US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged to oppose Israeli settlements or annexation in the occupied West Bank, as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return to power.
Netanyahu has sealed a coalition deal with extreme-right and pro-settler parties, including Religious Zionism, after his right-wing coalition won the November 1 elections.
Palestinians fear more illegal settlements will likely be built in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem under Netanyahu, who saw record settlement expansion during his 12-year period as prime minister until 2021.
Settlements are considered illegal under international laws and seen as an impediment to the realisation of a future Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution.
Religious Zionism, which supports settlement expansion and opposes Palestinian statehood, has been assigned a post to oversee settlements in the occupied West Bank in the new coalition.
Speaking to J Street on Sunday, a left-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group in the United States, Blinken offered congratulations to the veteran Israeli leader, who has clashed with previous Democratic administrations in Washington.
“We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Blinken said.
But he said President Joe Biden’s administration would work “relentlessly” to preserve a “horizon of hope,” however dim, for the creation of a Palestinian state.
“We will also continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including but not limited to settlement expansion, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, disruption to the historic status quo of holy sites, demolitions and evictions, and incitement to violence,” Blinken said.
He said the Biden administration will insist on “core democratic principles, including respect to the rights of LGBTQ people and the equal administration of justice for all citizens of Israel.”
The far-right groups in Netanyahu’s coalition will include Noam, whose leader Avi Maoz is staunchly opposed to LGBTQ rights.
Netanyahu’s other coalition partner, the far-right Jewish Power party, also backs settler expansion. Its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir — who until last year was best known as a fringe Palestinian-hating religious-far-right provocateur.
Ben-Gvir’s record includes a 2007 conviction for racist incitement against Palestinians and support for terrorism, as well as anti-LGBTQ activism.
He says he no longer advocates the expulsion of all Palestinians — only those he deems “traitors” or “terrorists”. Until a few years ago, Ben-Gvir had a portrait in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at a Hebron mosque in 1994.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, told reporters the State Department had a “strong case” to consider Ben-Gvir persona non grata and that the US administration should consider not dealing with other officials from extreme backgrounds.
‘No substitute’ for peace
The November 1 election was Israel’s fifth in less than four years and came after the collapse of Lapid’s diverse coalition that tried to keep out the scandal-plagued Netanyahu.
Any new attempt by Israel to seize the occupied West Bank could go against promises Netanyahu made in 2020 to the United Arab Emirates, which became the first Arab state in decades to recognise Israel.
Netanyahu and the administration of then-US President Donald Trump hailed the so-called Abraham Accords as a key achievement.
Three other Arab nations quickly followed in discussing ties with Israel, whose commercial relationship with the UAE has soared over the past two years.
Drawing some of the biggest applause from J Street, Blinken said, “For all of its benefits, normalisation between Israel and its neighbours is not a substitute for building peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“I know that many people are disillusioned; many people are frustrated,” Blinken said.
“We’ve been trying to get to a two-state solution for decades and yet it seems that we’ve only gotten further away from that goal,” he said.
But he warned not to “succumb to cynicism” and to keep working for peace.
The US has made no significant diplomatic effort to broker a two-state solution since the Barack Obama presidency, with Biden administration officials privately sceptical that they can reach any agreement with Netanyahu.