Why Biden’s Sanctions on West Bank Settlers Could Escalate Into Total Cutoff of Arms Aid to Israel
Joe Biden signed an executive order Thursday leveling sanctions against four Israeli settlers accused of violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank after weeks of warnings to Tel Aviv. Sputnik asked a pair of leading observers of regional politics what the unprecedented move will mean for US-Israeli relations going forward.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office slammed Washington on Thursday ahead of the announcement of sanctions against Israeli nationals accused of violence against Palestinians and Jewish peace activists in the West Bank, assuring that Israel “acts against all lawbreakers everywhere,” and that there is “no room for exceptional measures in this regard.”
“The absolute majority of the settlers in Judea and Samaria are law-abiding citizens, many of whom are currently fighting regularly and in the reserves for the defense of Israel,” the prime minister’s office said, citing the term used by the Israeli government to refer to the occupied West Bank territories.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich went further, accusing
Washington of “smearing the pioneering settlers and settlement enterprise” and attempting to “smear the entire State of Israel,” and called information about settler violence “an anti-Semitic lie that enemies of Israel disseminate.”
The Biden administration designated
four Israeli nationals accused of targeted violence in the West Bank on Thursday, blocking them from accessing America’s financial system, slapping an asset freeze on any property they might own in the US, and banning them from entering the country.
US and Israeli media believe the sanctions could expand to target more individuals, including
Israeli politicians and government officials, and perhaps
even cut the entire settler project off from US financing.
Thursday sanctions are historically unprecedented in a 75-year-old US-Israeli relationship marked by a close, warm relations capped by strategic alliance status. The only other time Washington is known to have used its sanctions stick against Israel over the past half century was in 2005, when it slapped symbolic restrictions on Tel Aviv in response to an Israeli drone sale to China.
New Chapter in US-Israeli Relations?
The Biden administration’s move is a cynical ploy designed to placate its domestic critics, and will not fundamentally alter Washington’s long-standing policy of full-throated support for Tel Aviv, says Shahram Akbarzadeh, a research professor of Middle East politics at Deakin University in Australia.
“It makes the US position more complicated, but ultimately it won’t change the fundamentals. Washington remains the main international supporter for Israel and has systematically shielded Israel against UN Security Council sanctions. This presidential decree reflects an acknowledgement of the existent of Israel’s intransigence, and the [extent] of the Palestinian plight. But it does not mean a realignment of interests and loyalties,” Dr. Akbarzadeh told Sputnik.
The professor sees the move as an attempt to pacify “public backlash” to the administration’s pro-Israel policies during the Gaza war, including the “carte blanche” the White House is perceived to have given Tel Aviv in the conflict.
“As elections in the US near, the Biden administration worries that his unconditional support for Israel could drive away many voters, especially young voters. So taking issue with illegal settlement activity is a safe way to try and balance that view – to suggest to the domestic audience that Washington is not beholden to the pro-Israel lobby,” Akbarzadeh said.
Biden’s already shaky poll numbers ahead of the 2024 vote have been rocked by his position on the Gaza, with progressives reportedly fleeing in droves over his support for Israel. Polling in December found that just 37 percent
of registered voters approved of his handling of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, with that number shrinking to 20 percent among young people. Additional polling last week found that some 50 percent of Americans who voted for Biden in 2020 now believe
he is supporting an Israeli “genocide against Palestinian civilians.”
Ultimately, Akbarzadeh expects Israel to simply ignore the new sanctions. “Israel has been non-compliant with international law in relation to settlements in the West Bank, and has ignored US calls for restraint in the past. It will not start listening to Washington now,” he said.
Battle of Two ‘Israeli Lobbies’
Tel Aviv-based international relations expert Simon Tsipis says the Biden administration’s measures were both predictable and “absolutely expected.”
“All of this is evidence of the internal political struggle between Democrats and Republicans within the United States. Each party has its own Jewish, Israeli lobby. The Democratic Israeli lobby is more anti-Zionist, it very often pursues anti-Israeli policies. And the Republican Israeli lobby on the contrary is very pro-Israel and very pro-Zionist,” Dr. Tsipis told Sputnik. “So when, like now, the right-wing Likud Party is in power in Israel, and the left-wing Democrats are in power in Washington, relations between Israel and the United States are always very strained.”
The sanctions are an “absolutely understandable policy, an absolutely understandable result of the internal political struggle between Democrats and Republicans,” Tsipis said. “At the same time, the Democrats are trying to earn election points with this move, since the election campaign has now begun in the United States. If the Republicans come to power at the end of the year, they will scrap all these sanctions.”
As for the timing of the restrictions, Dr. Tsipis believes it’s related, at least in part, to Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir’s announcement this week authorizing the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including permission to build housing and settlements on the so-called Green Line (the border separating pre-1967 Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories). “Against the backdrop of this announcement, Biden spoke out because it is in his interests to stop the Zionist movement or slow it down. That’s why he announced sanctions,” the observer said.
“Netanyahu has already said that he does not recognize these sanctions and opposes them. But once again…it’s important to understand who’s in power in Israel to determine Israel’s reaction,” Tsipis said, suggesting that if anti-Likud forces in Israel came to power, “they would respond to this step with loyalty and understanding.”
Ultimately, Tsipis doesn’t rule out the US cutting off military aid to Israel altogether as elections approach, and that Biden “could even withhold diplomatic aid to Israel in votes at the United Nations. This is exactly what I expect to happen,” he said.