A leading Democratic senator has called on Joe Biden to “get more personally engaged” in stopping “racists” in the Israeli government from a land grab in the occupied territories and committing “gross violations” of Palestinian rights or risk damage to the US’s credibility.
After a visit to Israel and the West Bank last month, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told the Guardian in an interview that the US president should begin by reassessing the US’s huge military aid to Israel to prevent it from being used to facilitate annexation of the West Bank and oppression of the Palestinians, including the army’s complicity in escalating settler violence against the Arab civilian population.
Van Hollen warned that inaction would be seen as weakness by powerful far-right ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition who have expressed unusual public contempt for Washington.
“President Biden should get more personally engaged in addressing these issues. We should make it clear, for example, that US military assistance is not to be used to aid and abet settler violence, and not to be used for the purpose of expanding settlements or protecting those who are erecting illegal outposts,” he said.
Van Hollen, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, also said the Biden administration should examine whether Israel has fallen afoul of the 1997 “Leahy law” barring assistance to foreign military units that abuse human rights.
The senator’s call adds to growing demands for the administration to set conditions for the $3.8bn a year in US military aid to Israel to prevent American weapons and other equipment being used to further Israel’s colonisation of parts of the West Bank through settlement construction and forced removals of Palestinians, or to otherwise undermine Washington’s policy of support for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has long opposed an independent Palestine. He has given extremist members of his coalition government – the far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the leader of the Religious Zionism party, Bezalel Smotrich – sweeping authority over governance of the West Bank. Peace groups in Israel said the move away from administration by the occupying military amounted to de jure annexation because it puts Israeli government ministers in direct control.
Van Hollen said he witnessed the resulting “land grab” during his visit.
“When you see it first-hand it underscores how alarming the situation is now with this ultra-rightwing Netanyahu government that includes known racists like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and clearly shows that they’re determined to totally take over the West Bank,” he said.
“I’m very concerned about settler violence and the fact that you’ve got the [Israel Defence Forces] either looking the other way or sometimes cooperating with settlers in attacks on Palestinian villages and towns.”
Van Hollen said he has been unswerving in his support of military aid to Israel to defend itself against Iran, Hezbollah and armed groups such as Hamas – but not to be used to oppress the Palestinians.
“I think it’s time to really take a close look at how US security assistance is being used,” he said.
Biden has spoken publicly against the judicial reforms that have prompted some of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, which are in part motivated by the ultranationalists’ attempts to weaken the courts in case they stand in the way of the far right’s plans for the West Bank. The president has also snubbed Netanyahu by not inviting him to the White House since his new government was installed.
But Van Hollen said Biden needs to go further. He warned that inaction could be seen as facilitating Israeli policies and weakness, particularly in light of Ben-Gvir’s recent contemptuous dismissal of US support after Biden described the Israeli government as “one of the most extreme” in the country’s history.
“President Biden needs to realise that we are no longer a star on the American flag,” Ben-Gvir said on Twitter.
Critics noted that Ben-Gvir was nonetheless happy for Israel to take American aid.
Van Hollen said that the president needs to take a stronger stand or risk damaging the US’s reputation.
“Ben-Gvir openly thumbing his nose at the United States pretty much indicated they’ll do what they want to do, regardless of the US position. So I do think that in the absence of more accountability demanded from the United States, we undermine our own credibility,” he said.
“We have to stand up for principles that underscore US policy, which is values of democracy, of freedom of human rights, rule of law. If we don’t stand up for those policies, even when we’re dealing with countries that are friends like Israel, we will undermine our credibility around the world.”
Although much of the international focus has been on Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, the senator said the Israeli government as a whole needs to be held accountable.
“Obviously the rest of the coalition is either complicit in their actions through active support or through neglect. This is all happening on the watch of this current government and so the government needs to be held responsible for their actions, if they refuse to rein them in,” he said.
“President Biden himself keeps saying that he supports a two state solution with equal measures of dignity and freedom for both peoples. But what’s happening on the ground in real time is undermining the vision laid out by President Biden himself. This is a moment to re-examine American policy and make determinations regarding the way forward.”
Asked why Biden has not taken a stronger stand, Van Hollen praised the president for public statements opposing the judicial overhaul and other criticisms of “this ultra-rightwing government” and for “very, very small steps” to reverse some of the Trump administration’s support for settlements. But he said it did not go far enough.
“I do believe that what’s happening on the ground warrants greater attention now,” he said.
In November, Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, and Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East peace negotiator, called for an “unprecedented and controversial” break from the US’s largely unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel, and a cut to weapons supplies.
There are also growing calls from groups such as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street for the US to ensure its aid is not used to further the occupation. Opinion polls show that a majority of Jewish Americans back conditions on US aid to Israel to ensure it is not spent on expanding settlements in the West Bank.
But any move to condition or withhold military assistance is likely to be met with a furious pushback from powerful hardline pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and closely aligned members of Congress.
Van Hollen chose his language carefully throughout the interview, no doubt mindful of the backlash against the chair of the influential Democratic Progressive Caucus, Representative Pramila Jayapal, after she called Israel a “racist state”. Jayapal qualified her remarks to say she meant that Netanyahu’s government has engaged in “outright racist policies”.
Van Hollen several times called Smotrich and Ben-Gvir racist. So does he agree with Jayapal that their policies are racist?
“Clearly the actions taken by Smotrich are a gross violation of the rights of Palestinians. He is essentially trying to expand Israeli civilian control over more of the West Bank. You’ve already got a de facto annexation, that’s obviously a step toward de jure annexation. But also the fact that you’ve got Smotrich calling for – and I think I’m quoting him here – wiping out the Palestinian village of Huwara,” he said.
“You’ve got Ben-Gvir participating in marches with people chanting ‘Death to Arabs’. You’ve got a huge spike in anti-Christian activities. So it’s pretty clear that you have these ultranationalists violating the human rights of Palestinians.”
Just as contentious is the increasing use of parallels with South Africa’s system of apartheid, including by leading Israeli civil rights groups, to describe governance of the occupied territories.
The former Irish president, Mary Robinson, and former UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon – representatives of the Elders group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007 – recently spoke about “the ever-growing evidence that the situation meets the international legal definition of apartheid” after a visit to the West Bank. They said Israeli government policies “clearly show an intent to pursue permanent annexation rather than temporary occupation, based on Jewish supremacy”.
Van Hollen is more cautious but offers a warning.
“I do not describe what’s happened in the West Bank to date is apartheid. As you know, there’s an active debate over exactly how to define what’s happening there. But clearly, when you’ve got these racists like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich leading the charge on various policies, there’s a real danger of Israel heading in that direction in the West Bank,” he said.Article link: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/07/democratic-senator-chris-van-hollen-asks-biden-stop-israeli-government-racists
Article source: The Guardian | Chris McGreal |Mon 7 Aug 2023