democrats expressed their concern this week regarding the potential for violence between Israelis and Palestinians to bubble over in Jerusalem, but were assured by senior Israeli leaders of their commitment to taking steps to lower tensions, US officials told The Times of Israel on Friday.

In meetings with Israeli leaders, the US Congress members raised the looming evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, according to Representative Ro Khanna, who was one of eight lawmakers in the delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured Israel and the West Bank from Tuesday to Thursday.

The pending evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood have led to clashes in recent weeks, including a firebombing of a Jewish family’s home. Similar evictions were at the center of tensions that prefaced fighting last May between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups.

Khanna said Israeli leaders told the delegation that “they want to make sure that there’s not a re-ignition of violence.”

“They understand that the biggest threat to their coalition is the emergence of violence, so they told us that they’re committed to taking steps to reduce it,” he said.

The House Democrats met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, whose Islamist faction is part of Israel’s ruling coalition. They also held meetings in the West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

The delegation was briefed by a number of individuals who warned of the heightened risk for violence in April, which will see a convergence of the Jewish holiday of Passover, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Christian holiday of Easter, Khanna revealed.

This confluence has also been identified by the Biden administration, which has recently been urging Israeli officials to take preemptive steps to lower tensions, US and Israeli officials told The Times of Israel earlier this week.

Jews will be celebrating Passover from April 15 until April 22, Muslims will observe the holy month of Ramadan beginning April 2 and Christians will mark Easter on April 17.

Each holiday is due to see an increase in religious pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem’s Old City, with its flashpoint holy sites. Police will be tasked with securing the visits of Muslims and Jews to the Temple Mount, also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, during a period where they typically limit access to the Old City in order to allow for Christian pilgrims to reach churches for Easter.

A congressional source on the trip said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was very attentive to their concerns and told them he was “spending hours trying to de-escalate the situation.”

The lawmakers also raised opposition to any settlement expansion, but did not receive a commitment from Bennett to cease such steps, the source said.

The premier has said leaders of his fragile coalition spanning almost the entire political spectrum have reached an agreement by which they will not move to annex West Bank territory — as Bennett himself has previously called for — but also will not implement a construction freeze.

The Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction has only met once since Bennett took office last June, despite meeting on a quarterly basis in recent years. During that meeting, it advanced plans for almost 3,000 settlement homes, mostly deep in the West Bank, sparking significant backlash from the Biden administration.

Still, Khanna said that “what we heard consistently from the Israeli leaders is they want to shrink the conflict.”

“Shrinking the conflict,” has been a phrase used by Bennett since entering office and describes measures to improve Palestinian quality of life in the absence of a diplomatic initiative to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bennett opposes a Palestinian state and stated that he will not meet Abbas, as the PA leader has initiated criminal probes against Israel at International Criminal Court.

But his government has made a number of gestures not seen in years, including the approval of thousands of entry permits for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to work in Israel, building permits for Palestinians in the West Bank and the issuing of IDs to undocumented Palestinians. And while Bennett has stayed away from Ramallah, Gantz has met twice with Abbas and other senior Israeli ministers have met with their Palestinian counterparts.

“I said to Minister Gantz, ‘You should be praised for meeting with Abbas, not criticized; and what you’re doing is helping peace, helping the US relationship with Israel,'” Khanna recalled. “[Gantz] started to laugh and said ‘I’m being criticized by both sides for this.'”

The US lawmakers welcomed the steps the Israeli government has taken, while stressing they cannot be advanced in a vacuum. “You can’t have just economic empowerment without recognition of political rights. Ultimately, you need a political solution, and that has to be a two-state solution,” Khanna said.

US Rep. Ro Khanna, from California’s 17th Congressional District centered in Santa Clara and other parts of California’s Silicon Valley, is interviewed in Los Angeles Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Khanna was co-chair of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and is a rising star in the progressive wing of the Democratic party. But the California congressman has differentiated himself from his more dovish colleagues by speaking out in favor of the US-Israel relationship, and insisting that one can support the ties while also critiquing the human rights record of the US ally.

He also made a point of sharing how inspired he was by Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, who the delegation met on Wednesday at the Knesset.

Characterizing him as an “agent of peace,” Khanna said Abbas spoke candidly with the delegation about the struggles of Arab Israelis and what needed to be done to address their plight.

“But he also came with a lot of hope about the future of Israel as a Jewish homeland, which should have equality of rights for people of different faiths and racial backgrounds,” Khanna said, adding that he was struck by the “sincere friendship” Abbas has built with Bennett and Lapid.

Across the Green Line, the delegation met with the PA’s Abbas, who Khanna said showed a “desperate” desire to engage in dialogue with Israel to reach a two-state solution, adding that he was “open to compromising.”

The lawmakers pressed Abbas on the PA’s controversial welfare policy, which includes payments to Palestinian security prisoners as well as the families of assailants killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis.

Critics of the policy in the US and Israel argue that it incentivizes terror, dubbing it “pay-for-slay.” Both countries have passed legislation barring financial assistance to the PA so long as it continues the policy.

To many Palestinians though, solidarity with those imprisoned for various acts of opposition to Israeli rule, including violence, is a key tenet of the national movement. The payments are also seen as a crucial form of welfare for families where the breadwinner is imprisoned in what they view as an unjust military system.

Khanna said the House Democrats told Abbas that the policy was “unacceptable.”

“[Abbas] said he’s willing to have a dialogue about that, and understands that it’s problematic.”

The PA has been engaged in talks with the Biden administration to reform the policy for the past year but has yet to announce any progress on the matter. Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last month that Washington shouldn’t expect movement on the issue if it continues to avoid implementing its own promises, namely to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which historically served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019.

Khanna said he was particularly moved by his meeting with Palestinian students “who spoke candidly about the discrimination that they faced in the occupied territories, but also spoke about their hope for Palestine… and the challenges of the Palestinian political leadership.”

The majority of the students still support a two-state solution, but were more concerned with the limits to their freedom of movement. “The fact that we had a student in Gaza 50 miles away, who could only join us virtually was in itself a statement of the problem,” Khanna said.

The House Democrat characterized the trip as “very successful” overall, with productive conversations with politicians, businesspeople and civil society leaders on both sides.

“It was a step in trying to spark more dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and de-escalate the potential for violence, while exploring avenues that improve the lives and security for both sides,” Khanna said.

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