President Joe Biden will travel to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week, two states not known for their respect for human rights. Author Peter Beinart argues in a recent article that instead of his claim to want to oppose authoritarianism around the world, Biden is actually doing the opposite. Read more.
In a recent insightful column, author and analyst Peter Beinart lays out clearly what Biden could do in Israel and Saudi if he were really interested in supporting democracy and human rights and opposing authoritarianism as he claims to be. Beinart argues that the US government has no such intention.
Beinart is a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York. He is an editor-at-large at Jewish Currents, a contributor to The Atlantic, a political commentator for CNN, and a fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
Here is an abridged version of Beinart’s article. A link to the whole article, which first appeared in the Beinart Notebook, can be found here.
“Making the Middle East Safe for Tyranny”
by Peter Beinart
(US President) Biden talks a good game about democracy and human rights. He’s pledged to “push back on authoritarianism” around the world. And when the authoritarians are America’s great power foes, Russia and China, he does just that. But in the Middle East, Biden isn’t pushing back against authoritarianism; he’s funding, arming and emboldening it. The trip he’s taking this week to Israel and Saudi Arabia would make Donald Trump proud.
It will start in Israel, which is a liberal democracy for Jews and something closer to a tyranny for most Palestinians. Roughly seven million Palestinians live under Israeli control. (Several million more live as refugees in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria because Israel expelled them or their descendants and won’t let them return.)
Of the seven million Palestinians under Israeli control, three million live in the West Bank, where they are permanently barred from citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections, even though those elections produce governments that arrest them, confiscate their land, demolish their homes, and impede their travel.
An additional two million Palestinians reside in the Gaza Strip, where they live under Israeli control in a different way. Although it no longer stations troops in Gaza, Israel (with help from Egypt) controls everything that legally enters and exits by air, land, and sea. Israel has even established buffer zones inside Gaza from which it prohibits Palestinians from entering at risk of being shot. The Israeli human rights group Gisha has detailed just how pervasive Israel’s control is:
- Gaza residents may not bring a crate of milk into the Gaza Strip without Israeli permission;
- A Gaza university cannot receive visits from a foreign lecturer unless Israel issues a visitor’s permit;
- A Gaza mother cannot register her child in the Palestinian population registry without Israeli approval;
- A Gaza fisherman cannot fish off the coast of Gaza without permission from Israel;
- A Gaza nonprofit organization cannot receive a tax-exempt donation of goods without Israeli approval;
- A Gaza teacher cannot receive her salary unless Israel agrees to transfer tax revenues to the Palestinian Ministry of Education;
- A Gaza farmer cannot get his carnations and cherry tomatoes to market unless Israel permits the goods to exit Gaza;
- A Gaza student cannot study abroad without Israeli approval to open the Gaza-Egypt crossing.
To be sure, Hamas holds sway inside Gaza like a prison gang after the guards have retreated. But like the armed guards who secure the prison’s perimeter, Israel still wields ultimate control. And, as in the West Bank, it does so without any democratic accountability to the Palestinians it rules.
Finally, two million of the seven million Palestinians under Israeli control (sometimes called “Israeli Arabs”) enjoy Israeli citizenship. They’re second class citizens, especially when it comes to land, most of which is allocated by a state body designed exclusively to serve Jews. Still, Palestinian citizens can vote and serve in the Knesset. Comparatively, they’re the lucky ones.
What Biden could do… but wont..
What would it mean for Biden to “push back on authoritarianism” in Israel a country where most Palestinians lack basic freedoms? It could mean supporting the right of Palestinians to citizenship in the country in which they live. But that would require transforming Israel from a state that favors Jews into one based on legal equality irrespective of ethnicity and religion, a transformation the Biden administration defines as antisemitism.
Alternatively, Biden could bar Israel from using American aid to enforce its control over territories where Palestinians lack elemental rights, or at least bar that aid from being used for the most egregious purposes, like child detention and home demolition. But Biden has called any conditioning of aid “outrageous.” Even more modestly, Biden could reaffirm America’s longstanding position—which it held for decades until Trump—that the US considers it a violation of international law for Israel to build settlements in the West Bank, many of which are constructed on land confiscated from stateless Palestinians. He won’t even do that. Biden could open the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington so his administration at least reestablishes traditional lines of communication with Palestinians and their representatives. Not happening.
He could visit Masafer Yatta, where roughly 2500 West Bank Palestinians face expulsion in what the United Nations warns may constitute a “war crime.” Nope. Finally, at absolute rock bottom, Biden could at least defend the rights of Palestinians who are US citizens by demanding independent investigations when Israeli soldiers kill them, as has happened twice so far this year. Even that is evidently too much to ask from a president who vowed last fall that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”
Biden isn’t going to Israel to oppose authoritarianism. He’s going to showcase America’s support for it, not only in Israel but across the region.
What Biden will be promoting on his ground-breaking excursion from Tel Aviv to Jidda is a set of partnerships that fosters repression.
Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—which fear that accountable government elsewhere in the region might embolden their own freedom-starved subjects—have supported coups against democratic or democratizing governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan. Israel, which prefers authoritarian governments that can ignore their public’s support for the Palestinian cause, sent its own supportive signals to the military leaders who carried out the coups in Egypt and Sudan.
What the United States says China is trying to do globally—cement its own authoritarian rule by buttressing authoritarianism elsewhere—is exactly what America’s allies are doing in the Middle East. And Biden is practically cheering them on.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
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