After four years of Donald Trump’s America-first foreign policy—a policy of snubbing allies, coddling dictators, and turning the State Department into an agent of the U.S. arms industry—the Biden administration promised a fresh start. America would once again promote democracy abroad, oppose the rising tide of ethno-nationalism, and defend human rights. Addressing our top diplomats in February, Biden said that the United States would reclaim its “credibility and moral authority” and promote the “equal rights of people the world over,” including “people of every ethnic background and religion.”
An early test of the new administration’s commitment to human rights has now appeared in a part of the world Biden had hoped to put on the back burner: Israel and the Palestinian territories. One can easily understand his reluctance to spend much time on yet another attempt to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. For decades, U.S. presidents have tried and failed to find a “two-state solution” that would satisfy both sides. Even when conditions for peace appeared to be ideal, negotiations have always hit a snag; and, with a right-wing coalition now governing Israel and the militant group Hamas in charge of Gaza, conditions are far from ideal. But presidents don’t get to choose the crises that arise on their watch, and Biden cannot just look away from the violence that has erupted in the Holy Land in the past few weeks.
The trouble began in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, with what the Israeli government has called a real-estate dispute and what Palestinians describe as ethnic cleansing. Palestinian households whose families have lived in Sheikh Jarrah for decades have been gradually forced out by a settler organization and the Israeli courts. Such evictions are part of a larger pattern of displacement. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, more than 14,600 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have had their residency revoked by Israel, which claims all of Jerusalem for itself in defiance of international law.