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It's Time to Update the U.S. Approach to Israeli Rights Abuses

Published in: Newsweek
Palestinian children who have returned to their neighborhood observe the damage from their home which was struck by an Israeli attack in Gaza City on May 21, 2021. © 2021 MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden has shown a remarkable capacity to change with the times, but when it came to the recent armed conflict between Israeli and Hamas forces, he often seemed to be pressing "rewind" and "play" on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. The welcome ceasefire provides an opportunity to re-examine this outdated approach.

Much of what Biden said about the conflict would have sounded familiar from U.S. presidents of decades past. But time has not stood still. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deepened its oppressive, discriminatory rule of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem—a trend that was only accelerated by former President Donald Trump's unconditional embrace of Netanyahu. Biden should recognize that disturbing reality and move away from the talking points of his predecessors.

Biden's initial reflex reaction to the recent hostilities was to reaffirm Israel's "right to defend itself" from Hamas rocket attacks—a line he repeated even as he announced the ceasefire. But few dispute that truism. The issue is how Israel defends itself—whether, or not, the heavy toll in civilian life and property that it imposed on the people of Gaza complies with the requirements of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. In Israel's latest bombardment in Gaza, at least 248 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and more than 1,900 wounded.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad once again flouted that law by launching rockets indiscriminately toward Israeli population centers, killing at least 12 Israeli residents, including two children. Those are war crimes. The Israeli military also targeted large apartment and office buildings—at least five—claiming Hamas activity inside but with no effort to demonstrate that the military gain was proportionate to the massive civilian harm—homes and offices lost, possessions destroyed—as the law requires. Willfully committing disproportionate attacks is also a war crime.

Although Biden successfully pressed Netanyahu to stop the bombing, he still has said nothing publicly about the lawfulness of the Israeli military's methods. Beyond broadly noting his concern for Israeli and Palestinian civilian life, Biden has criticized only Hamas' conduct.

The spark for the recent conflict included the latest efforts to evict Palestinian families from their long-time homes in East Jerusalem to allow Jewish Israelis to settle there, as well as Israeli security forces' heavy-handed response to Palestinian gatherings at Damascus Gate and Al Aqsa mosque. Biden spoke of his desire for "peaceful coexistence" in Jerusalem but said nothing about the Israeli government's discriminatory laws that allow Jews but not Palestinians to reclaim houses and land they lost during the division of territory in 1948. Such blatant discrimination permeates Israeli rule.

The rationales for this one-sided approach by the U.S. government have long passed their expiration date. The traditional claim was that Washington is focused on securing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But with the "peace process" now more than 30 years old with no end in sight, that has long ceased to be a credible excuse for ignoring the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians today.

Recognition that this reality is not transitory played a central role in Human Rights Watch's recent determination that Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

Biden's latest manifestation of this argument was that he wanted to retain influence with Netanyahu to secure a ceasefire. But the U.S. government already has plenty of influence with the Israeli government, which it supports annually with nearly $4 billion in military aid. Yet Biden has refused to use that leverage to temper Netanyahu's conduct.

None of the other usual rationales for the persistent deference to Netanyahu holds up anymore, either. Yes, Israel is a U.S. security partner, but that hasn't stopped Netanyahu from repeatedly trying to sabotage Biden's top regional priority—reviving a nuclear deal with Iran. Yes, Israel trumpets itself as a democracy, but denying for decades on end the basic civil rights of millions of Palestinians whom it rules over is inconsistent with basic democratic values.

A key reason for this deference to Netanyahu has been U.S. domestic politics. But as with so many other issues, domestic politics are changing. At a time when Black Lives Matter has become a centerpiece of Democratic Party concerns, Americans increasingly are asking, don't Palestinian Lives Matter, too? When Biden proclaims a foreign policy guided by human rights, can he credibly ignore abuses being committed by the biggest recipient of U.S. government largesse?

An increasing number of American Jews—and many others, including a growing number of members of Congress—support Israel but also believe in Palestinian rights. J Street, the leading advocacy organization on Middle East issues for liberal Jews, recently concluded that U.S. security aid must not help to "trample on Palestinian rights." In short, for a Democratic president, pressing the Israeli government to respect the rights of Palestinians is no longer the third rail of domestic politics.

As he has with other issues, Biden should change with the times. To live up to his vow to be guided by human rights, he should use U.S. leverage to insist that the Israeli government stop its oppression of Palestinians.

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. On Twitter: @KenRoth.

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