Will the Abu Akleh investigation be a watershed moment for Washington?

The FBI investigation of the killing of a Palestinian journalist has implications for US-Israel relations

The FBI has announced it will investigate the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. AFP
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By itself, the announcement that the FBI will conduct an independent investigation into the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is not, as one Israeli journalist said, a “watershed moment” in the US-Israel relationship. But because of the factors that led to this decision and the tensions that will flow from it, it is clear that there are changes under way in the American attitude towards Israel's behaviour.

After Ms Abu Akleh was killed, the Israeli hasbara machinery hoped to buy enough time until the issue faded from the headlines and was forgotten. Some said:

“We don’t think we killed her.”

“Palestinian terrorists, firing indiscriminately, are likely to have hit her.”

“Our forces … returned fire as accurately, carefully, and responsibly as possible. Sadly … she was killed in the exchange.”

“They were armed with cameras.”

“By not co-operating with us … perhaps Palestinians are covering up the truth.”

In too many instances in the past, such an intense campaign of dissembling might have worked. But this was different for several reasons: Ms Abu Akleh was a respected journalist; she was an American citizen; there is ample video footage of the shooting; and reflecting the changes that have been developing in US public opinion, some members of Congress were emboldened to demand an independent investigation of Ms Abu Akleh’s death.

Given the intense US media reaction to the killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, there has been a heightened American media sensitivity to the protection of journalists – even more so in this case, as Ms Abu Akleh has family who eloquently pressed US officials for support.

Major news outlets, including CNN, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, conducted investigations of their own, interviewing witnesses, reviewing video footage, and surveying the scene. Their findings, in every instance, found Israel’s claims to be false.

Most importantly, within days after Ms Abu Akleh’s killing, a quarter of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the Secretary of State and the Director of the FBI calling for an independent investigation of the shooting. Their demand was joined a few weeks later in a letter to US President Joe Biden, signed by half the Democrats in the US Senate.

Shireen Abu Akleh was one of the most recognisable faces in Arab media. AFP
Within days of Ms Abu Aqla’s killing, a quarter of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter calling for an independent investigation

Then, following the release of an inconclusive forensic analysis of the bullet that killed Ms Abu Akleh, which the Israelis probably hoped would lay the matter to rest, four leading Democratic senators sent a sharp response to the Secretary of State decrying the report as inadequate, lacking in transparency, and in no way “meeting any plausible definition of … [an] independent, thorough, and transparent investigation". The bulk of the letter was comprised of 13 probing questions that needed to be answered to satisfy their demand for a full investigation. Now, four months later, the FBI has responded that it will conduct such an inquiry.

The congressional sponsors of the letter expressed satisfaction with the prospect of an FBI investigation, with one senator calling it “an overdue but necessary and important step in the pursuit of justice and accountability".

Israel’s reaction, on the other hand, was predictable outrage. Defence Minister Benny Gantz called the FBI announcement a “grave mistake", pledging that they “will not co-operate". Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid amplified this rejection, saying “Israeli soldiers won’t be investigated by the FBI".

With battle lines drawn, the White House and State Department sought to distance themselves from the fray, claiming that they were unaware of the FBI decision. It is unlikely that they were not informed. Now that it has been announced, it is even more unlikely that it can be aborted without further alienating important leaders in the US Senate and generating an intense political backlash in Congress and public opinion.

It is this final point that must be considered, as this entire tug of war is playing out against a backdrop of several other factors that illuminate the unfolding tensions in the US-Israel relationship. There is a deepening partisan divide on the question of holding Israel accountable for its human rights violations. Polls show that Democrats are solidly in favour of holding Israel accountable, while Republicans are not. As an example, on hearing the news of the FBI investigation, Republican Senator Ted Cruz called for Attorney General Merrick Garland to be impeached.

Further amplifying this growing divide is the election of a hard-right government, led by Israeli prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and including racist, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox religious political parties that are demanding top security posts in the next government. Democrats have warned Mr Netanyahu about the dangers of bringing these elements into his cabinet. On the other hand, given the prominent role played by Christian nationalists in today’s GOP, Republicans have either been silent or supportive of a Netanyahu government.

And finally, there is the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in the last election. Their political action committee endorsed over 100 Republican “election deniers” and spent tens of millions to oppose progressive Democrats – especially targeting women of colour and liberal Jewish members of Congress who were deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel. All of these factors combined are contributing to a further erosion of the once bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.

While there is no certainty that the FBI will be allowed to carry out its independent investigation, the fact that it was announced and the forces at work in today’s American polity make clear that there are changes afoot in the US-Israel relationship. It is not yet a “watershed moment", but it is heading in that direction.

Published: November 21, 2022, 2:03 PM