What to Make of Biden’s Historic Sanctions on Israeli Settlers

Bianca Echa

What to Make of Biden’s Historic Sanctions on Israeli Settlers

As much of the world’s attention has focused on the ongoing carnage in Gaza, where Israel’s war of retribution will soon enter its fourth month, the issue of rising Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank largely fell by the wayside. But on Thursday, the Biden administration unveiled an executive order imposing new financial sanctions on Israeli settlers who have been implicated in such violence, in what is perhaps the most significant step taken by any U.S. administration on the issue to date.

“The situation in the West Bank—in particular high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction—has reached intolerable levels,” the order reads, dubbing the unprecedented levels of settler violence a threat to both the region and to U.S. personnel and interests. 

Although only four Israeli settlers have been targeted in the first round of sanctions—for actions that include initiating and leading deadly riots, assaulting civilians, and destroying property, according to Haaretz—the scope of the order is much wider, applying to any foreign individual deemed to have directed or participated in violence against Palestinian civilians, including intimidation, terror, and property damage and seizure. Most notably, the order can also apply to Israeli leaders or government officials deemed to have engaged directly or indirectly in such violence.

Matt Duss, the executive vice president of the Center for International Policy and a former chief foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, told TIME the move constitutes a “big step” by the Biden administration and could be a “potentially very big tool.” He says the administration is “doing the S part of BDS,” referencing the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that seeks to mobilize international pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. “This will send shockwaves through this entire economic infrastructure, both in Israel but also in the United States and elsewhere in the world, that exists to fund these illegal activities.”

The order was roundly criticized by far-right ministers in the Israeli government, under which the country’s settlement enterprise has flourished. The country’s national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is himself a settler, wrote that Biden “is wrong about the citizens of the State of Israel and the heroic settlers” and urged his administration to “rethink its policy.” Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also resides in a West Bank settlement, dismissed the very notion of settler violence as an “anti-Semitic lie” and pledged to continue his work in expanding Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. “If the price is the imposition of American sanctions on me,” he wrote in an X post, “so be it.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called the sanctions “exceptional” and “unnecessary.”

How the Biden administration chooses to use this new foreign-policy stick, and on whom, will ultimately determine the impact that it has. “These individuals are going to have U.S.-based assets frozen, their financial transactions will not be able to go through U.S. financing institutions. and people will not be able to support them financially either—that’s a big deal,” says Yousef Munayyer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. and an expert on Israeli and Palestinian affairs. “The extent to which that actually becomes enforceable really depends on how many people you put on this list and who those individuals are.”

Settler violence in the West Bank is hardly a new phenomenon, though the crisis has been exacerbated by the war in Gaza, under the cover of which settler violence has seen a notable surge. Since Oct. 7, there have been nearly 500 Israeli settler attacks on Palestinian civilians, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian agency. That’s more than a third of the total overall settler attacks that were recorded by the agency in 2023, a year that saw the highest number of settler attacks on record.

While the timing of this executive order can be read as a direct response to this surge, some observers note that there may also be political motivations at play. The announcement coincides with President Biden’s visit to Michigan on Thursday, where his support among the state’s large Arab American population has soured over his handling of the war in Gaza. Indeed, the first national poll of Arab Americans published in November found that only 17% of Arab American voters intended to back Biden’s reelection bid, down from 59% who supported the president in 2020. For Biden, whose victory over Trump four years ago hinged on narrow victories in a number of key battleground states, Michigan is considered a must-win. Recent polls show Biden trailing Trump by 10 points.

Insofar as the executive order can rectify Biden’s relationship with Arab Americans, Munayyer says it’s not a panacea. “This is something that the administration can point to and say that they did something for accountability for those hurting Palestinians in the West Bank that has never been done before, and that’s true,” he says. But “the reality is that it should have been done a very long time ago. The easiest and lowest-hanging fruit is to deal with settler violence.”

Meanwhile, the war in Gaza continues—something that “is a much, much bigger problem that the administration is supporting and continuing to make worse in Gaza,” Munnayer adds. “I think any credit that they’re hoping to get is going to be put in that context.” 

As Duss sees it, however, the step can also be interpreted as part of Biden’s effort to introduce his own vision for the Middle East as the U.S. and others begin to articulate their preference for what comes after the Gaza war ends. “Steps like this are a good way to show that they are serious this time,” he says. “Consequences for Israeli violence against Palestinians—whether in the form of just physical violence, settlement growth, expulsion of families, demolition of homes—that has always been a missing piece in the U.S.-led peace process. There have always and only been consequences imposed on one side, the weaker side, the Palestinian side. So what I think the administration is importantly signaling here is that’s going to change.”

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