This didn’t have to happen. And it doesn’t have to keep happening.
We’ve gotten used to it. Every few years, one of the many injustices of Israel’s occupation leads to an uprising, Israeli police subsequently crack down on Palestinians, Hamas rains rockets on the civilian population of Israel, Israel bombs Gaza, and innocent people on both sides are killed.
Yes, the actions of Hamas are indefensible. Yes, Israel, of course, has the right to defend itself. But reiterating those points and doing nothing else does not prevent the next cycle of death and destruction.
Each time it happens, it feels like rinse and repeat. But it’s not. Every time it gets worse. Every time what little mutual trust has survived the last cycle erodes a bit more. This time, there has been fighting in the streets of Israeli cities. Violence begets violence, and if the cycle doesn’t stop now, the downward spiral will continue.
But who will stop it? Surely not Mr. Netanyahu, who undoubtedly sees this crisis as a lifeline that preserves his tenuous grasp on power and keeps him a few steps ahead of the long arm of the law. Certainly not Hamas, which seems to have only one tool in its toolbox, the same tool it is wielding now. Absolutely not the Palestinian Authority, generally seen as weak and illegitimate. A solution will require at least the acquiescence of each of these parties, but none of them will bring it about.
As I write this, thankfully, a ceasefire is in place, but the underlying problem remains. There is one institution capable of initiating the end to it: the U.S. government. As diminished as we are by the incompetent and malicious regime from which we are now recovering, as Israel’s greatest ally, we may be the only ones capable of exerting sufficient power to do it. Furthermore, our own failed policies have played a part in allowing this conflict to boil over time and time again, so we have not only the power but the responsibility to do something about it.
But what can we do?
First, we must do whatever is necessary to make sure the ceasefire is maintained, and if necessary, renewed.
Second, we must reverse the damage done by the Trump administration. We can put in place a competent ambassador to Israel. That position is now, astoundingly, vacant, and we are still recovering from the damage done by Mr. Trump’s appointee, a crony of the most extreme of the Israeli settlers. But that is not enough.
In addition to an ambassador, we need a special envoy tasked with working with the parties to reach a long-term solution to the conflict. We must reopen our consulate in East Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington, D.C.
Third, we must address the underlying causes of the current crisis. The attempt to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem has been characterized as a legal dispute over real estate. That construction only makes sense if its context is completely ignored. The basis of the dispute is that Jews owned certain properties in the neighborhood prior to 1948. If that is to be the basis for eviction, then all the Jews currently occupying properties in Israel owned by Palestinians prior to 1948 also would have to be evicted.
The evictions are, in fact, a part of the campaign that also includes the creeping de facto annexation of the West Bank that is being carried out by extremist settlers and their partner, the current Israeli government. The goal of these activities is to make a Palestinian state impossible, now or ever.
The Jews are entitled to their own state. So are the Palestinians. The status quo is unsustainable for the hopes and aspirations of both. Not only does the current lack of self-determination for Palestinians deny them their basic human rights and ensure a long-term, repeating cycle of violence, it also means that Israel cannot survive as a secure and democratic state.
It is incumbent on the Biden administration to make it clear to the Israeli government that de facto annexation will not be tolerated, that the United States will not allow the aid it rightly provides to Israel to be used in furtherance of it, and that Israel must find a way to end the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the indefinite economic strangulation of Gaza.
I know the Biden administration doesn’t want to be bothered with all of this right now. After all, it has its hands full dealing with a pandemic, an economic crisis, an ongoing attempt to disrupt democracy, and a large and hostile minority in Congress. It thinks it can’t afford the time, effort, and political capital required to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. What it needs to understand is it can’t afford NOT to deal with this situation. Left to its own devices, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will escalate until it devours everything, including the Biden administration’s whole agenda.
Crises like this don’t have to keep happening. But they will only stop if someone stops them. President Biden has played a constructive, if sometimes imperfect, role so far, but he can’t stop here. To get to the root of the problem, he is the best, and maybe the only, candidate for the job.
Martin J. Levine of Maplewood is a volunteer leader of J Street and a member of its New Jersey chapter’s steering committee.