Nov 16, 2022 - World

Officials: White House told Israel it wasn't behind FBI's Abu Akleh probe decision

A Palestinian student from An-Najah University holds a picture of Shireen Abu Akleh during a protest in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus on Nov. 6.

A Palestinian from An-Najah University holds a picture of Shireen Abu Akleh during a protest in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus on Nov. 6. Photo: Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The White House and the State Department told the Israeli government they were not behind the FBI decision to open an investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, three Israeli and U.S. officials told me.

Why it matters: The FBI decision is unprecedented and it has led to a bilateral crisis between the Biden administration and the Israeli government.

Flashback: Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera correspondent, was wearing a bulletproof vest marked "press" when she was killed in May while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

  • The Palestinian Authority and her family accused the Israeli military of intentionally targeting her.
  • The Biden administration said in early July that Abu Akleh was likely killed by unintentional Israeli fire, but a ballistics test of the bullet fragment removed from her body was "inconclusive."
  • The IDF concluded in September she was most likely killed in "unintentional fire" from an Israeli soldier. The findings were a shift from the IDF's initial position that it was not possible to know who shot Abu Akleh.]
  • The administration has faced pressure from dozens of congressional Democrats and Abu Akleh's family to do more to ensure accountability. More than 20 Democratic senators signed a letter calling for an independent FBI investigation.

Behind the scenes: According to Israeli and U.S. officials, the FBI decision to open an investigation was made before the Nov. 1 elections in Israel, but the Justice Department officially notified the Israeli government three days after the elections.

  • Once notified, senior Israeli officials asked U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides for more information, according to the officials. Nides said he didn't know about the investigation and that he would check on it.
  • Israeli officials told me Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata, ambassador to the U.S. Mike Herzog, and Alon Ushpiz, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, called their counterparts in the Biden administration and demanded an explanation.
  • "We spoke to every Biden administration official we work with and made it clear how furious we were," a senior Israeli official told me.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a difficult call with a very senior U.S. official earlier this month and made it clear that Israel would not cooperate in any way with the FBI investigation, the Israeli officials said.

  • Israeli officials said they urged the Biden administration to "fix the situation" before the investigation leaked to the press, warning that once news of the probe became public, the situation would turn into a bilateral crisis.

The other side: According to U.S. and Israeli officials, the White House and the State Department made it clear to the Israeli government that they weren't part of the DOJ's decision-making process regarding the investigation.

  • They also made it clear that the opening of the investigation was an independent decision by the U.S. Justice Department and wasn’t motivated by a political decision, per the officials.

What they're saying: Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said on Tuesday that Israel conveyed its "strong protest to the United States."

  • "Our soldiers will not be investigated by the FBI or by any other foreign country or entity, however friendly it may be. We will not abandon our soldiers to foreign investigations," Lapid said.
  • The White House, the State Department and Justice Department declined to comment.

What to watch: The crisis around the FBI investigation will have to be resolved by the incoming Israeli government, which is expected to have a much more hardline policy on the occupied West Bank.

  • Israeli officials say they don’t think the investigation will have any practical ramifications and that it will stay as a symbolic move by the FBI.
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