Attempts by the administration of United States President Joe Biden to balance its Mideast policy between Israel and the Palestinians is evident in wording of the latest world human rights report released by the State Department.
The 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on the situation last year in nearly 200 countries, has attracted attention for its use of phraseology since its release on Tuesday.
This year’s section on “Israel, West Bank and Gaza” adhered to a change instituted in 2018 by the administration of former US President Donald Trump. The Country Report from the previous year was called “Israel, Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza.”
Israel captured the eastern side of Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, part of the Golan Heights from Syria and Gaza from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War. Even though Israel legally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan in 1981, its sovereignty over these lands has been disputed by the Palestinians and much of the international community, who refer to the territories as being “occupied by Israel.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has previously stated that the Biden administration also sees Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and will not move the embassy, which was relocated from Tel Aviv under the former president. Blinken stopped short, however, of recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
Usage of the term “occupation” was minimal in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 annual US reports. This year, however, the document said the section “covers the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war.”
In an effort to minimize significance of the move, the State Department said, “Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.”
At a press conference following the report’s release, Lisa Peterson, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) stated that the assignment of names was made for the purpose of clarity without political overtones.
According to a transcript obtained by TV7, Politico reporter Halley Toosi asked, “I want to know, do you guys believe that the West Bank is occupied by Israel or not?”
Ambassador Peterson replied, “So we have presented the section as we have stated in previous years. This Human Rights Report refers to the commonly used geographic names of the area the report covers. So Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. This is intended to delineate geographic areas and puts them in alignment with – puts these reports in alignment with the rest of the report.”
“Those geographic indicators are not meant to convey any position on any final status issues that need to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state,” she went on to stress.
A reporter at a subsequent press briefing in Washington yesterday said, “there’s been quite a bit of attention to that, that the U.S. didn’t use “occupied territories,” that the State Department didn’t in the report. Does this indicate a type of permanent change in policy? Is this a continuation of the policy under the Trump administration?”
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price responded that he had “addressed this from the podium several weeks ago now,” reiterating that “What I said then, of course, remains true today, and that is it is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after the 1967 war.”
Price then pointed out that, “In fact, the 2020 Human Rights Report does use the term “occupation” in the context of the current status of the West Bank. This has been the longstanding position of previous administrations of both parties over the course of many decades.”
In a follow-up question on “the implications for US policy” and whether Washington considers “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to be illegal as a result of this stance,” Price underscored that, “This doesn’t change our position.”
The State Department Spokesman then reaffirmed the “ultimate goal” of the US is a Two-State solution to the conflict as “the best path to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state while bestowing on the Palestinians their legitimate aspirations of sovereignty and dignity in a state of their own,” while repeating Washington’s call for both sides to “avoid actions that would put the Two-State solution further out of reach.”
When asked about last week’s announcement from US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield that Washington will restore financial aid to the Palestinians suspended under Trump, Price confirmed a $15 million grant in COVID assistance.
“We continue to believe that American support for the Palestinian people, including financial support – it is in – it is consistent with our values. It is consistent with our interests. Of course, it is consistent with the interests of the Palestinian people. It’s also consistent with the interests of our partner Israel, and we’ll have more to say on that going forward,” he said.
The State Department Spokesman was then pressed on where the yet-to-be-appointed US Ambassador to Israel will reside, but maintained that he had no information on either “the forthcoming ambassador or the issue of the residence.”
Commenting on the Country Reports, the former head of the PLO Mission in Washington told The Times of Israel that it is “Good that we are back on the same page regarding the status of occupied territory.” Husam Zomlot, who currently serves as Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom then added that, “The real question is: What is the Biden administration going to do about it? It’s too late for talk, we need action to hold Israel accountable and to end the occupation.”