“We will never tie Israel’s hands in the defense that Israel needs,” US President Joe Biden said in a phone call with Prime Minister Yair Lapid last week, according to Ambassador Tom Nides.
That message came in the context of negotiations to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Nides relayed information from the call several days after it took place, right before a congressional delegation of Iran deal critics, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), was set to talk to the Israeli media. Call it damage control. Nides made sure the administration’s messages got through and not statements from those who oppose its policy on Iran.
But when it comes to Israel’s security in the West Bank, the administration’s messages have been more mixed.
What is the US' position?
In recent weeks – though a fair argument can be made that it’s been around six months – there has been an uptick in the severity of Palestinian violence against Israelis in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem, such as when terrorists shot at a bus in the Jordan Valley earlier this week and attempted to douse it with gasoline and ignite it.
The Biden administration, however, seems mostly worried about the Palestinians.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf visited the region last week and expressed concern about the Palestinian Authority’s instability and, in fact, put the onus on Israel to improve the situation. To be fair, many Israelis argue that a stable PA is good for Israeli security. But it’s worth remembering that PA President Mahmoud Abbas owes his life to Israel, which has thwarted multiple assassination attempts. Helping him right his ship cannot come at the expense of Israelis’ security.
Meanwhile, the US is applying pressure on Israel on a number of fronts relating to the Palestinians, including in areas that, as Jerusalem sees it, relate directly to national security.
For example, there is the matter of the IDF’s rules of engagement. Twice this week, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said the US is “going to continue to press our Israeli partners to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement and consider additional steps to mitigate the risk of civilian harm, protect journalists and prevent similar tragedies” to the death of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
For Israel, this is a nonstarter. Lapid said on Wednesday, “No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us, when we are the ones fighting for our lives.... We are deeply committed to freedom of the press and to some of the most stringent rules of engagement in the world.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the IDF “chief of staff, and he alone, determines and will continue to determine the open-fire policies, in accordance with the operational need and the values of the IDF, including the purity of arms,” which refers to not discharging a firearm unless necessary.
Not only is the US trying to intervene in the rules of engagement, but it is trying to tell Israel where to station its soldiers.
US Embassy staff have been looking into the IDF’s mostly haredi Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which has been involved in numerous clashes with Palestinians. They were also collecting reports by the media and NGOs as well as conducting interviews. A recommendation reportedly under consideration is to rotate Netzah Yehuda out of the West Bank to other fronts for longer periods of time.
This is happening even though the IDF has punished Netzah Yehuda soldiers involved in wrongdoing, such as those who detained 80-year-old Omar Assad and left him outside in the cold all night, where he died. Military police investigated the matter, and the military attorney-general has yet to make a determination on legal action. In the meantime, the IDF dismissed a company commander and a platoon commander who were at the scene of the incident.
Another matter on which the US has been pressing Israel is the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories’ rules on foreigners – including Americans – visiting Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel revised its guidelines, not requiring visitors to report relationships with Palestinians, lifting academic quotas and extending the permissible length of a visit. Yet the reaction from Nides was that he still had “concerns,” lamenting that the IDF would want to have a role in deciding who can enter the West Bank to lecture at Palestinian institutions.
In other words, at a time of heightened security concerns, the US is asking Israel to loosen its security.
There are other American requests to which Israel has agreed. These include opening the Allenby crossing 24/7 and allowing Palestinians to have 4G Internet that the Americans decided wasn’t happening fast enough. Nides is pressing Jerusalem on that front as well.
Plus, there’s the usual US opposition to construction in the West Bank, which led Gantz to postpone a planned project in E1, between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim.
The American attitude is that this isn’t some kind of concerted effort with significant timing, it’s just the volatile nature of the region, and things just happened to come up one right after the other. But for Israel, all of this adds up to considerable pressure.
Interestingly, the pressure from Washington is coming right before the Israeli election that presumably Biden would prefer Lapid wins rather than opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
The administration may think now is the time to try to get in as many concessions as they can from Jerusalem before a more hawkish prime minister returns to office. This is in contrast to every other Democratic administration in the past 30 years, which has tried to be as nice to the not-Netanyahu candidate as possible in hopes that the Likud leader won’t win.
But the timing is significant in the US as well, with midterm elections taking place a week after Israel’s election. Often, Israelis overestimate their political importance. The big issues in the US really are not about the Middle East, they’re “the economy, stupid,” as Democratic strategist James Carville – who helped Ehud Barak win the premiership – famously said.
At the same time, there were plenty of members of Congress focused on Israel this week, like Rep. Marie Newman (D-Illinois) who called on the administration to pressure Israel even more in relation to Abu Akleh.
Israel loomed large at the State Department briefings this week. Questions about Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Iran, Israel and Lebanon were a huge portion of what interested the journalists.
The rules of engagement issue allowed both sides to play to their bases. Lapid and Gantz looked tough, saying that no one can tell Israel what to do about its own security, while the Biden administration can tell the left wing of the Democratic Party that it is fighting for the Palestinians. But the differences between the sides when it comes to the West Bank are real, and the potential for even more tension is great.