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Biden’s restrained response to worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict falls short | COMMENTARY

A Palestinian firefighter extinguishes a fire from a beachside cafe after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian firefighter extinguishes a fire from a beachside cafe after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) (Khalil hamra/AP)

There was a time when deadly attacks in the Middle East such as those the world has witnessed in recent days — including the destruction of a high-rise building in Gaza City housing offices of two international media organizations — would demand high-profile U.S. intervention with an envoy shuttling between representatives of Israel and the Palestinians, and a renewed emphasis on the two-state solution.

But that was back when the U.S. still had some credibility as being a somewhat neutral arbiter, when Israel was less attached to hard-right policies and Palestinians had a more functioning government. Those days are past for a variety of reasons. But it’s still disappointing how little President Joe Biden has done so far in making an effort to assert pressure for a ceasefire on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose administration’s efforts to evict Palestinian families from East Jerusalem appear to have touched off the latest wave of violence. Mr. Biden spoke with Mr. Netanyahu via telephone Monday afternoon, and expressed support for a ceasefire, according to the White House. But we’re beyond the expressing support stage.

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The U.S. and Israel are staunch allies. That is true today; it will be true tomorrow. But an ally does not excuse human rights violations. And if there’s one undeniable fact to emerge so far from the escalating conflict it’s that Palestinians living in Gaza are bearing the brunt of the casualties by a greater than 10-to-1 margin, a product of Israel’s U.S.-supported “Iron Dome” missile defense system, which is capable of intercepting hundreds of Hamas rockets from Gaza. Israel’s return airstrikes face no such defense, and Gaza residents have paid the price with at least 200 people dead, including 59 children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel claims more than 130 militants are among the dead, but the figure is unverified.

If Americans needed any clearer demonstration of the illusory nature of the Abraham Accords — the much-ballyhooed agreement signed by Israel during the Trump administration with the United Arab Emirates and later, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — this is it. The agreement did nothing to solve the Palestinian problem and may have instead emboldened Mr. Netanyahu on the issue of settlements, while helping Donald Trump secure his white evangelical base (further reinforced by his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem). The effort clearly sidestepped the customary “two-state” Palestinian potential solution of the past, so one might excuse Palestinians living in Israel or Gaza from feeling positive about either Mr. Trump or President Biden right now.

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Perhaps the Abraham Accords will survive the violence and prove their merit. The current Israeli prime minister may survive politically, too, despite failing to so far achieve a working Knesset majority since the March election. Rocket attacks have a way of rallying support for the center-right in Israel and for a military response. Yet it’s hard to see how any of this can restart serious talks about the future of the Palestinian people. That’s the core of the problem. And Mr. Biden’s long-standing support for Israel (along with plenty of ideological differences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the Democratic Party) suggest he is unlikely to act boldly in their defense beyond humanitarian support. At this point, it’s not even clear if that would be especially helpful for him to stake that ground.

Still, would it really be so bad for world leaders to stand up and firmly point out that violence in the region only perpetuates the conflict? Does anyone truly believe that Palestinian militants will be deterred by civilian casualties? More likely, it will serve as a recruitment poster. Same with hard-right policies that treat Arabs in Israel as second-class citizens. The manner in which the conflict has fueled Israeli nationalism, thus sparing Israel’s prime minister from being ousted from office, is just the icing on the cake. Once again, this central Middle East conflict is self-perpetuating — over and over again.

At the very least, Mr. Biden needs to make clear that support for Israel and support for Mr. Netanyahu are not the same thing. Mr. Trump made that mistake about 20 too many times. Under previous administrations, the U.S. was able to broker cease-fires and prod Israeli leaders to take the difficult path toward compromise on the Palestinian question. Mr. Biden could surely attempt a similar approach. And while there’s surely no guarantee of success, Mr. Biden should understand that it’s where most Americans stand (sympathetic to both Israel and to the Palestinian people, as polls indicate). The other option, to either side fully with the Israeli government or do little despite the horror of the attacks, is simply not morally defensible.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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