Although US President Joe Biden's new sanctions on Israeli settlers committing violence in the West Bank are in many ways unprecedented, a failure to have enforced international law in this case would have dealt a massive blow to the legitimacy of US global power. But will it be enough?

On February 1, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order imposing sanctions on four Israeli settlers in the West Bank, where extremist violence and property destruction have been rising. That comes after five new rounds of sanctions on Hamas since October 7, and after the sanctioning of financial networks funding the Houthis in December.

Biden's historic decision to sanction the private citizens of a close ally reflects both domestic and international political pressure. The administration seems to have recognized that Israeli extremist violence, and the settlements themselves, threaten US strategic interests and the broader liberal international order.

Critics of Biden's "democracy-defense credo" view the Israel-Gaza conflict as another example of him sidestepping the issue driving the conflict: territorial control and sovereignty. It is also worth highlighting that enforcing human rights and the rule of law should be integral to democracy promotion, and shared democratic values underpin US support for Israel, a key ally against Islamist extremism and terrorism. But given Israel's own democratic backsliding and the high civilian death toll in Gaza, Biden's unwavering support for Israel reflects a double standard that undermines America's credibility and global standing.

Of course, the settlements issue is not new. These government-sponsored communities have long been expanding in areas occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. A majority of countries, and the United Nations, considers them illegal under international law.

Since 1967, UN Security Council resolutions (such as 237) have urged Israel to observe humanitarian principles in the occupied territories; condemned extremist violence by settlers (271); deemed territorial acquisitions in Jerusalem inadmissible (252, 267, 298); and declared Israel's settlements to be illegal under international law, and an obstruction to peace in the Middle East (446, 465, 2334). Moreover, the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

The new executive order targets individuals initiating riots, assaulting civilians and activists, setting fires, causing property damage, and contributing to the displacement or deaths of Palestinians. The sanctions allow for freezing assets, prohibiting transactions with individuals and entities, and restricting their entry into the US.

The US has a long history of enforcing international law, sanctioning terrorism, policing drug trafficking, and promoting democracy, human rights, and peace in support of the liberal international order it helped create. Sanctions are often swiftly implemented against US adversaries such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria, as well as terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Hamas. Belarus, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, and Syria have all been sanctioned specifically for human-rights abuses.

In other cases, the US has imposed sanctions on countries with which it previously had good relations. These are typically nearby countries whose policies affect the US directly, as in the case of sanctions against Colombian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan officials under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. In other cases, the US soured on faraway countries, such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe, that failed to make a democratic transition.

Only in rare cases has the US sanctioned countries where it had major economic or strategic interests. In 1986, a bipartisan vote in Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (overriding President Ronald Reagan's veto), which sanctioned South Africa and demanded Nelson Mandela's release and an end to minority rule. By contrast, the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi led to sanctions against several individuals under the Global Magnitsky Act, but spared the Saudi leadership, despite CIA evidence of the Kingdom's direct involvement.

As a diplomatic matter, deciding to sanction Israeli settlers may have been as difficult for Biden as it was for Reagan to sanction South Africa or for Donald Trump to sanction the Saudis. Fundamentally, though, sanctioning Israeli settlers for human-rights violations in the Occupied Territories is fully consistent with US support for the liberal international order. Settler violence is illegal under international humanitarian law, as defined by the Geneva Conventions and its Protocols, which offer civilians protection during military strikes, prohibit indiscriminate attacks, and require military operations to be proportionate to the expected military advantage.

By imposing sanctions on individuals for behavior that is considered illegal under international law, or merely seen as an obstacle to peace, the US is reaffirming its commitment to resolving conflicts through law enforcement. The Biden administration is demonstrating US leadership in promoting peace and adherence to globally accepted norms, and ultimately strengthening alliances with countries that share similar values and have a stake in the existing global order.

But the US can and should do more to end the conflict. Ian Lustick, the founder of the Association for Israel Studies, notes that "Israel has never ended a war without being ordered to do so," suggesting that Israel is using an expansion of the war as a negotiating tactic. It fully expects, even needs, the US to intervene. Clearly, stopping the war should be US policymakers' top priority.

Until then, they should require that participants respect the laws of war. The first step would be to amend America's own legislation accordingly. A bill offering aid to Israel, with no conditions attached, did not pass in the House. If a more comprehensive security package is put to a vote, it should offer only assistance that can be used to find, capture, and neutralize Hamas, and it should offer humanitarian and reconstruction aid to civilians in Gaza in excess of the aid withheld from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Finally, since this is not the last time the US will face such a dilemma, it is worth considering a counterfactual. Had Biden refrained from sanctioning Israeli settler violence, he would have undermined the legitimacy of US sanctioning powers and the very international system such sanctions are meant to uphold.

Given all the precedents, it would be outrageous not to sanction settler terrorism. As Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned last month, America's failure to respond to Israel's gross violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza exposes its selective commitment to liberal norms and poses a direct threat to the international order.

Punishing transgressions according to its stated principles is vital for shoring up US hegemony within a liberal global framework. At a time when rising powers are challenging that hegemony, the US has a fundamental interest in broadening the coalition in favor of maintaining such an order. It will need that support if the Israel-Gaza war, Russia's war on Ukraine, and the brewing conflict with China spiral into a global war - a risk that is too great to discount.

Biden's evolving Middle East policy has become strategically imperative for the US as it navigates the challenges accompanying today's growing geopolitical turmoil. The more America's stance on the Israel-Gaza war isolates the US internationally (reflected in votes at the UN), the greater the risks for us all.

From Project Syndicate

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