We are beginning to gain some insight into where the new Biden administration is headed with regard to the future of the Israel-Palestine situation.
Clearly, President Biden is going in a very different than did his predecessor in the White House. Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, proposed a peace plan in early 2020 that gave Israel most of what it wanted — to retain full control over the Palestinians. The Palestinians were offered a rump state, dominated by Israel, with a weakened sovereignty. Under the plan, Israel could retain all West Bank settlements and retain full sovereignty over a unified Jerusalem.
Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu praised the plan. Mahmoud Abbas denounced it as a “conspiracy deal,” and refused to take it seriously. Several days later, Netanyahu said that he would move his government to vote on a unilateral annexation of the Jordan River Valley and all Jewish settlements in the West Bank. According to the Trump plan, the proposed Palestinian state would have no standing military, would be surrounded by Israeli territory, and would live within “convoluted borders.” David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that the plan “reaffirms the worst fears that this is more an annexation plan than a peace plan.”
The Trump plan was dead on arrival. It was cooked up in Kushner’s office by pro-Israel insiders, without Palestinian input. It went nowhere.
Now, with Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, bets are that President Biden will move in a different direction. Last week, his chargé d’affaires at the UN, Richard Mills, began to outline the administration’s approach to the Middle East conflict. Mills told the Security Council that because of the absence of trust between the parties, it would be futile to move to final status talks. Outlining the U.S. strategy, he spoke of a two-pronged approach: improve conditions on the ground and preserve the possibility of a two-state outcome. He spoke of the importance of restoring a credible U.S.-Palestinian engagement, involving the resumption of humanitarian assistance and reopening the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem — it was closed when the Trump administration relocated the U.S. Embassy to that city. The goal is to reestablish diplomatic contacts with Palestinians, enabling U.S. diplomats to gain necessary insights into Palestinian positions. Under Trump, Palestinians had to go through the U.S. Embassy, effectively making Palestinians subsidiaries of Israel.
One of Mills’s first statements was, “Under the new administration, the policy of the U.S. will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state.” This renews a decades-old U.S. position that had been favored by every administration from Clinton to Obama.
Middle East experts Shira Efron and Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha, speaking at a recent Israel Policy Forum webinar, said that “the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in eastern Jerusalem reflects U.S. recognition of Palestinian desire to have its capital there, and U.S. support for the peace process and for the internationally accepted concept of two states.”
Speaking on the issue of recent agreements between Israel and several Gulf states, Mills said that “the U.S. welcomes normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states as a contribution to regional stability. Yet Arab-Israeli normalization is not a substitute for Israel-Palestine peace.” He called on both sides to refrain from unilateral actions referring to Israeli settlement activity and threats of annexation, as well as to Palestinian incitement to violence and to monetary payments to families of convicted Palestinian terrorists.
Biden has a long track record on Middle East issues. Going back decades, he has opposed the expansion of settlements and annexation and the conditioning of aid to Palestinians on ending the payments to families of jailed Palestinian terrorists. He favors restoration of funding to the Palestinian Authority for security cooperation with Israel, along with security assistance to Israel to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. He has said he would work toward bipartisan U.S. support for Israel.
Another approach to the Biden/Middle East question is offered by Avi Shlaim, who is a professor of international relations at Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy. Shalim wrote recently in Foreign Policy that President Biden is likely to revert to the traditional Democratic Party line, that the United States is an honest broker to help the two parties reach a negotiated settlement. “But,” Shlaim writes, “the peace process was always a charade — all process and no peace…. What the peace process did was to give Israel the cover it needed to continue to pursue an aggressive colonial project across the Green Line,” the pre-1967 international border.
According to Shlaim, Biden must understand that Israel has changed over the past quarter century. It is politically far more to the right, more tribally Jewish, and less democratic. “The July 2018 Basic Law: Israel — the Nation State of the Jewish People effectively makes Israel an apartheid state by asserting that Jews have a unique right to national self-determination in the area under its rule,” he writes. Biden, he continues, would have to acknowledge “that the Palestinians have legitimate national rights and that they command overwhelming popular support across the entire Arab and Muslim world.”
Further, according to Shlaim, the United States should revisit the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a possible basis for U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. That initiative offered Israel peace and normalization with all 22 Arab League states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land and agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. This, Shlaim writes, was “the real deal of the century.”
It is highly unlikely that any Israeli government would agree to revisit the Arab Peace Initiative any time soon. It is also unlikely that the Biden administration would propose an approach totally unacceptable to Israel. But, based on early indications, we are sure to see a significant change in the U.S. approach to Israel and Palestine. It will involve elements critically important to Palestinian concerns: the continued emphasis on the ultimate goal of two states for two peoples, a secure Israel, and a viable Palestinian state, with its capital in east Jerusalem.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir is an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, a member of the New Israel Fund, the Teaneck Environmental Commission, and the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet.