President Joe Biden has not made Israel, or Palestine for that matter, a priority in his presidency thus far. This was partly designed to avoid pushing Israel's now-defunct "government of change" beyond the constraints of unprecedented coalition politics. That deference has been relatively cost-free considering his only stated foreign policy goal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was changing the name of a U.S. diplomatic mission in East Jerusalem back to what it had been until a few years ago, before Donald Trump changed it.
To his credit, the president has had a front-row seat to nearly every American attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking over the course of his long career. In this case, Biden correctly read the room. There is simply no leader in Israel or Palestine who is willing, let alone capable, of earnestly engaging in a new peace process—certainly not in the decaying framework of the Oslo Accords. Under such conditions, nobody could blame him for not trying.
And yet, short of launching an entirely new approach to Israel and the conflict, and confronting the political maelstrom that would create back in Washington, this president can still do something incredibly impactful in Jerusalem. With a simple statement, he can demonstrate that he is still committed to the foreign policy he described in the first weeks of his presidency, one grounded in "upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law and treating every person with dignity."
Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid this Thursday, Biden can state that the United States unequivocally rejects Israel's criminalization of Palestinian human rights and civil society groups in an abuse of counterterrorism laws. He can look over his shoulder and tell the Israeli prime minister that "between friends" such actions are not aligned with the "shared values" the leaders of both countries so regularly tout.
Biden can state that the United States unequivocally rejects Israel's criminalization of Palestinian human rights and civil society groups in an abuse of counterterrorism laws.
- Michael Omer-Man
Biden can also announce that, in line with America's most cherished democratic values and traditions, the United States will help strengthen Palestinian human rights and civil society groups, including those Israel has wrongly labeled as "terrorists" despite admitting that these groups are not actually engaged in terrorism. Just this week, nine European countries issued a joint statement rejecting the "terrorist" designation, as Israel did not provide any information to justify it, and declaring that they would continue their cooperation with and support of Palestinian civil society. Biden should do the same.
None of this requires anything of the Israel. It does not require a partner. Biden doesn't need to make any demands. No negotiations or concessions are necessary. There is no cost, only upside. What it accomplishes, on the other hand, would be incredibly valuable—and not just to the progressive base Biden has so profoundly disappointed with his Middle East foreign policy.
First, it would send an unmistakable message to Israel that its most important ally is taking a stand on this issue. Having received that message, the next Israeli government would be wise to think twice before taking any further punitive steps against the six Palestinian civil society organizations.
While Israel has not yet moved to formally shut down the six Palestinian groups, the designations have already caused them great difficulties. They are having trouble using the international banking system, and some foreign governments have suspended their support, even as the European Union characterized Israeli's actions as "unfounded allegations" and the United Nations has called on governments to resume funding to these organizations.
Further, human rights defenders working for and leading these groups are beginning to face personal harassment and persecution. Obai Aboudi, an American citizen and the director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, was prevented from traveling abroad twice since the designation. Salah Hamouri, an attorney for Addameer, has been held in administrative detention for months and had his Jerusalem residency revoked for "lack of allegiance" to Israel.
Israel is actively engaged in a campaign of threats and harassment toward the human rights defenders, activists and dissidents organizing against Israeli apartheid and occupation—outside of its recognized borders.
- Michael Omer-Man
These acts are just the beginning. With the designations a fait accompli, Israel now has the legal basis in place to arrest more human rights defenders, to shut down their organizations, seize their files and equipment—and worse. It's only a matter of time before the Israeli government takes those steps, and public support by the American president is probably the only thing left that can stop this matter from going any further than it already has.
We know this is an issue that Biden cares about. In his Washington Post op-ed explaining why he is making this trip, and in particular of his expected embrace of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman despite his ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the president wrote: "My administration has made clear that the United States will not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government."
Yet Israel is actively engaged in a campaign of threats and harassment toward the human rights defenders, activists and dissidents organizing against Israeli apartheid and occupation—outside of its recognized borders. It is putting them in prison without charge or trial, restricting their access to funding, and banning them from traveling abroad. It even targeted them with the same cyber weapons that Saudi Arabia used to target Jamal Khashoggi and other Saudi civil society activists and dissidents. All for political reasons.
Just a few months ago, the U.S. State Department published a manual instructing senior diplomats to engage with civil society and human rights defenders around the world, and to support and protect them through bilateral engagement. It would be prudent of him to revisit this manual and his administration's policies.
"The work of civil society, including human rights defenders, to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and support good governance is a critical safeguard against threats from autocratic regimes and backsliding democracies," the State Department manual says. "Where civil society and human rights defenders' ability to work freely is weakened, human rights abuses and violations, discrimination, and corruption flourish."