On Feb. 2, President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing the U.S. to impose sanctions on four Israeli settlers involved in violent attacks against Palestinian citizens in the West Bank. Under the order, any U.S. assets or bank accounts of the four settlers will be frozen, and no one will be allowed to do business with them or transfer money to them through the U.S. financial system.
Although the administration had worked on the executive order for weeks, and the announcement follows numerous instances of concern raised by Biden himself and other senior administration personnel about settler violence — including the issuance of visa bans on several dozen Israeli settlers believed to be involved in such activity — the timing of the order’s issuance was significant.
It came the morning of Biden’s campaign trip to potential presidential election swing state, Michigan, the home of the country’s largest population of Arab Americans, who have been critical of Biden’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war and have demanded that Biden be tougher on Israel.
While it is not yet clear what electoral benefit Biden was able to gain from the order and its timing, the broader political reverberations are significant. And the reaction has been mixed.
While few argue that settler violence is justified, many are legitimately concerned that the targeting of settlers in a manner similar to the five rounds of sanctions the administration has imposed against Hamas leaders and operatives in the past three months implies a moral equivalency between unspeakable Hamas terror activity and more isolated, yet illegal, settler violence. That’s a tough argument to make unless the sanctions construct was only designed to punish certain types of illegal and morally offensive behavior. It wasn’t.
And so, Israel’s response that, “The vast majority of settlers are law-abiding citizens and many of them are fighting these days to protect Israel” may be true, but it doesn’t excuse criminal behavior. On the other hand, Israel’s assertion that it is taking action against settlers who break the law certainly adds to the many distinctions between settler violence and that of Hamas, but neither excuses it nor removes it from international review.
But there is more. The executive order also allows the administration to impose sanctions on additional individuals who direct or participate in acts or threats of violence against Palestinian civilians, intimidate Palestinian civilians causing them to leave their homes, destroy or seize property of Palestinian civilians or are involved in acts of terrorism against Palestinian civilians. It also allows the administration to sanction leaders or government officials who are directly or indirectly involved in violence against Palestinians.
According to reports, the administration considered including ultranationalist Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich on the list of sanctioned individuals, but ultimately decided to leave them off and focus on those who actually perpetrated the attacks. But the threat of inclusion remains. And potential consequences are significant.
This is only going to get more complicated. The Biden administration is sending a clear signal to Israel.