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US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid address the media following their meeting in Jerusalem, July 14th, 2022
July 19th, 2022
(note: this is a guest post from Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Joshua Leifer)
Dazed and disoriented in his public appearances, President Joe Biden has often seemed to embody American decline, and that was certainly the case during his two-day visit to Israel last week. Israeli media zeroed in on Biden’s low approval ratings and seized on the fractiousness and instability of domestic American politics. Beneath the surface-level pomp with which the Israeli government received Biden—the general enthusiasm about warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and about the success of the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords” normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab governments—there was also a certain anxiety. From the beginning, the Biden administration has telegraphed a disinterest in the Middle East and expended little energy on articulating a detailed vision for the region, especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine; Biden is the first US president in more than two decades to lack any peace proposal, even an aspirational one. What, then, might it mean if the current US hiatus from leadership in the region becomes permanent?
Of course, the US withdrawal from the Middle East did not begin with Biden. Over the last half-decade, the United States has gradually decreased its active military presence there, and the amount of attention paid by policymakers in Washington has decreased with it. This has been a bipartisan policy commitment, part of a broader strategic reorientation toward a burgeoning great power conflict with China and, more recently, with Russia. In the fall of 2019, Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. In August 2021, the last US troops left Afghanistan in a chaotic and ill-managed evacuation. In December 2021, Biden declared the end of the US combat mission in Iraq, marking ten years since US forces began their withdrawal under Barack Obama in 2011. While small numbers of US soldiers remain in all three countries, the purview of their activities is much narrower than it once was.
Although the idea for a broad US-backed military alliance among Middle Eastern countries—even talk of an “Arab NATO”—is not new, it has taken on new significance against the backdrop of the reduced US military footprint in the region. Last month, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel is building an air defense alliance aimed at combating Iran, to include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan. “The idea goes all the way back to Condoleezza Rice,” explained Ksenia Svetlova, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former member of the Knesset. While the US cannot maintain the troop levels it once had in the Middle East, Svetlova continued, “Biden understands that it would be impossible for the US to totally leave, and that the vacuum would be filled by other rival powers.” Put differently, the deepening cooperation between Israel and the Arab Gulf states is a near-term strategy for the managed decline of the US empire.
Indeed, for some on the Israeli right, the broader framework for understanding the heightened collaboration between Israel and a growing number of Arab states is “the declining stature of the United States in world affairs,” as Yossi Shain, a member of Knesset from Yisrael Beiteinu, told me. “The alliance between Israel and the Emiratis, for example, or with Morocco, hopefully now with Saudi Arabia,” Shain said, shows that “people now understand they need to hang on each other” in the absence of a more robust US presence in the region. To be sure, the US has not ceased to play a role there; it has been both the financial underwriter and mediator in the diplomatic and military initiatives shared between Israel and the Gulf states. But what Biden’s visit signaled, Shain said, “was a shift in American foreign affairs.” With the possibility of a Republican presidential victory in 2024, whether by Trump or another candidate, there is little expectation—in Israel, as well as in the Gulf states—that the US will return to articulating a more comprehensive, ambitious moral vision for the region.
During Biden’s visit, this lack of vision was felt most palpably on the issue of Israel’s military rule over the West Bank and ongoing siege of Gaza. The president made only a few tepid rhetorical nods to the two-state solution—“even though I know it’s not in the near-term,” he said. Biden did not call directly on Israel to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, and he made no mention of Israeli settlements during his time in Israel. “As a member of the peace camp, I would’ve appreciated if there was any kind of roadmap, any kind of vision for the future,” Svetlova told me. “I understand the sensitivity and the desire not to put pressure on the current administration,” she added, referring to the caretaker government currently headed by the centrist Yair Lapid, who faces a tough electoral battle with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party in November. “But it’s a shame that nothing was said,” Svetlova added, about the need to restart the peace process. It has been eight years since Israeli and Palestinian leaders last sat around the negotiation table: the longest stretch of time since before the start of the Oslo talks in the 1990s.
Yet Biden’s blank check to the Israeli government and his bromides about the “bone deep” connection between the US and Israel reflected much less a break with US policy than “an unmasking,” Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, stressed. “And there is value in unmasking.” Biden’s approach to Israel is “a continuation” of Trump’s, El-Ad said. Like his predecessor, Biden has no interest in holding Israel accountable for its violations of international law. Unconditional support for the Israeli policies that B’Tselem describes as apartheid has long been the US norm. “But it’s not about the previous or the next administration,” El-Ad told me. “It is so much easier to kick the can down the road with the empty rhetoric of two states.” If there is any upside to Biden’s fundamental lack of interest in putting pressure on the Israeli government, El-Ad said, it’s that it will illuminate to the broader public that “this is where the US stands.”
Still, for anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activists, the shift in US policy in the Middle East toward a more passive mode of status-quo maintenance presents a real challenge. Disengagement from any semblance of a peace process is unlikely to translate into the US placing conditions on aid to Israel; this would, in fact, demand the investment of greater political energy, not less. And while public opinion in the US is slowly becoming more critical of Israel and more attuned to the apartheid reality on the ground, “it’s a long trajectory between public opinion shifting and shifting policy,” El-Ad said. “That doesn’t diminish how important that trajectory is.”
For the Israeli left and human rights advocates, it was long an article of faith that the international community would eventually coalesce to pressure Israel into ending the occupation and withdrawing to its pre-1967 boundaries. Now, however, the chances of any such pressure materializing in the foreseeable future are slim. With the Abraham Accords and military cooperation, the Gulf states and other Arab governments have demonstrated their willingness to ignore the issue of Palestinian rights in exchange for advanced weapons technology. In Europe, the war in Ukraine has eclipsed almost any other issue. In the US, each passing week seems to deepen the crisis of democracy. The occupation continues, and the world looks away.
On July 15th, Palestinians, joined by Israelis and internationals, protested in A-Tur, East Jerusalem, calling for justice for Shireen Abu Akleh during US President Biden’s visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital. Abu Akleh was killed by live fire while covering a raid by Israeli forces in Jenin. Multiple forensic analyses determined the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was fired by Israeli forces, yet Israel refuses to hold anyone responsible.
As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.
- Biden’s visit to the Middle East featured a number of policy announcements related to Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Biden and Lapid signed the “Jerusalem Declaration,” which pledges that the US won’t allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, encourages Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, and opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and efforts to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes at the International Criminal Court. In a speech in occupied East Jerusalem, Biden announced $100 million in US aid for six hospitals that serve Palestinians, a move meant to alleviate the hospital network’s funding crunch and to serve as a reversal of the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to slash humanitarian aid to Palestinians, including a $25 million cut to the East Jerusalem hospitals. And ahead of his trip to Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom announced that it would open its airspace to all airlines, including flights from Israel, overturning a Saudi ban on such trips. While the airspace decision was widely seen as a step toward the eventual establishment of official diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Foreign Minister said such ties would only come once a Palestinian state is established.
- As Biden traveled to Israel, six Democratic senators in two separate letters criticized his administration’s handling of the aftermath of Israel’s killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. One letter came from New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, two of the most ardent Israel advocates in the Democratic Party. (Members of the Abu Akleh family have lived in New Jersey.) Booker and Menendez criticized the Biden administration for not providing details to New Jersey residents about the investigations into Abu Akleh’s death, and urged Biden “to raise Ms. Abu Akleh’s case at the highest levels and press for accountability during your upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank.” In the second letter, Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Patrick Leahy, Chris Murphy, and Dick Durbin expressed dismay over the lack of an independent investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, criticizing the US for merely overseeing the Israeli and Palestinian inquiries into the death. “This does not meet any plausible definition of the ‘independent’ investigation that you and members of Congress have called for. Nor does it provide the transparency that this case demands,” the four senators wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Therefore, we write to seek further information regarding how the Administration plans to ensure that an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation is conducted into the shooting death of this American citizen and journalist.”
- The Intercept’s Alice Speri used the occasion of Israel’s killing of Abu Akleh to take a deep look back at Israel’s killing of another American, Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003—and to publish new documents on the US response to Israel’s investigations into the killing of Corrie. Speri draws parallels between the US responses to the deaths of Abu Akleh and Corrie. “The Israeli government never took responsibility for her death, and while the U.S. government rejected the results of the Israeli investigation, it did nothing to ensure that such a killing would not happen again. So it did,” Speri writes.
- Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, announced Monday that he’s drawing up federal legislation that would bar the US military from contracting with companies that boycott Israel. (It’s unclear if any companies doing business with the military do, in fact, boycott Israel.) Cotton’s planned legislation follows a similar effort by Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who earlier this month introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have required a Defense Department report on whether any contractor participates in boycotts of Israel. That amendment did not make it into the NDAA.