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Biden faces pressure from all sides on Israel
President Biden is coming under pressure from all sides as he seeks to navigate the latest violence between Israel and the Palestinians, a perennial political problem for U.S. presidents.
Biden is facing attacks from Republicans for not doing enough to support Israel, and from progressives who say he needs to get much tougher with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The president has put negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians on the back burner of his foreign policy, in a break from past administrations.
Instead, he's put enormous effort into bringing the U.S. and Iran back to the nuclear deal that former President Trump withdrew from in 2018.
Republicans oppose any rapprochement with Iran and the latest outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization backed by Iran, is further fueling their criticisms.
In a letter sent to Biden on Wednesday, 44 Republicans implored the administration to abandon plans lifting sanctions on Iran as part of efforts to return to the deal. They argue cash flowing to Tehran finances rockets being fired into Israel.
"In light of these recent attacks by Hamas against Israel, the United States should take all steps necessary to hold Tehran accountable and under no circumstances, provide sanctions relief to Iran," they wrote. "We call on you to immediately end negotiations with Iran, and make clear that sanctions relief will not be provided. Doing so would demonstrate a firm commitment to our closest ally in the region and to our own security interests."
The administration argues that lifting sanctions as part of efforts to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the name for the nuclear deal, are separate from sanctions the U.S. has on Iran related to its terrorism activities, like supporting Hamas.
"If we were to remove sanctions that were inconsistent with the JCPOA, we would still vigorously hold to account Iran for its behavior in other areas - its terrorism, its support for proxies, its human rights abuses," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing with reporters Wednesday.
"There is nothing in the JCPOA that removes sanctions as a policy tool to address those specific areas, and we would continue to hold Tehran to account," he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are fracturing over the administration's approach in dealing with Israel and Netanyahu, specifically.
Progressive Democrats are condemning Biden for not more forcefully taking on Netanyahu, who they say is inflaming nationalist, right-wing sentiments against Arabs and seeking a policy of Jewish-settlement expansion in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in the West Bank.
This includes the legal fight surrounding the eviction of a Palestinian family from their home in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police over access to, and inside, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem - the third holiest site in Islam.
These lawmakers say the rocket fire from Hamas is a reaction to Israel's policies.
"You aren't prioritizing human rights. You're siding with an oppressive occupation," Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) wrote on Twitter, criticizing the president.
Omar is part of a cohort of progressive Democrats who have put their support behind legislation aimed at exercising more oversight of the $3.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance to Israel. The legislation, H.R. 2950, was authored by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who blames the latest outbreak of violence on Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
"The escalating violence, suffering, and death over the past few days across lands under the control of Israel's military is the direct result of occupation policies designed to persecute the Palestinian people," she said in a statement to the Hill.
McCollum's bill is, for the first time, endorsed by the progressive Israel and Palestinian advocacy group J Street, signaling broader support for the effort that had earlier failed to gain such backing in previous congressional sessions.
The bill also has the backing of Justice Democrats, the political action committee behind the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). It has supported progressive candidates and challengers to Democratic incumbents.
The bill is unlikely to gain momentum in this Congress, where centrist Democrats with strong support of Israel hold the most senior positions in the party and reject any efforts that seek to condition U.S. assistance to Israel.
But its introduction nonetheless is likely to add to the pressure on Biden and other centrists.
The Biden team is drawing a distinction between standing by Israel in the face of rocket fire from Hamas, and raising concerns over the preceding violence in Jerusalem.
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. Gilad Erdan said the decision to delay ruling on evictions in Jerusalem, which was made by the Israeli Supreme Court, and efforts to ease tensions around the Al Aqsa Mosque were carried out on the advice of the Biden administration.
"We consulted with the American administration; those were basically all the recommendations we got from the international community, how to lower tensions," Erdan told CNN. "But one should understand, those are all excuses, because you cannot justify launching missiles and rockets deliberately on civilians."
On Thursday, Biden defended Israel's retaliatory strikes in Gaza as proportionate, even as they have resulted in scores of civilian Palestinian deaths and injuries. Hamas's rocket fire has killed and wounded Israelis.
"One of the things that I have seen thus far is that there has not been a significant overreaction," he said of the Israeli response, answering a reporter's question if Netanyahu was doing enough to stop violence from escalating.
"The question is how do we get to a point, they get to a point where there is a significant reduction in the attacks, particularly the rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centers."