Earlier this month, President Joe Biden visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for the tenth time. His first visit was as a recently elected Senator in 1973. But the Israel he saw this time is a fundamentally different place from what it was in the early 70’s. Then, the prospect of out-and-out war loomed (the Yom Kippur War would break out just weeks later), the settler movement was nascent and weak, and it seemed possible — if not likely — that Israel’s occupation of the territory it gained in 1967 might only last a handful of years.
Senator Joe Biden came of age politically earlier than I did — in the 1970s. A bit later, though still early in Biden’s Senate tenure, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin overlapped as heads of state in the U.S. and Israel respectively. It was a complex time for the politics of both countries. Biden was also a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during an era that activated people like me politically — a time of Intifadas, peace agreements, and optimism born of the idea of land for peace. The 90’s were a time when peace seemed like it was around the corner. We were hopeful, we were excited.
But that optimism has long since dimmed, and instead of two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side offering self-determination and democratic rights to their citizens, we have watched, often brokenhearted, as Israelis and Palestinians have headed in a profoundly different direction.
This is first and foremost true in the West Bank. In 1973, somewhere around 2,000 settlers lived in the West Bank. Today, almost 700,000 Israeli settlers live over the Green Line in the West Bank and the new neighborhoods Israel has built in and around East Jerusalem. That’s almost 700,000 people who benefit from a dual system of law privileging them over Palestinian residents of the same area. Almost 700,000 people who have all of the rights and protections afforded citizens of Israel, living outside Israel in a territory with over 2.7 million Palestinians who do not. As I have written here before, there is a word for that kind of political arrangement, but it is not an English, Hebrew, or Arabic word; it’s in Afrikaans.
What’s more, settler violence is at an all-time high, the Israeli High Court recently enabled the IDF to forcibly evict 1,000+ Palestinians from the Masafer Yatta region to use as a firing zone, and the Nahala coalition of pro-settler organizations has vowed to build 10 new illegal outposts by the end of this month. NIF’s grantees are, as always working on these issues — our flagship grantee, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has handled the Masafer Yatta firing zone case through 22 years of litigation and isn’t stopping now; and our grantee Peace Now has vowed to stand up to Nahala’s criminal settler activity, organizing hundreds of peace activists to stop them.
To put it plainly: The Israel President Joe Biden landed in this month is not the same one he remembers so fondly from his first visit. While the current (now caretaker) governing coalition has, thankfully, halted many of the worst anti-democratic outrages of the Netanyahu era, Israel today is not a place where equality, self-determination, and a lasting peace for all Israelis and Palestinians are on the political agenda. But as I’ve also written, Joe Biden could help change that.
In the not-so-distant past, there was a willingness among American leaders to call out these dangerous trends. Back in 2016, when Biden was Vice President, US Secretary of State John Kerry was willing to call out Israeli leadership. “Trends indicate,” he said, “a comprehensive effort to take the West Bank lands for Israel and prevent any Palestinian development there. Palestinian structures in Area C that do not have a permit from the Israeli military are potentially subject to demolition and they are currently being demolished in historically high rate…the settler agenda is defining the future of Israel.” He was specific, he was clear, he told the truth, no matter how difficult it might have been for many to hear it.
It is critical that America, Israel’s greatest friend, speaks honestly to Israel’s leaders. It is crucial that our leaders both support Israel and speak candidly about the damage the policy of occupation and settlement is doing to the fading hopes for peaceful resolution to the conflict and to the fabric of Israeli democracy itself. And while there are always countervailing priorities, concerns, and interests a US Administration has to balance on a trip like this, I wish we had heard this message from President Biden on his latest visit.
Of course, there were positive moments from the trip. President Biden reversed a Trump-era policy that significantly cut aid to the Palestinians — he revived ties with the PA, announcing $316 million in aid. When he said that “every person has a right to be treated with dignity. It’s simply basic,” it struck me that his predecessor would never have uttered such a sentence. He also clearly reiterated his support for a two-state solution:
The Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that’s independent, sovereign, viable, and contiguous. Two states for two peoples, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side by side in peace and security. Both states fully respecting the equal rights of the other citizens. Both peoples enjoying equal measure of freedom and dignity. That’s what this is fundamentally all about.
To which I say, amen. As self-evident as this may seem to us, these are sentiments that need to be voiced.
This is the first time in a decade and a half that the Israeli and American administrations have been aligned in their support of self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians. That is no small thing.
On Friday of the visit, at a hospital in Palestinian East Jerusalem, President Biden compared the plight of the Palestinians to that of his Irish Catholic ancestors living under British rule in Ireland: “My background and the background of my family is Irish American, and we have a long history of — not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people with Great Britain and their attitude toward Irish Catholics over the years, for 400 years.” He then quoted “The Cure at Troy,” a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heany:
History teaches us not to hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
That longed-for tidal wave
Of justice rises up,
And hope and history rhyme.
I love that poem too, and I get why he wanted to share it with the Palestinians. Every time I read it, the hope it offers to the hopeless strengthens me, and takes my breath away. But while offering empathy and hope is critically important, it is not enough.
Americans, starting with President Biden, must hold both Israeli and Palestinian leaders accountable to their commitments and responsibilities. We must show millions of Palestinians that, despite 55 years of occupation, there is a horizon of hope, a future worth working towards peacefully. And we must not be afraid to tell even our closest friends that, one day, rising generations of Americans are going to demand that Israel choose between its settlement enterprise and its relationship to the West. This kind of truth isn’t always easy to speak, but it is essential if we ever want to see the “great sea-change/On the far side of revenge” that Heaney describes elsewhere in his poem.
That said, I couldn’t agree more that the tidal wave of justice can indeed rise up once in a lifetime. But we at NIF know that that doesn’t happen on its own. It requires work — the work of activists, organizers, and civil society leaders. We at NIF are building the groundwork for that tidal wave of justice.