As an Independence Day treat, the U.S. State Department on Monday announced its conclusions on the shooting of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin in May 2022.
It was reported earlier this weekend that the Palestinian Authority turned over to the U.S. a bullet the PA has said it recovered from Abu Akleh’s body after her death. Israeli media said afterward that the bullet was then turned over to Israeli authorities for analysis, with U.S. personnel present throughout the process.
Other reporting contradicted that assertion, saying, in addition to a PA statement that the U.S. had promised not to give it to the Israelis, that it wasn’t clear whether the U.S. retained custody of the bullet the entire time. The round has reportedly been returned to the PA.
Other than the bullet, for which there can be no independent verification of the provenance or chain of custody, the U.S. government has not performed original, first-hand analysis of the elements in the shooting event: e.g., the weapons used by shooters from the IDF and Palestinian Arab groups; the various videos used to plot locations, record reactions, and evaluate audio information; and the full package of those elements to compare with damage to trees and potentially other structures in the vicinity of Ms. Abu Akleh’s location.
Nevertheless, the State Department issued a press announcement on 4 July:
After an extremely detailed forensic analysis, independent, third-party examiners, as part of a process overseen by the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC), could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion.
The announcement went on: “By summarizing both investigations, the USSC concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.”
So take note: U.S. analysts were summarizing the investigations of others. Keep that in mind in contemplating these conclusions: “The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel.”
We may justly ask, Who cares what the USSC thinks on this forensic matter, based on a third party’s summary of investigations not ordered or arranged by the USSC, according to standards set by the authorities the USSC is answerable to?
The U.S. government hasn’t reached a forensic-quality determination here.
The New York Times’s report hints at a diplomatic motive for seeking to put a seal on the matter and close it out. “The Biden administration,” says NYT, “was drawn into a mediation role after Israel said it could not determine whether its soldier fired the fatal shot without being provided with the bullet. But the Palestinian leadership said it did not trust the Israeli investigators enough to hand the bullet over.”
It’s not a mediator’s role to find facts or have opinions on them, but let that pass, for the moment. (Appearing to play footsie with a mangled bullet is also an inept look, and something – like handling money – that a mediator should stay out of.)
The conventional explanation comes up next: “The need for a resolution became more urgent in recent days because it threatened to overshadow discussions during a visit next week by President Biden to Israel and the West Bank — his first to the region as head of state.”
This, however, far from being a controlling circumstance, is just a reaction to fears about perceptions. Nothing need overshadow the Biden visit if the Biden administration will emphasize its own priorities and face the shadow down.
The visit could (and should) go off perfectly well without resolving this dispute, because there is no U.S. interest in treating it like a show-stopper. There was another and better way to handle this.
It would have been to avoid the role of errand boy for the bullet altogether, and simply state a U.S. position based on U.S. interests (which America has every right to prioritize) rather than on the false semblance of a forensic conclusion. It looks like hiding behind a dodge to invoke the latter anyway.
America’s position ought to be that the PA and Israel need to work out the forensic analysis of the event to their satisfaction, but failure to do so before the President’s visit won’t interrupt his schedule.
That posture has the merit of conveying, tacitly but precisely, that the PA hasn’t made its case for indicting Israel. It shows fair-minded support for Israel’s own fair-minded position. But it does so without accusing the PA of bad faith or attempts at diplomatic sabotage.
Some would argue that the Biden team is intimidated by the congressional “Squad,” which sees the Abu Akleh controversy as, in fact, an indictment of Israel, and one that ought to affect U.S. policy.
But if that’s the case, it’s fear talking, not reality or actual U.S. interests. If fear of the Squad (whose radical members represent a very small demographic in the U.S. voting population) is driving the President’s tour bus, we’ve got much bigger problems than a hot-potato bullet.
And maybe we have. But I suggest the bracing exercise of keeping straight what our actual options are in this case. We never needed to insert the U.S. into the middle of it, like a go-between ferrying messages among feuding sixth-graders. Instead, keep always before us what America’s priorities are, and use our tools of diplomacy to advance them, and not be cornered by anyone else’s stratagems or importunities into running in the harness of narratives we didn’t write. It’s basic statesmanship, and there’s never a time when it’s not what’s needed.
Feature image: President Biden holds his annual news conference on 19 January 2022. CNBC video, YouTube.