I have zero tolerance for settler violence and the kind of attacks that right-wing Jewish extremists have carried out against Palestinians over the years in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, the executive order signed last week by US President Joe Biden and the decision to impose sanctions on four Israelis while warning that more sanctions are still to come has the potential to undermine Israel’s war against Hamas and, unfortunately, encourage terrorists to continue attacking.
The Biden administration has long protested that some Israeli governments have turned a blind eye to some alleged far-right attacks on Palestinians. And while this has been a problem, the reason Biden issued the order now has more to do with his own political challenges than with his discontent with Israel.
The same day he issued the order, the president flew to Michigan for an election rally. Michigan is a known swing state and will be crucial for Biden to carry if he wants to beat Donald Trump in November. In 2016, for example, Trump won Michigan with just 10,000 more votes that Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Biden won the state by just about 150,000 votes.
Michigan is home to one of the largest Arab communities in the US. If just some of them stay home on election day over America’s support of Israel during the Gaza war that could potentially mean a Biden loss in Michigan.
To try and prevent that – and at the same time to shore up progressive support within the Democratic Party – Biden wants to show that he is being tough on Jerusalem and not allowing Israelis to do whatever they want, similar to the way that he is being tough on the Palestinians.
The problem is that by issuing the executive order at the same time that Israel is fighting Hamas in Gaza, the administration is creating a moral equivalence between Hamas and Jewish right-wing attacks in the West Bank.
This shows a confusion within the White House. Hamas is a terrorist organisation that rules Gaza, has tens of thousands of fighters and until the war, was in possession of tens of thousands of rockets. On October 7, it massacred over 1,200 Israelis and is a state-run organisation. To sanction Hamas and its members makes sense. When it comes to the so-called settler violence, this is a tiny fringe and scattered group of people that has been involved in – at the most – several dozen violent incidents, almost all of which have been investigated by the police and the Shin Bet.
While Hamas members receive government support for their terrorist attacks, in Israel the violence is not sanctioned by the government. On the contrary, most of the political system condemns the perpetrators. Israel has a police force, a judicial system and the rule of law. The Americans might think that it is too lenient and do not like the fact that some ministers appear to support these violent extremists. But the fact is that one of the four people sanctioned by the US is already in jail and others have had legal proceedings initiated against them.
This is why the decision is dangerous and has the potential to do more harm than good.
Yaakov Katz is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a former editor of the Jerusalem Post