Report

Biden Stonewalls U.N. Concern Over Israeli-Palestinian Clashes

The United States, formerly the “honest broker,” must navigate political landmines at home and abroad to respond.

Heavy smoke and fire rise from Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses after being hit by an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City, on May 12, 2021.
Heavy smoke and fire rise from the Sharouk tower as it collapses after being hit by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on May 12. Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has stonewalled efforts in the U.N. Security Council to call for a halt to the escalating violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants, leaving the United States politically isolated just as it seeks to refurbish its multilateral credentials.

In recent days, the United States has on at least three occasions refused to engage in negotiations initiated by Norway and Tunisia aimed at adopting a Security Council statement criticizing Israel’s evictions and demolitions of Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem. The U.S. stance has effectively rendered the 15-nation council mute, as all statements from the body must be supported by consensus. The United States has told other countries that it is trying to calm the violence through direct diplomatic outreach and believes U.N. Security Council action at this stage could jeopardize that effort, according to sources at the international body.

The Biden administration has stonewalled efforts in the U.N. Security Council to call for a halt to the escalating violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants, leaving the United States politically isolated just as it seeks to refurbish its multilateral credentials.

In recent days, the United States has on at least three occasions refused to engage in negotiations initiated by Norway and Tunisia aimed at adopting a Security Council statement criticizing Israel’s evictions and demolitions of Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem. The U.S. stance has effectively rendered the 15-nation council mute, as all statements from the body must be supported by consensus. The United States has told other countries that it is trying to calm the violence through direct diplomatic outreach and believes U.N. Security Council action at this stage could jeopardize that effort, according to sources at the international body.

“The United States is engaging constructively to ensure any action by the Security Council is helpful in de-escalating tensions,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said.

The spike in violence between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters, and the escalation in strikes and counter-strikes between Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, continued Wednesday, with at least 48 Palestinian and six Israeli civilians, including children, among the dead and hundreds more wounded.

The clashes have spiraled into the worst fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in nearly a decade, leaving the Biden administration scrambling to carve out a role in defusing the situation. It has become the first major crisis test for the Biden administration’s foreign-policy team, which is focused on trying to pivot the United States toward confronting China on the global stage after decades of involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts.

“The Biden administration has already said that it intends to distance itself from the Middle East and to really not be as involved in the Middle East as the U.S. has been in the past,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank. “One could respond to that after the last two days and say, ‘Good luck with that.’”

Top administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, engaged in a flurry of telephone diplomacy with their Israeli counterparts and other regional leaders as the violence surged on Tuesday, calling for de-escalation on both sides.

“I think the international community by and large is calling for precisely what we are calling for, doing precisely what we have attempted to do and to urge calm, de-escalation, and restraint on both sides,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a press briefing on Tuesday. Blinken announced on Wednesday that he was dispatching an envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr, to the region “immediately.”

It’s unclear, however, if the United States has the appetite—or ability—to play a major role in defusing tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as it has historically done. Some analysts say the United States has lost its role as an “honest broker” in the eyes of the Palestinians, after former President Donald Trump’s hard-line pro-Israeli policies. Others point to simmering tensions between Israel and the Biden administration over the latter’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch critic of Biden’s plans to revive talks with Tehran, was on the verge of losing power before the outbreak of violence, following an extensive period of political paralysis in Israel.

With Netanyahu consigned to caretaker status after failing to form a new Israeli government and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas facing fissures in Palestinian politics after delaying elections there, some are worried that the burgeoning conflict could jeopardize the Biden administration’s hopes to extend the Trump-era Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab states.

Some former U.S. officials and experts see the normalization deals, one of the Trump administration and Netanyahu’s crowning diplomatic achievements, as a key card to play with the Israelis.

“The Arab states that normalized [relations] with Israel last year have a role to play,” Schanzer said. “They may not be loved by the Palestinians, but I think many of them still have credibility. So it’s possible they may be able to get Israel to take a breath while working on getting the Palestinians to dial it back.”

Others say progress from the Abraham Accords won’t be enough. “This was a problem that was building for some time. That’s always the danger when you ignore the Israeli-Palestinian issue—something triggers it,” one former senior U.S. official added. “The underlying point is that there’s only so far the Israelis can go in [their] rapprochement with the Arab world as long as these things break out.”

At the United Nations, Norway and Tunisia, the lone Arab country on the Security Council, have been pressing since the weekend to adopt a Security Council statement calling for a halt to the escalating violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. Diplomatic sources say the initiative is backed by every member of the Security Council except the United States, leaving the Biden administration awkwardly isolated at a time when it is trying to underscore its commitment to multilateralism.

An early version of the draft, obtained by Foreign Policy, focused primarily on Israeli actions, expressing “grave concern” over the escalation of violence “in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem” and calling on Israel to “cease settlement activities, demolitions and evictions.” It voiced “serious concern over the possible evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations.” Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, when it captured the territories in the Six-Day War.

At the request of Norway and Tunisia, the Security Council met Wednesday behind closed doors to hear a briefing from Tor Wennesland, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. Wennesland had expressed growing alarm at the crisis on Twitter Tuesday. “Stop the fire immediately. We’re escalating towards a full scale war,” he tweeted. “The cost of war in Gaza is devastating & is being paid by ordinary people.” During the meeting, Norway pressed again for the council to register concern, and the United States indicated it was not prepared to engage in discussions.

On the domestic front, Biden faces conflicting pressures. Republican lawmakers were quick to blame the Democratic president for not helping to avert the violence, including barrages of rocket attacks launched at Israel from Gaza. And the Democratic Party today is far less in lockstep on the matter than Republicans, with the progressive wing of the party urging Biden to sharply criticize Israel for the violence and disproportionate use of force against Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, while other Democrats are urging Biden to ramp up support and show solidarity with Israel.

Tensions between Israeli security forces and Palestinians have spiked since last month, when Israel closed the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, which is widely considered the heart of Palestinian life in the city. The situation further escalated with Israeli plans to evict dozens of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood to make room for Israeli settlers, though a last-minute legal appeal by Palestinian families ultimately postponed the move for at least a few weeks.

Confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces reached a fever pitch on Monday, as Israeli forces fired into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem—one of the holiest sites in Islam—during a Ramadan prayer. The clash came on Jerusalem Day, when Israel traditionally marks its 1967 capture of the city. Some 300 Palestinians and 21 Israeli security officers were reportedly injured. For the militant group Hamas, which stood to make big gains in the Palestinian elections before they were canceled, an attack at Al-Aqsa was seen as a red line. Since Monday, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets at Israel—including at the usually spared cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—while Israel has retaliated with devastating airstrikes on Gaza.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem