The Biden administration’s reversal of Trump-era policy on settlements in the occupied West Bank reflects not only its growing frustration with Israel, but also the political bind the president finds himself in, just days before the primary. Democrats in Michigan, where a large Arab-American population is urging voters to express their anger by voting “without compromise.”

During a trip to Argentina on Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called any new agreement “inconsistent with international law,” a break with policy established under the Trump administration and a return to the decades-old U.S. position.

The Biden administration is increasingly fed up with the Israeli government’s conduct in the Gaza war and beyond, and officials are speaking more publicly about contentious issues, said Nimrod Novik, a member of the Israel Policy Forum think tank. As an example, he cited the United States’ decision to impose financial sanctions on four Israelis (three of them settlers) accused of attacking Palestinians in the West Bank at a time when settler violence against Palestinians has increased.

However, Novik called Blinken’s comments “too little, too late,” adding that the administration’s actions “are, in practice, disjointed.” The message is there, but it is a tactical statement where the overall strategy is not clear.”

The United States has long been Israel’s most important international ally. Since the Hamas-led attack on October 7 left 1,200 dead in Israel, mostly civilians, Washington has consistently backed Israel’s fierce campaign in Gaza. The Biden administration has also shielded Israel from international censure by blocking ceasefire resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, even as the death toll in Gaza nears 30,000, according to health officials in the enclave.

That stance has increasingly left Biden in a no-win situation. His recent moves to pressure the Israeli government to end the war in Gaza and enter into negotiations for a Palestinian state have angered some ardent supporters of Israel in the United States. However, they have come nowhere near placating Israel’s fiercest critics on the political left and the Arab-American community.

Shortly after October 7, Arab Americans and progressive voters largely stayed on the sidelines, as even Jewish Republicans praised Biden’s pro-Israel response.

Those same Jewish Republicans are now punishing the president. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which had backed the administration after October 7, called the new settlement policy “another low point in its campaign to undermine Israel.”

The group cited other policies the administration has aimed to curb the Israeli response to Hamas attacks, including sanctions against West Bank settlers who commit violence and pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to recognize a Palestinian state.

“The communities in question, located west of the West Bank security barrier, are not impeding peace,” said Matt Brooks, the group’s longtime executive director. “Palestinian terrorism is.”

But those measures fall far short of what young progressive voters and Arab Americans are demanding: an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza war and an end to American military aid to Israel. Those calls are growing louder as Netanyahu shows no signs of relenting.

“Biden’s sanctions on settler violence and declaration that settlements are illegal would be inappropriate at any time in recent years, given how deeply entrenched Israel’s apartheid has become,” said Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American. who directs the Palestine-Israel program at the Arab Center in Washington, he said. “But now he is supporting a genocide in Gaza. “This is like showing up to a five-alarm fire with a glass of water while giving fuel to the arsonist.”

In fact, the political imperatives for the Israeli prime minister and for the American president are opposite. Biden needs the war to end so he can re-form the coalition that got him elected in 2020. But Netanyahu wants it to continue until Hamas is completely defeated, to prevent an angry electorate from giving him his own political reckoning, and potentially helping his ally, Donald J. Trump, return to power.

Blinken’s statement appears to have been prompted by an announcement by Bezalel Smotrich, a senior Israeli minister, that a planning committee would soon discuss advancing more than 3,000 new housing units in the settlements. Most would be in Ma’ale Adumim, where three Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli and wounded several others on Thursday.

Smotrich called the new units “an appropriate Zionist response” to the attack.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly condemned settlement expansion in the West Bank, where approximately 500,000 Israelis now live among some 2.7 million Palestinians, as an obstacle to the long-standing U.S. goal of a two-state solution. . In recent weeks, Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he worked for years to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, which he long said would endanger Israel’s security.

Palestinians hope to make the West Bank an integral part of their future independent state, but Israeli settlements have slowly been taking over large portions of the territory. Palestinian officials considered Blinken’s statement long overdue and insufficient.

“It has been three and a half years since it was necessary to reverse an illegal act of the previous administration,” Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to Britain, said in a phone call on Saturday. “For the love of God, I don’t understand why Blinken and President Biden remained impassive on this issue, and many others, for all this time.”

Still, Blinken’s statement was “better late than never,” Zomlot said, adding that Palestinians expected “real action” against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank rather than “baby steps.”

But that expectation could be dashed, at least in the short term, analysts said. Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat, said the Biden administration was unlikely to follow Blinken’s statement with “serious costs and consequences.” Along with regional mediators, U.S. officials have been trying to hammer out a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, making a “sustained public war with Netanyahu” unpalatable for Biden, he said in an email.

Although Biden came into office promising to reverse some of his predecessor’s policies on Israel, many remain intact. A separate consulate in Jerusalem that effectively served as the United States’ liaison with the Palestinians was never formally reopened after the Trump administration closed it; the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington remains closed; and most financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, is frozen under legislation signed by Trump.

During the first year and a half of Biden’s term, U.S. officials defended their cautious approach as an attempt to avoid shaking the fragile and fragmented coalition of left, right and center that had temporarily toppled Netanyahu. But that government collapsed in mid-2022, leading to Israel’s fifth election in four years.

After Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022 at the head of a far-right coalition packed with nationalists and settler leaders, settlement expansion skyrocketed.

A total of 12,349 settlement housing units advanced through various stages of the bureaucratic planning process in 2023, compared to 4,427 units registered the previous year, according to the Israeli organization Peace Now.

But until the Hamas-led attack on October 7 sparked Israel’s four-month military offensive in Gaza, the Biden administration avoided clashing head-on with Israel over contentious issues related to the Palestinians, preferring to focus on other regional goals, such as normalization. between Israel. and Saudi Arabia.

Instead, U.S. officials spent their political capital elsewhere, focusing on rivals like Iran and then normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, said Natan Sachs, who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“It’s a significant step, given the Trump administration’s approach,” Sachs said, referring to Blinken’s comments, “although less groundbreaking than the administration’s sanctions on violent settlers.”

“This last one was unprecedented and was a real sign of a new policy,” he said. “The latest statement is a sign that the administration needs to reengage.”

By Sam