State Department Spokesman Warns Israel Not to Exacerbate Tensions

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Hugh Fitzgerald, Can’t expect more from the Biden administration.

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, held a press briefing on March 1 in which he set out the Biden Administration’s hopes for the Middle East. Here’s a report: “US: Israel should avoid unilateral steps with Palestinians,” Israel Hayom, March 2, 2021:

The US “encourages” Israel to avoid unilateral steps that “exacerbate tensions and make it difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday at a press briefing in response to a question about Israeli plans to expand a settlement north of Bethlehem.

It could have been even worse. He might have said that “much of the international community believes that the settlements violate international law” or “it is our position that settlements violate international law.” Instead, he carefully sidestepped that question; he limited his comment to the U.S. “encourages” Israel – a mild verb – not to take “unilateral steps,” although given the refusal of the PA so far to discuss anything with Israel, “unilateral steps” are the only kind of steps Israel can take. Price might have done better: he might have said that “the question of settlements is complicated; it’s not at all clear that the settlements are illegal, but we still feel that adding to their number, or expanding those that exist, likely make the ultimate goal of peace more difficult.” Can’t expect more than that from the Biden administration.

Price was also asked about the US position on UNRWA, whose funding former President Donald Trump slashed.

“We intend to provide assistance that will benefit all Palestinians, including refugees. We are in the process of determining how to move forward on resuming all forms of that assistance consistent with US law,” Price responded.

Price might have added several caveats.

First, he could have said – what a welcome surprise it would have been — that “the American government is committed to bettering the lives of Palestinians by changing their culture of dependency.” It is “UNRWA which keeps the Palestinians in that state, by supplying them with every benefit from cradle to grave – housing, education, medical care, food, family allowance — that we feel in the end does them more harm than good.”

Second, Price might have taken note of the astonishing fact that UNRWA decided that the original Palestinian refugees from 1948 would be allowed to pass on, as an inheritable trait, the status of “refugee” to their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on, a unique benefit that, among the tens of millions of refugees created since World War II, only the Palestinians enjoy. This means there are now more than five million people who can call themselves “Palestinian refugees” and receive UNRWA benefits, and more are added to the rolls every month. But only 30,000 of those five million are real refugees as that term is ordinarily understood, people who left (as infants and children) Mandatory Palestine/Israel from 1947 to1949. This policy of ever-expanding numbers of mislabeled pseudo-refugees has no logical limit, but — again putting words in Price’s mouth — “we believe this has to end; UNRWA cannot afford to maintain in perpetuity these many millions, while support for real refugees everywhere else is necessarily scanted.”

Third, Price could say that “after years of promising to end the antisemitic poisoning of young minds through its schoolbooks but never doing it, UNRWA cannot be allowed to continue to inculcate such hatred, Those schoolbooks are a long-running scandal that has to end now. No American aid will be provided to UNRWA as long as the antisemtiic passages remain.”

Fourth, Price could have added that “we will aid the Palestinians not only through UNRWA – if it meets our conditions – but directly. Here our assistance must be consistent with US law, and that means primarily the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits giving aid to those Palestinian groups and individuals who promote terrorism, which of course includes the “Pay-For-Slay” program.”

Price said that the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was important, but required continued progress and reforms to ensure that it rested on “strong fundamentals” and continued to advance shared US-Saudi objectives in the Middle East.

It’s clear the Biden Administration wishes to put the Khashoggi affair behind it, and is looking, instead, to the hope of improved behavior by Saudi Arabia in the future. It realizes how important the relationship with Saudi Arabia is to the U.S., and raison d’état must prevail in its calculations.

“We seek to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis: to end the war in Yemen and ease Yemen’s humanitarian crisis; to use our leadership to forge ties across the region’s most bitter divide, whether that’s finding the way back from the brink of war with Iran into a meaningful regional dialogue or forging a historic peace with Israel; to help young Saudis open their society to connect to the world, to seize their full potential, and to build ties with Americans,” Price said.

A laundry list of hopes, some of them vain: the Biden Administration removed the Houthis from the list of terrorism sponsors; in response, the Houthis doubled down on their drone and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and began their siege of Marib in Yemen, the last major city not yet under their control. As for “finding the way back from the brink of war with Iran” the only thing the Biden Administration has come up with is a return to the 2015 Iran deal, which Israel and Saudi Arabia agree will only make war with Iran more, not less, likely. A “meaningful regional dialogue” between Iran and those many states it seeks to undermine as it builds its “Shi’a crescent” appears impossible; the Islamic Republic refuses to talk either to the U.S., or the European signatories to the JCPOA, or to the Gulf Sunni states or, of course, to the “Zionist entity.” It demands a complete lifting of sanctions first, before it will itself return to the 2015 deal, and it has had the additional chutzpah to insist, as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said, that the Americans pay Iran $1 trillion for the economic damage caused by those sanctions.

“Forging a historic peace with Israel” appears to apply to Saudi Arabia; if the Biden Administration, that until now has only mildly praised the Abraham Accords – unwilling to give the previous administration its due – and not engaged in the kind of deal-making that Trump did so effectively to cajole Arab states into normalizing ties with Israel, decides to takes on that task, and succeeds, that would be a welcome volte-face and a diplomatic triumph. But what in the end may bring Riyadh and Jerusalem closer together, in a normalization of ties, is not a deliberate effort by Washington to encourage it, but the unintended consequence of Biden’s blundering with Iran. The fear they share that the Biden Administration is too willing to accommodate Iran have made Israel and Saudi Arabia realize that in the mighty contest with Iran they can count only on one another.

Ken Price’s briefing on the Middle East – on Israel, the Palestinians, the Saudis, Iran — might have been better. See above. But it could have been much, much worse. Think of Obama, the president who, we have just now learned, wanted to force Israel to return the Golan Heights — critical to Israel’s northern defense — to Syria. Let’s be grateful that Biden appears to be backing away from his initial headlong rush to resurrect, without modification, the disastrous JCPOA deal. Of course, there’s still time for him to backtrack from his backtracking. And be mildly pleased, too, that Price let slip an oblique allusion to the Taylor Force Act, when he mentioned that all assistance to the Palestinians must be “consistent with US law.” Mahmoud Abbas no doubt plans to repackage the “Pay-For-Slay” program as a welfare program for the poor, rather than a reward for murder, so as to overcome the Taylor Force legal hurdle. Could Biden be so gullible as to fall for such a transparent ploy? You know the answer to that.

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