Continuity, not change, is Biden’s plan for Palestine

Will President Joe Biden change the U.S.’s policy towards the Palestinian issue? The short answer is no. There are many reasons for this gloomy prognosis. The most important is Mr. Biden’s track record on Israel and especially on its continued occupation of Palestinian territories. He has been a firm supporter of Israel for decades and relatively unsympathetic to the Palestinian’s political concerns despite his support for a two-state solution.

It is true that American relations with the Palestinian Authority had reached a new low under President Donald Trump, who unreservedly supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansionist polices. In fact, Mr. Trump himself proposed that 30% of the West Bank consisting of the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs be annexed to Israel. He moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and endorsed the Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, captured in 1967. Mr. Trump also cut off $360 million annual funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which deals with Palestinian refugees, and shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington D.C.

Mr. Biden and his team have said they will resume aid to the Palestinians and the new President has opposed Israel’s formal annexation of one-third of the occupied territories. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. embassy in Israel would remain in Jerusalem as reversing the move “would not make sense practically and politically”. So too would Mr. Trump’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.

Living with the status quo

The Biden administration has returned to the long-standing pre-Trump American stance of supporting a two-state solution in principle but doing little to reach that goal. Mr. Blinken declared that “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution”. However, he contradicted himself by adding that “realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that”. This was a clear admission that the Biden administration is willing to live with the status quo that allows Israel to continue its harsh occupation, build settlements, cantonise the West Bank, and eventually foreclose the two-state option leaving the Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Before assuming office, Mr. Blinken had also made a number of statements accusing Palestinians of being responsible for the failure of negotiations. He reminded them “that they can and should do better and deserve better and that requires leadership: leadership to make clear the reality of the Jewish state; leadership to make clear the need to end incitement and violence”. This was a classic case of blaming the victims for their woes and skirting the question of Israel’s illegal occupation and settlement-building activities.

During the election campaign, the Biden team also made clear that it “firmly reject[s] the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, which singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — and too often veers into anti-Semitism.” Above all, the Biden administration has iterated that it will continue to provide Israel with unconditional military support in the amount of $3.8 billion annually, following the precedent established by Mr. Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama. Therefore, while President Biden, unlike his predecessor, may not act as a cheerleader for the Israeli right wing, his policies will not differ in substantive terms from those of earlier American Presidents. These policies were premised on the notion that Israel was the innocent party to the conflict and the blame for the deadlock lies with the Palestinians who are unwilling and unable to make compromises that in real terms would make a two-state solution dead on arrival.

The Israeli narrative

Thanks to Israeli propaganda, the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C. has been that Palestinians “never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity”. The U.S. has stuck to this narrative despite evidence to the contrary over decades that Israeli governments through the building of settlements and confiscation of Palestinian lands have negated the possibility of a viable Palestinian state emerging in the occupied territories. There are multiple reasons for the American acceptance of the Israeli narrative. These include the influence of the Israel lobby in Congress and the presence in key positions in successive administrations of people whose sympathies lay with Israel. The Biden administration is no exception in this regard. Although the U.S.’s unquestioning support for Israel has complicated its relations with the Arab world for decades, the perception of Israel’s importance to American strategy in West Asia as the U.S.’s one stable ally persists. Consequently, many in the region believe that American policy towards West Asia is made in Jerusalem and not in Washington.

Mr. Obama as President was able to partially break this mould in the case of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Israel opposed stridently. This policy was reversed by Mr. Trump. Now that Mr. Biden seems interested in reviving the nuclear deal, he will have to tread even more carefully in his approach towards Israel, which has been vociferous in its opposition to the U.S. returning to the agreement. The Palestinians are likely to pay the price for this as well since Mr. Biden cannot afford to estrange Israel on both the Iranian and Palestinian fronts for domestic and perceived strategic reasons. Consequently, the changes in Mr. Biden’s approach to the Palestinians when compared to Mr. Trump’s will be only cosmetic in character. In the final analysis, the status quo will continue to be the default option for the Biden administration to the detriment of the Palestinian cause.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 12:01:58 AM |

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