Biden Caught in a Political Bind Over Israel Policy

The Biden administration’s reversal of Trump-era policy on settlements in the occupied West Bank reflects not just its rising frustration with Israel, but the political bind the president finds himself in, just days before the Democratic primary in Michigan, where a large Arab American population is urging voters to register their anger by voting “uncommitted.”

During a trip to Argentina on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called any new settlements “inconsistent with international law,” a break with policy set under the Trump administration and a return to the decades-long U.S. position.

The Biden administration is increasingly fed up with the Israeli government’s conduct in the Gaza war and beyond, with officials speaking out more publicly on contentious issues, said Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum think tank. As an example, he cited a U.S. decision to slap financial sanctions on four Israelis — three of them settlers — accused of attacking Palestinians in the West Bank at a time when settler violence against Palestinians has increased.

Yet, Mr. Novik called Mr. Blinken’s remarks “too little, too late,” adding that the administration’s moves “in practice, are disjointed. The message is there, but it’s a tactical statement where the overall strategy is unclear.”

The United States has long been Israel’s most important international ally. Since the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 left 1,200 dead in Israel, mostly civilians, Washington has consistently backed Israel’s blistering campaign in Gaza. The Biden administration has also shielded Israel from international censure by blocking cease-fire resolutions at the U.N. Security Council, even as the death toll in Gaza nears 30,000, according to health officials in the enclave.

That stance has increasingly left Mr. Biden in a no-win situation. His recent moves to press the Israeli government to wind down the war in Gaza and enter negotiations toward a Palestinian state have angered some ardent supporters of Israel in the United States. Yet they have come nowhere close to placating Israel’s fiercest critics on the political left and the Arab American community.

Shortly after Oct. 7, Arab Americans and progressive voters were largely standing back as even Jewish Republicans were praising Mr. Biden’s pro-Israel response.

Those same Jewish Republicans are now castigating the president. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which had backed the administration after Oct. 7, called the new settlement policy “yet another lowlight to its campaign of undermining Israel.”

The group ticked off other policies the administration has aimed at reining in the Israeli response to the Hamas attacks, including sanctions against West Bank settlers who commit acts of violence and pressuring the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recognize a Palestinian state.

“The communities at issue, located west of the West Bank security barrier, are not preventing peace,” said Matt Brooks, the group’s longtime chief executive officer. “Palestinian terrorism is.”

But those steps fall far short of what young progressive voters and Arab Americans are demanding: an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza war and a halt to American military aid to Israel. Those calls are only getting louder as Mr. Netanyahu shows no sign of relenting.

“Biden’s sanctions on settler violence and the declaration that settlements are illegal would be inadequate at any time in recent years given how deep Israel’s apartheid has become entrenched,” Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American who heads the Palestine-Israel program at the Arab Center in Washington, said. “But now he’s backing a genocide in Gaza. This is like showing up to a five-alarm fire with a cup of water while giving fuel to the arsonist.”

In fact, the political imperatives for the Israeli prime minister and for the American president are opposites. Mr. Biden needs the war to end, so he can reassemble the coalition that got him elected in 2020. But Mr. Netanyahu wants it to continue until the complete rout of Hamas, to stave off his own political reckoning from an angry electorate — and potentially help his ally, Donald J. Trump, return to power.

Mr. Blinken’s declaration appears to have been triggered by an announcement by Bezalel Smotrich, a senior Israeli minister, that a planning committee would soon discuss moving ahead with over 3,000 new housing units in the settlements. Most would be in Ma’ale Adumim, where three Palestinian gunmen killed one Israeli and wounded several others on Thursday.

Mr. Smotrich called the new units “an appropriate Zionist response” to the attack.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly condemned settlement expansion in the West Bank — where roughly 500,000 Israelis now live among some 2.7 million Palestinians — as an obstacle to the longstanding U.S. goal of a two-state solution. In recent weeks, Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly said he worked for years to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, which he has long said would endanger Israel’s security.

Palestinians hope the West Bank will be an integral part of their future independent state, but Israeli settlements have slowly taken over sizable chunks of the territory. Palestinian officials called Mr. Blinken’s declaration long overdue and not nearly enough.

“Reversing an illegal act by the previous administration has been overdue for three and a half years,” Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to Britain, said in a phone call on Saturday. “For the love of God, I don’t understand why Blinken and President Biden sat on their hands on this issue — and many others — for all this time.”

Still, Mr. Blinken’s declaration was “better late than never,” Mr. Zomlot said, adding that Palestinians expected “real actions” against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank rather than “baby steps.”

But that expectation might be frustrated, at least in the short term, analysts said. Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat, said the Biden administration was unlikely to follow up Mr. Blinken’s declaration with “serious costs and consequences.” Alongside regional mediators, U.S. officials have been trying to cinch a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas, making a “sustained public war with Netanyahu” unpalatable for Biden, he said in an email.

Although Mr. Biden entered office pledging to reverse some of his predecessor’s policies on Israel, many remain intact. A separate Jerusalem consulate that effectively served as the U.S. liaison to the Palestinians was never formally reopened after it was closed by the Trump administration; the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington is still closed; and most financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, is frozen under legislation signed by Mr. Trump.

During the first year and a half of Mr. Biden’s tenure, U.S. officials defended their cautious approach as an attempt to avoid rocking the fragile, fractious coalition of left, right and center that had temporarily toppled Mr. Netanyahu. But that government collapsed in mid-2022, leading to the fifth Israeli elections in four years.

After Mr. Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022 at the helm of a far-right coalition stacked with nationalists and settler leaders, settlement expansion exploded.

A total of 12,349 housing units in settlements advanced through various stages of the bureaucratic planning process in 2023, compared with the 4,427 units recorded the previous year, according to the Israeli organization Peace Now.

But until the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 prompted Israel’s four-month military offensive in Gaza, the Biden administration avoided clashing head-on with Israel over contentious issues regarding the Palestinians, preferring to focus on other regional goals, like normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

American officials instead expended their political capital elsewhere, focusing on rivals like Iran and later on normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, said Natan Sachs, who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“It’s a significant step, given the Trump administration’s approach,” said Mr. Sachs, referring to Mr. Blinken’s remarks, “though less groundbreaking than the administration’s sanctions on violent settlers.”

“The latter was unprecedented and a real signal of new policy,” he said. “The latest declaration is a symptom of the administration needing to re-engage.”

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