Why are US policy gestures to Palestinians met with scepticism?

Why are US policy gestures to Palestinians met with scepticism?
"If October 7th had never happened, if this was all done when people were not getting killed, it would mean doing the right thing for the right reasons."
4 min read
Washington, DC
06 February, 2024
As long as Israel's war in Gaza continues, Biden will continue to see disapproval among ceasefire advocates. [Getty]

The US government's recent gestures to Palestinians, most notably an executive order for sanctions on specific violent Israeli settlers, show that the Biden administration is publicly acknowledging the dangers faced by Palestinians. However, such steps are unlikely to change the dynamics of the war or the US leader's approval rating among Arab and Muslim voters, say experts.

The sanctions come amid a record-stretch of violence by settlers over the last several years, which many link to Israel's far-right government's policies and inflammatory rhetoric against Palestinians. This has been further exacerbated by Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, which is entering its fifth month. 

"This violence poses a grave threat to peace, security, and stability in the West Bank, Israel and the Middle East region, and threatens the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States," said Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, in a public statement last week following news of the sanctions.

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This move, which was brought up by the president around two months ago, and possibly hastened recently with the killing of a Palestinian American teenager in the West Bank, has several important elements missing to be considered significant in terms of US policy, say observers.

Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now, told The New Arab that the sanctions order would be a good first step "as long as it's a first step." 

However, he sees major gaps. It doesn't include Jerusalem, it does not penalise US citizens, and it doesn't target Israeli government officials. Moreover, he notes, "It ignores the fact that settler violence is not a random phenomenon, but rather state-sanctioned and supported policy -- as evidenced by the role the Israeli army plays in backing and protecting settlers." 

Joel Beinin, emeritus professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, told TNA, "Nothing would be happening in the West Bank without the approval of the Israeli government." He added that he doesn't see voters changing their disapproval of Biden's support of Israel's war in Gaza.

Being met with similar scepticism is a Senate amendment supported by the vast majority (all but two) of Democratic senators calling for a two-state solution. The amendment, proposed to be added to a supplemental aid bill for Israel, makes a simple statement about US support for an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the occupied territories alongside Israel.

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"It is the policy of the United States to support a negotiated comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace, security, dignity, and mutual recognition; and that such a solution must ensure the state of Israel’s survival as a secure, democratic, and Jewish state, and fulfil the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own," it reads.

It is not entirely clear why such a measure would be brought about at this point, given the US government's longtime support for a two-state solution, though it's possibly in response to reports of the Israeli government wanting to resettle Gaza as well as its increased administrative control of the West Bank.

On the domestic front, the Biden administration said they would develop a national strategy to counter Islamophobia, announced in early November amid a spike in anti-Muslim bias incidents exacerbated by Israel's war in Gaza, has also not gained much traction. 

Mohamed Gula, national organising director for Emgage, a Muslim voting advocacy group, isn't surprised that these recent steps by the US government haven't re-engaged disaffected voters.

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"No action will sway voters if a ceasefire isn't included, and if the refunding of UNRWA isn't included. That's just the reality of it," he said to TNA. "This is all ceremonial until accountability is put into place," he said, noting that the US has long supported the idea of a two-state solution but without accountability measures to back the policy.

As for any positive takeaways from these policies, Gula sees that as purely hypothetical at this point.

"I think there is good in these gestures if there was no war," he said. "If October 7th had never happened, if this was all done when people were not getting killed, it would mean doing the right thing for the right reasons."